About Ryan Safner

I am Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. I earned my Ph.D in economics at George Mason University. I research and write mostly about ideas and intellectual property, but also have interests in public goods, public choice, and economic development. See my professional website at ryansafner.com.

The Modern Challenges to Science

[This is a modified repost of an article I had originally posted on my now-defunct personal blog. I repost it here for two reasons: (1) I think the subject matter at hand is still extremely important and relevant, and (2) I will make frequent reference to this in upcoming posts.]
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Imagine your pet political group that makes claims you find stupid or offensive: racists, creationists, the Westboro Baptist Church, whomever. However incorrect we might think personally they are, most of us find silencing them to be unfair, since they have a right to be heard and granted an equal say in our tolerant, deliberative, modern democratic society. This is precisely the point of this post. The modern challenges to the progress of science are not so much creations of the religious fundamentalists on the political right (though this undeniably still exists), but more so from the humanitarian and egalitarian arguments commonly associated with the political left.
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One of the best books I have read in recent years, period, is Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitorswhich makes precisely this point.  The book is slightly dated (printed in 1995), but there was a new edition out this year [that I have yet to read] with more recent anecdotes.  Nonetheless, the arguments are timeless, and even the anecdotes from the 1980s and 1990s Rauch uses to illustrate his points are eerily similar to examples we still might see in our media and discourse today. Permit me to paraphrase his argument, with my own commentary.
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There are three main challenges against the progress of science:

The first is the “Traditionalist Challenge” – the obvious and easily visible ones from religious fundamentalists.  They argue that those who know the truth should decide who is right.  Invariably, each religious sect (insofar as it is making descriptive claims about the world, not simply providing religious services) is certain that they, and only they, know the truth, and necessarily must control and censor all contrary opinions as blasphemy through an inquisition.  Clearly when multiple sects hold different beliefs, the only resolution to decide who is right is through violence.  We don’t need to spend a lot of time dissecting and overcoming this authoritarian challenge because that has already happened, slowly and painfully, over the last several centuries.  This challenge comes from a minority that most people today ignore or mock, compared to the other two.
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The second is the “Egalitarian Challenge.”   This is the rather appealing argument that since everyone is equal, everyone’s opinions claim an equal right to respect.  A more radical version of this principle is that for those political classes that have been historically oppressed, their opinions should be disproportionately respected more than those opinions of historically privileged classes.  Intuitively, at least the non-radical version sounds perfectly sensible, and one is hard pressed to morally argue against it.  But even so, this would stop science in its tracks if followed it to its full implications.   There is a big difference between equal opportunity to participate in science (which is untenable to reject) and  the equality of treatment of one’s scientific results.   Einstein was an outsider to the scientific community, a Swiss patent clerk nobody, but he was elevated with scientific praise because his predictions were verified – if he had predicted instead that gravity was made of cheese, he would be rightly dismissed as a crank and never would have left the patent office.

There is a strong difference between knowledge and belief here.  My fictitious Einstein is totally fine to continue believing gravity is made of cheese, even after being rejected by the scientific community.  We can certainly respect his belief as his own opinion, which he has every right to, however odd it may be.  But that is one thing.  It is a completely different matter when these beliefs are made policy relevant, and are to be taught to others as knowledge. It would be a horrible world for the progress of science if knowledge was made by voting and campaigning between political groups.  When we are forced to be given equal time for different viewpoints in our national discussion, we make marginalization illegal.  We will be living Bertrand Russell’s nightmare, where “the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in the minority” (Rauch 1995: 118, my emphasis).  

The third, and related challenge, is the “Humanitarian Challenge.”  This is another appealing argument that says everyone has a right not to be harmed.  More specifically, people have a right not to have their feelings or inherent dignity hurt and be told their beliefs are wrong.  This is another admirable moral belief, but it would again halt the progress of science, which, for better or worse, is made entirely on the basis of proving past beliefs wrong.  There are plenty of anecdotes about the personal tragedy of scientific careers (even lives) ended because a different scientist proved their theory wrong.  But while these costs are concentrated on those scientists who put their theory at stake, the benefits are dispersed across all of society, who are now elevated to greater understanding and knowledge.  
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If we were to follow this challenge to its conclusions – science is viewed as a form of violence against others.  Fighting words over different theories are viewed just like bullets.  And how do we prevent violence?  Through active policing and a greater monopoly of violence – so we’ve secretly returned to the inquisition from the Fundamentalist Challenge (ibid: 131).  Nobody has a right not to be offended, which of course would imply that any opinion that they personally did not like ought to be suppressed.   So why do we tolerate the racists and the bigots and the pseudoscientists?  Because the alternative would be worse.  Instead, we simply criticize, ignore, and marginalize them from public discourse – certainly more humanitarian than the alternative.
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Finally, Rauch defends the only robust alternative, what he calls the “Liberal Principle of Science” (note “liberal” here is akin to the more broader “classical liberalism,” rather than the modern progressivism we Americans attribute to the word in politics today.)  The liberal principle is defined by two key tenets (ibid: 48-49):

  1. “No one gets the final say: you may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.”  Science, unlike faith, or pseudoscience, is constantly being updated and is never fixed.  Newtonian physics gives way to Einstein’s relativity, which gives way to Quantum Mechanics, which may give way to something in the future.  Scientific theories only persist as far as they have not yet been invalidated.
  2. “No one has personal authority: you may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement.”  Anybody at all can play the science game.  There are stories of nobodies disproving scientific theories originally posited by Ph.Ds and experts.  Access to the scientific community in principle is free (it is obviously not perfect or costless), one need only be able to demonstrate and argue the truth or falsity of a claim.

