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Science Needs Sovereigns
Powerful individuals are the best allies to crazy new ideas. Science is no exception.
Palladium Correspondent Samo Burja has come out with a new piece on the nature of intellectual legitimacy, power’s relationship to prestige, and the purpose of honors.
Creating a flourishing golden age for the sciences will be a mostly political endeavor. The reason for this is that much of modern science’s character is downstream of political organization.
Intellectual authority is distinct from being correct. Or more specifically, being correct is oftentimes the result of having permission to dictate truth—something which is granted by public authorities:
Consider a scientific study demonstrating a new medicine to be safe and efficacious. An FDA official can use this study to justify the medicine’s approval, and a doctor can use it to justify a patient’s treatment plan. The study has this legitimacy even when incorrect. In contrast, even if a blog post by a detail-oriented self-experimenter contained accurate facts, those facts would not have the same legitimacy: a doctor may be sued for malpractice or the FDA may spark public outcry if they based their decisions on reports of this sort. The blog itself would also risk demonetization for violating terms of service, which usually as a matter of policy favors particular “authoritative” sources. A stark example of this is YouTube’s COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy, which plainly states that “YouTube doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information.”
For another example, the edit history of the Wikipedia page for the book Why We Sleep, written by a Berkeley professor, is full of back-and-forth edits both adding and removing references to a long list of factual errors in the book compiled by a diligent reader named Alexey Guzey. While Guzey’s contribution was controversial to the editors, they preserved all references to a discussion by Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman that directly cites Guzey’s work and praises its carefulness. Yet neither Guzey nor Gelman is a sleep scientist.
The difference? As the edit history describes, Guzey has “no association to any academic institution,” so per Wikipedia’s official policies his essay simply could not be cited directly. Once Guzey’s work had “now been the subject of a BBC Radio 4 episode,” however, references to it were added back for good. There is no particular reason to believe the staff at BBC Radio 4 are qualified to understand or make arguments about the science of sleep, yet this is what it took to present the information. The information on its own was not enough.
Wikipedia’s policies explicitly prohibit citing such research, a policy that makes the questionable assumption that original research can only happen in academia. These policies amount to relying on journalistic and academic consensus to establish truth. Such reliance is widely and unreflectingly shared, even by the most educated. When we think we are evaluating an idea or information on its own merits, we are also typically evaluating the authority of who has communicated the idea, and how, without our conscious awareness. Scientific authority is just one component of Weber’s “legal-rational authority,” or what can alternately be generalized as intellectual authority.
Creating an environment where the sciences can flourish will depend on finding ways to give innovative thinkers and researchers quick access to intellectual authority, which is often locked up in institutions:
Intellectual golden ages occur when new intellectual authority is achievable for those at the frontiers of knowledge. This feat of social engineering that legitimizes illegible but intellectually productive individuals is then upstream of material incentives, which is why a merely independently wealthy person cannot just throw money at any new scientific field or institution and expect it to grow in legitimacy. It ultimately rests on political authority. The most powerful individuals in a society must lend their legitimacy to the most promising scientific minds and retract it only when they fail as scientists, rather than as political players. The society in which science can not just exist, but flourish, is one where powerful individuals can elevate people with crazy new ideas on a whim.
The solution is not just to grant more funding and legitimacy to individual scientists rather than scientific bureaucracies, but to remind powerful individuals, and especially those with sovereign authority, that if they don’t grant this legitimacy, no one else will. Science lives or dies on personal endorsement by powerful patrons. Only the most powerful individuals in society can afford to endorse the right immature and speculative ideas, which is where all good ideas begin their life cycle.
Honors and prizes are useful for coordinating a society at the highest level by signaling what is valuable. It’s not the achievement of high-performing people that garners prestige—it’s actually recognition from other public authorities that gives it to them:
Power can be used to create prestige. A sovereign is usually the primary source of prestige in a society. This follows naturally from their status as the society’s leader, that is, the person who has the highest authority in decision-making and is deferred to above all. The ruler uses his fount of prestige to regulate overall status and prestige competition so that the right people and behaviors win. This solves coordination problems and tragedies of the commons at all levels of power. The ruler is the ultimate referee or tiebreaker in competitions of status; who is ultimately allowed to win will shape the goals and behaviors of everyone else in society. A key mechanism for this is awarding honors and prizes. This works not because cash rewards incentivize eventual winners, but because it is a public demonstration of status. The Nobel Prize greatly shapes the favored ambitions and fields of both scientists and economists. Winners are determined by Sweden’s national academies, but each award is personally hand-delivered by the King of Sweden before an audience. If the recipients are worthy, this also raises the prestige of the giver of honor.
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted minor titles to former pirates, such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, who helped harass the Spanish navy and set the course for later English naval domination. In the 17th century, King Charles II granted a charter creating the Royal Society, which would play a crucial role in the Scientific Revolution. By conferring the highest honor in the land on naval warfare and scientific exploration—later mainstays of British power—these rulers may have made the most important decisions of their reigns.
You can read the rest of Samo’s article here.
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Don’t Trust the Science
The United Kingdom’s most prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society, was founded by royal decree in 1663. While it formalized an already extant network of gentleman scholars, in doing so it became an institution of the state. Geoff Ander’s new article explores the transformations of science since then.
