Better incentives, Better science
Patrick Watson
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Recently I watched I Origins. Have you seen it? It wasn’t bad. I liked the part where one of the scientists said, “Turning over rocks and finding nothing is progress.” I also liked one of the songs quite a bit… Dust It Off. Now I’m trying to think what my favorite science movie has been… and I’m drawing a blank. Hmmm… probably the The Man From Earth. Mr Nobody had some science…. but not enough science. How many movies suffer from a shortage of science?

I’d love it if all movies had more science… and economics. And sometimes when I’m eating something I really wish it had more cilantro. Kinda like how Christopher Walken in that one SNL skit wanted the song to have more cowbell. A lot more cowbell.

Regarding science funding… I appreciate that you need to feed your family… but I need to feed my family as well. So if you want my money…. I’d really prefer if you relied entirely on persuasion. Am I being unreasonable?

You: Can I have some money?
Me: For what?
You: So I can look under some rocks.
Me: What are you trying to find?
You: The cure for cancer.
Me: Both my parents were killed by cancer. Here’s some money. Keep me up-to-date on your progress. 
You: Thanks! I’ll definitely keep you in the loop.

In the old days the term for this would have been intercourse

Thus we have the gentle, softening, elevating intercourse that should be habitually taking place between rich and poor, superseded by a cold, hard, lifeless mechanism, bound together by dry parchment acts and regulations — managed by commissioners, boards, clerks, and collectors, who perform their respective functions as tasks — and kept going by money forcibly taken from all classes indiscriminately. In place of the music breathed by feelings attuned to kind deeds, we have the harsh creaking and jarring of a thing that cannot stir without creating discord — a thing whose every act, from the gathering of its funds to their final distribution, is prolific of grumblings, discontent, anger — a thing that breeds squabbles about authority, disputes as to claims, brow-beatings, jealousies, litigations, corruption, trickery, lying, ingratitude — a thing that supplants, and therefore makes dormant, men’s nobler feelings, while it stimulates their baser ones. — Herbert Spencer, Social Statics

Nowadays, “intercourse” is synonymous with “sexual intercourse”. Which seems like a shame because I think that the word “intercourse” (in the originally broader sense) was quite useful. What’s the closest equivalent word to the original meaning? Interaction? Exchange? Trade?

Let’s revise our dialogue…

Me: Can I have some money?
You: For what? 
Me: So I can grow poison oak. 
You: Why do you want to grow poison oak? 
Me: The leaves are pretty in the Fall. I’d love to see an entire field filled with it.
You: Sorry, but I think that there are better uses for my money.

This is how and why markets work. You get to decide for yourself whether there are better uses for you money. The technical term for this is consumer sovereignty. I don’t think that science should be an exception to consumer sovereignty. What’s the difference between a scientist and an entrepreneur? They both look under rocks. They both bark up trees. Sometimes they look under the wrong rocks and bark up the wrong trees. Which is still progress… but we don’t necessarily want to incentivize the discovery of nothing useful or beneficial.

We want to incentivize the discovery of Easter Eggs. The trick is understanding that some types of Easter Eggs require a somewhat different structure. A chef might create a dish with extra cilantro. Consumers will be happy to let the chef know if he discovered an Easter Egg. But with some Easter Eggs, like the cure for cancer, we run into the free-rider problem. Nobody wants to pay the cost for discovering the cure, but everybody wants the benefit of the cure. So…. taxes. Taxes aren’t unreasonable. Sure, let’s have a public sector. What is entirely unreasonable is the absence of consumer sovereignty in the public sector. We’re supposed to vote for the representatives who get to decide how our tax dollars are spent. As a result, public entrepreneurs (broadly speaking) are not required to persuade the people who earned the money…. they are required to persuade the people who did not earn the money… congress. As a result, so much intercourse that should be happening… does not happen. So much persuading that should be occurring… does not occur. So much information that should be flowing… does not flow.

The solution is to create a market in the public sector by allowing taxpayers to choose where their taxes go (pragmatarianism). Then we’ll have lots of intercourse. And persuasion. And flowing information. And cross-pollination.

What do I know about how the scientific process currently works? Well… I’m not a scientist. But what are the chances that you can improve the scientific system without understanding the relevant economics? It’s possible… but not probable. If you get a chance you should read a couple of my most recent blog entries…

Cross Pollination: Journalists and Economists
Jeff Jarvis’ Critique of the Pragmatarian Model

They should help you understand why movies suffer from a shortage of science. If movies suffer from a shortage of science… then it stands to reason that society as a whole suffers from a shortage of science. The pragmatarian model would eliminate this shortage.