Thus, science progresses by criticism.  Those whose theories about the world have been demonstrated to be incorrect (such as the phlogiston theory, the miasmic theory of disease, or most notably, the Ptolomeic model of the heavens) are marginalized and ignored.  They can certainly still firmly hold these beliefs about the world and we cannot fault them for that, but for them to try to pass these disproven beliefs as scientific knowledge, we have no choice but to risk their offense for the sake of human progress.  Whether this is morally and psychologically comforting or not, the alternative is just too costly.
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Science, and the reason for its success, is not just the method that we learn in 8th grade.  Indeed, most of science is not done in this discrete, systematic, and methodologically monist way, and there are those, like Paul Feyeraband, that argue there is no uniform scientific method.  What is more important is the institutional framework of science – the scientific community and its relationships.  A number of authors, like Michael Polanyi, have written on the importance of viewing “science” as an institution and a community.  It is a bottom up, emergent spontaneous order of individual scientists pursuing their own research agendas, linked and checked by other scientists and mechanisms like peer review, publishing in academic journals, and academic conferences. Vlad’s post on how to disagree with the economic mainstream, and more specifically, his recent paper on this topic emphasizes this insight. 

Put another way, an individual scientist can very easily do bad science – cherrypicking examples, abusing statistics, falling victim to confirmation bias, and a host of other problems.  Indeed, there are often incentives encouraging one to do so – one can only publish an interesting result, so there is every reason to ignore non-interesting but important null results, or to cook the numbers to make it look interesting. But the community as a whole does good science because of the mechanisms that correct these errors and criticize and weed out the bad science.  Since science works through criticism, it pits the reputation of scientists against one another to incentivize each individual scientist to prove the others wrong and bask in the limelight.  The liberal community of science is not perfect – there is no perfect institutional arrangement – but it is far better than any comparable alternatives.

Interstellar Blasts Out of the Hollywood Distribution Mold

The recent Christopher Nolan blockbuster Interstellar is grabbing headlines all over the internet for its scientific innovation and uniqueness within Hollywood. This post isn’t a review of Interstellar–suffice it to say you need to go see it, I’m still debating with my friends exactly what happened in the movie (and for what it’s worth, here’s a theory that I find most plausible). What is interesting and novel, about Interstellar, and Christopher Nolan, is just how the film was made, namely how atypical it was in the usual Hollywood scramble for copyrights and control between studios and the artist.
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A number of news articles came out profiling the cult director and describing just how unusual this process was. This post is an opportunity for me to point out the role copyright has the on economic structure of the film industry, and highlight Christopher Nolan’s success as one of the exceptions that prove the rule.
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The average Hollywood film follows a pretty common formula in terms of both subject area and distribution mechanism. Despite all the rhetoric that copyright ensures the independent artist she can put bread on the table for her work by giving her recourse against ungrateful pirates, the entertainment industry in the 21st century really is just a continuation of ancient patronage of the arts in modern form. Instead of wealthy elites sponsoring an individual artist like the Medici did for da Vinci, the Pope for Michelangelo, and the Duke of Tuscany for Gallileo, we have large movie studios bearing the cost of producing movies for artists and filmmakers in exchange for copyrights and a cut of the profits. In the U.S., there are the “Big Six” film studios–Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal, Sony, 20th Century Fox, and Lionsgate, which collectively accounted for over $8 billion, or 75% of all industry revenues in 2013. Independent filmmakers do exist, of course, but in the end often cut deals with the Big Six and turn over their copyrights in exchange for tapping into the big boys’ distribution network in hopes of reaching an audience of more than just midnight viewings staffed by hipsters.
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Maybe that’s all well and good, assuming the goal is simply to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” for the public welfare, as Article I §8 of the U.S. Constitution mandates. Economies of scale allow for a more efficient distribution mechanism to serve consumers, if not always the artists. The problem is that in the process, the rights to display the film, as well as the right to prevent others from viewing the film without authorization (i.e. “copyright”) are always transferred to the film studios. These firms, rather than the artists, are the ones with both the financial resources and the political muscle to hunt down infringers and to capture the regulatory process to put these copyrights to work maximizing their rents at the expense of consumers and taxpayers. But that’s for another post.
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Naturally, the Big Six aren’t going to accept any “I’ve got a brilliant idea!” pitch willy-nilly. Often they will seek a movie idea that is safe, and simply hire out the director to produce their movie. Sometimes this reaches absurd levels, where simply to protect a right from expiring, they will intentionally produce an awful B-movie version, like the 1994 Fantastic Four film. Furthermore, in the midst of the threat of internet piracy, studios and producers now demand control over a wider swath of revenue streams than just box office ticket sales: merchandise. And what produces merchandise like no other? Franchises full of sequels, plots ripped off of books, and reboots of sequels of plots ripped off of books. For better or worse, studios stick to the conservative revenue-maximizing formula of big action blockbusters with little arete but lots of explosions capable of spawning sequels with rapid diminishing returns to substance.
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This is where Nolan and Interstellar come in to kick things apart, rather than kick the can down the road. Love or hate his movies, he, along with James Cameron, or Steven Spielberg, is one of the few artists who can pitch a standalone movie to a studio and get wide liberties to produce it. Interstellar is (so far as we know), like Nolan’s previous Memento, The Prestige, and Inception (though notably the Batman trilogy was a franchise/reboot cash cow), a standalone movie without a big opportunity for franchising or sequels, and is original content rather than a rehash of a book (though some Heinlein fans may be shaking their fists). In fact, the prospect of this one film captivated Warner Brothers so much that in exchange