While the Royal Society became a place for men of science to test out ideas and experiments to be verified amongst themselves, their motto was “nullius in verba”—take no one’s word for it. Enforcing public epistemology was not in their purview.
One of the earliest public demonstrations of sciences proclaiming what was true and what was false happened a little over a hundred years after the founding of the Royal Society:
Beginning in 1774, physician Franz Mesmer began investigating a hypothesis according to which people possessed a form of magnetism that could be used to cure a variety of physical ailments—“animal magnetism,” he called it.His results were also striking. Patients were reported to experience convulsions, sometimes simply by being in Mesmer’s presence. Subjects of the Mesmeric procedure reported being cured of asthma, paralysis, blindness, suicidal thoughts, persistent pain, and many other maladies.
To an observer in the twenty-first century, many of Mesmer’s methods are immediately recognizable as a form of hypnosis, and the results of those methods at least distantly familiar. At the time, however, they caused a sensation, both in France and abroad.
Mesmer himself, as noted, attributed his effects to a phenomenon he called “animal magnetism.” Natural philosophers had just a few years earlier encountered galvanism, in which an amputated frog’s leg could be made to twitch by contact with certain combinations of metals, which some interpreted as a form of electricity called “animal electricity.” This left a potential space for a corresponding “animal magnetism.”
In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed two commissions to investigate the practices of one of Mesmer’s disciples. One of these commissions was led by Benjamin Franklin, himself already an international sensation as a result of his successes with electricity.
The purpose of the commission was not to investigate the reality or efficacy of the disciple’s practices, but rather to ascertain whether the effects of the practices could be attributed to a novel physical substance, i.e., animal magnetism. Using blinding and other modern methods, the Franklin Commission concluded that there was no evidence for the existence of “animal magnetism” and that the mechanism of the effects produced by Mesmer and his followers “cannot be regarded as physical…it is entirely mental, it is the action of imagination on imagination.”
It is interesting that the surprising effects admitted by all to have been produced by Mesmer and his students did not then become further objects of study, whether they be the result of physics or psychology. But more notable for present purposes is the appearance of a new aspect of science: the use of scientific authority.
It was perhaps inevitable that as science progressed from the more to the less obvious, the visible to the invisible, the clear to the obscure, that it would eventually pass out of the realm of what could be easily confirmed by public observation alone. As the subject of scientific investigation escaped the realm of the easily observable, there came to be a need for those who could authoritatively determine the veracity of claims. In a word, scientific experts.
As the complexity of scientific topics grew and their fruits could be utilized by the state, science became something that was used to inform and explain decisions. This has entailed a reining-in of the exploratory ethos that guided early modern science:
This joint partnership of science and the state is relatively new. One question worth asking is whether the development was inevitable. Science had an important flaw in its epistemic foundation, dating back to Boyle and the Royal Society—its failure to determine the proper conditions and use of scientific authority. “Nullius in verba” made some sense in 1660, before much science was settled and when the enterprise was small enough that most natural philosophers could personally observe or replicate the experiments of the others. It came to make less sense as science itself succeeded, scaled up, and acquired intellectual authority. Perhaps a better answer to the question of scientific authority would have led science to take a different course.
Turning from the past to the future, we now face the worrying prospect that the union of science and the state may have weakened science itself. Some time ago, commentators raised the specter of scientific slowdown, and more recent analysis has provided further justification for these fears. Why is science slowing? To put it simply, it may be difficult to have science be both authoritative and exploratory at the same time.
Science is at its most innovative when it is simultaneously prestigious and epistemically humble. You can read Geoff’s article here.
Event in Palo Alto
Palladium Correspondent Ginevra Davis is giving a talk for the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto on October 19th. This event will be a good opportunity to meet Palladium readers, writers, and editors. We look forward to seeing you there—we’ll also be bringing some back issues of our print editions to view! You can register for the event here.
Since 2013, Stanford has been consistently ranked first by students and parents as “America’s Dream School.” However, in the past decade, Stanford’s administration has systematically destroyed the wild and experimental campus life that made Stanford so desirable. The new social order – defined by unmarked houses with names like “550,” “680,” and “675” – offers a peek into the bureaucrat’s vision for America. Stanford is just one example of a broader movement that sees joy as inherently unequal and dangerous, or at least unnecessary. How can we fight back against the demonization of spontaneity? Is fun dead, or can the war on fun be a call to arms?
Drinks and snacks served at 5:15 p.m., with lecture and discussion to follow.
In the meantime, Ginevra’s article “Stanford’s War on Social Life” can be read here.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
The Transformations of Science by Geoff Anders. Science originated in taking no one at their word, but today we’re told to “trust the science.” Can we balance these two impulses?
Science Needs Sovereigns by Samo Burja. Powerful individuals are the best allies to crazy new ideas. Science is no exception.
When Elite Physicists Advised Washington by Brian Balkus. In 1959, the U.S. government gave an elite group of physicists classified information and free reign to research. The JASON program’s rise and fall tracks a golden age of American science.
Surveilling the American Borderlands by Kendra Jones. The U.S.-Mexico border is a landscape in constant flux. A surreal journey to the frontier reveals the interplay of state security, organized crime, and personal ambition.
The Future History of the Nuclear Renaissance With Isabelle Boemeke. The year is 2053. A nuclear renaissance has transformed society. Here is how it all happened.
That’s all for now.