Climate science 7. Gordon Tullock on induced curiosity and the decline of scientific integrity

Gordon Tullock in The Organization of Inquiry (1966) sketched a scenario for the decline of a scientific discipline, given a particular combination of motivational factors and institutional incentives.

As a student of legal, social and economic systems he identified three kinds of curiosity
1. Pure curiosity and compulsion to find how the world works.
2. The passionate desire to solve practical problems.
3. “Induced curiosity” directed to either pure or applied problems.

Who are the researchers with induced curiosity? Those who do not have a consuming passion for research but do it because it is a job. The most obvious examples are academic staff who have to “publish or perish” to obtain tenure and promotion, and the scientists who work “nine to five” in public and private research laboratories. Of course outstanding work can be produced by academics seeking promotion and even by nine to five scientists but Tullock’s analysis addressed some tendencies which could emerge in a system where more and more of the workers have “induced” curiosity and less and less (in proportion) harbour a burning commitment to the quest.

Closely related to the motives of the investigators is their concern for the quality of the work and the efforts they are prepared to devote to critical appraisal of their assumptions and their results. Tullock noted that the dedicated truth seeker and also the practical problem-solver must maintain high standards and pay close attention to reality to align their ideas with it. This demands constant testing and critical evaluation.

In contrast, the researcher who is merely aiming to publish or satisfy the requirements of the grant-giving agency can be happy with results that are publishable, even if they neglect the extra work that may be required to be sure that the findings are robust. As Tullock put it, scientific concern with the real world can run second to other matters.

If he could establish and maintain his reputation, and hence his job, by reporting completely fictional discoveries, this would accomplish his end. While an investigator motivated by curiosity or practical utility must, of necessity, concern himself with real phenomena, the man motivated by induced curiosity could, if the risk of discovery were not great, simply ignore reality.

He suggested that a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by investigators with induced curiosity (or “normal” or “uncritical scientists”) so the work could “gradually slip away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”.

Of course the peer review process is designed to avert such a decline however if the reviewers are too closely associated with the authors either personally or by membership of a school of thought, then the rigor of the process may suffer (See the situation uncovered among the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia). Tullock speculated that this could happen in a field dominated by “induced” and “normal scientists” rather than the dedicated truth seekers. Scientists will cease to be held to a high standard.

Towards the end of that slippery slope is the situation where there is a widespread belief in the field that the function of the researcher is to take a side on some issue. Simply presenting a rationalization for some position chosen on other grounds may be acceptable as an objective of research, and the principal criterion in judging journals may become their points of view.

The concern with reality that unites the sciences, then, may be absent in this area, and the whole thing may be reduced to a pseudo-science like genetics in Lysenko’s Russia…these symptoms may be found in some of the social sciences.

The point of the series is to give a hint of an explanation for a very unlikely and disturbing state of affair, if it is indeed correct that the mainstream of climate science has lost the plot. cohenite has suggested that the solution has to be political, “The cycle must be broken and the political link is the weakest and most susceptible one.” Maybe the cost of power and the example of South Australia will help, hitting the hip pocket nerve. Also the stubborn failure of the globe to warm on schedule. However the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. As my late friend Tony Chambers used to say:

“Cheer up” they said. “Things could be worse”.
So we cheered up, and sure enough things did get worse.

The series. First the introduction, (2) radicalization of the environmental movement, (3) Big Science, (4) “normal science“, (5) conscription for the Vietnam war, (6) the proliferation of UN agencies and the governance of the IPCC.

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