For the right to distribute Interstellar internationally, Warner Bros traded the rights for two of their franchises, Friday the 13th and South Park, plus “a to-be-determined A-list Warners property”, while its subsidiary, Legendary, agreed to trade Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a further piece of the pie. To say this disregards the reigning economic logic of modern Hollywood is not quite right – it reverses the normal logic by which Hollywood operates. Franchises are the lifeblood of the studios. For Warner Bros to hand over the rights to two of its well-known properties, representing money in the bank, for the opportunity to take a spin on an original idea – a film with no sequel potential and few merchandising opportunities, based on the dimly understood recesses of quantum physics – speaks both to the value placed by the studios on Nolan, and also the extent to which he has become a franchise unto himself. (Guardian)

Nolan is also very strategic about his expenditures: he always comes in under-budget. This is a big plus for Big Six in seeking him out, but there’s also an ulterior motive that benefits Nolan:

“What he realised very early on was that the moment you give the studios an excuse to come in, you’ve lost it,” said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and co-producer…“We watched it happen,” Thomas said. “The moment you go over budget, you’ve lost the creative control than an obsessive director like Chris needs.” (WSJ)

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While perhaps people value Nolan’s movies as art for art’s sake, what really helps them stand out is the rest of the noise in Hollywood. Now if only people who appreciate movie substance can find an alternative mechanism to raise films to the same level of success– crowdfunding perhaps? Then again, maybe what makes indie films indie is the fact that they’re not Hollywood blockbusters…


Ryan’s Intro

I’m happy to a part of this blog with my good friends and colleagues. I am in my fourth year at GMU and am currently on the academic job market (wish me luck). My dissertation brings an institutional focus to bear to copyright and its alternatives.
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I plan on focusing my posts here largely on ideas and intellectual property (IP), both at a scholarly and popular level. I believe IP is one of the big issues of our age, and especially our generation. I think that we are not bringing all of our intellectual resources we have down to bear on the issue: rather than focusing on optimizing a tradeoff between increasing incentives for innovators and increasing monopoly power from an engineering standpoint, I think we should better understand the nexus of institutions involved in managing the common pool resource we call knowledge. At a broader level, what really interests me is the political economy of alternative institutions that provide public goods.
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I view this blog as the spiritual successor to all the temporary personal blogs I have tried to maintain over the past few years at my personal website. I will stop blogging at my website and focus all of my attention here.
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You can find more about me, including my research, CV, and teaching, at my website: ryansafner.com

Obligatory Introduction

Welcome to the Calculus of Dissent.
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We are five economics doctoral students at George Mason University all at or approaching candidacy, and all with a strong passion for economics and discussing ideas. We thought that this blog would be a good way to keep in close contact and stay intellectually engaged. Hopefully it will emerge into something more.
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While each of us researches, teaches, and writes about different subject areas, we all believe that economics is pervasive and that using the tools of economics can gain insight into nearly all aspects of human society. We also all explore issues from a perspective that emphasizes the nature of markets as emergent discovery processes, the role that incentives play in politics, and the importance of social institutions in determining prosperity, all of which we feel can be neglected sometimes by our fellow economists, scholars, and pundits. Otherwise, we have no specific agenda. We hope to post about a lot of different issues, and see where the conversation goes.
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Notably, we decided to launch this blog after many days of deliberation. We settled on the name “the Calculus of Dissent” just a few days before the passing of one of our collective intellectual heroes, Gordon Tullock, who has influenced each of us greatly.
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Expect a brief intro from each of us before we return back to your normally scheduled programming. Of course, all of the posts on here are not affiliated with or endorsed by any institution, and all opinions contained are the individual author’s own.