Evolutionary Science and Gresham’s Law of Ideas

So there’s a book that said something really dumb:

And by cursory inspection of excerpts and reviews, it is chock full of all kinds of silly ideas that experienced what I can only imagine to be a frictionless path from the authors’ minds to publication. I don’t really care about this book or the specific ways in which it is is bad. And I don’t really care about the authors, who appear to be mediocre self-styled evolutionary scientists whose major claims to fame appear to be favoring ivermectin over vaccines and supporting themselves financially by levying a lawsuit against Evergreen State College.

What I care about is evolutionary biology and psychology as subfields. The core idea is that the evolutionary framework of persistent adoption and adaptation of traits under unrelenting selective pressures can be a useful modeling framework for generating theories of social, economic, biological, and psychological phenomena. Evolutionary selection is a good idea, one of the most powerful in intellectual history! But to me, an outsider economist with a long-ago acquired undergraduate degree in biology, the subfields seems to be suffocating under the weight of ad hoc theories generated in volume by marginal practitioners and non-scientists. Why? What’s wrong with evolutionary sciences? Here’s a couple thoughts.

1) There’s nothing wrong. Saying something is wrong with the subfields is like watching The Shining and thinking “There’s something wrong with axes”. This is just a bad book with bad ideas thought up by authors with minimal right to claim the mantle of evolutionary science.

That’s a totally reasonable response but I’m in no mood to leave well enough alone.

2) There’s a perverse selective pressure within evolutionary sciences where the worst ideas rise to the level of public dissemination. The culling forces of the popular press select along dimensions that are not merely orthogonal to good science, they are actively selecting against it. Put in the language of my own field, publishing bad ideas seems to be more profitable than publishing good ones.

That’s pretty big claim, and one for which I have no real proof, just tacit intuition and a small number of anecdotes. Sorting through the reviews of the Heying & Weinstein book, I thought of the brief phenomenon that was “Sex at Dawn” a decade ago. It, similarly, sold a breathless explanation of human behavior, specifically promiscuity. Emphasis on the world sold. “Sex at Dawn” proved that you could be scientifically hollow and still sell a boatload of copies. For those who are curious, here’s a review by an evolutionary psychologist that doesn’t hold nearly the grudge that I do. He politely sifts through the major claims, weaving through the silliness to find the handful of specific claims, and proceeds to debunk them. Other reviewers were considerably less kind (including those at Oxford Press, who rejected it for publication).

So why are these and similar books, so successful?

I’ve long suspected that there is a Gresham’s Law of Popular Science at work. Simply put, bad ideas are less costly to generate than good ones, so they are more plentiful. For the non-expert consumer of popular science, this raises the costs of search probability that a randomly encountered book is bunk. What I believe to be more problematic, though, is that bad ideas are often less costly to consume. Spoon-fed as common sense writ magnificent and powerful, pseudoscientific books get a foothold in our mind first through the scarcity of our time and attention only to then grow roots in our ego. Easily consumed during rare moments of relaxed reading, they then show us ideas that give us explanatory access to life, the universe, and everything. Why struggle through caveated niche explorations when someone else has distilled the complexity of a modern life well-lived to something that is as flexible in its flattery as a horoscope and often conveniently enumerated?

Does this happen within economics? Of course it does. It happens in every scientific field. But that is why scientific fields evolve intellectual immune systems, and often very aggressive ones at that. The entire field of “Statistics” essentially exists as the custodian of the scientific method. But there are little details that matter, too.

Take, for example, the core concept of “maximization” in economics. Sure, it gets abused, but at the end of the day it’s pretty tough to get very far with an ad hoc utility/profit/wealth maximizing model in economics that produces useful predictions. Why is that? Well, a big reason is that we’ve left out a very important word. Economists deal almost exclusively in constrained maximization. Absent constraints, nearly every maximizing model amounts to little more than a tautology. It’s requirement for maximization under constraints, both components transparently introduced, that gives a model it’s power. When I observe meritless pop evolutionary science books, mostly what I’m seeing is unconstrained just so stories that work backwards from a conclusion they believe there is a book-purchasing audience for. There are selective pressures, but where are the resource constraints? There are groups but where are the rivals they are competing with? There is this evolutionary path, but why not the other paths?

So what should evolutionary sciences do? Well, first of all, I don’t know. But if I had to guess, the answer is nothing. Nothing but do the thing a proper science always does. Do the work, push the good ideas, kill the bad ones, and trust that the custodians of the scientific method will do their jobs. And so will the editors. And the hiring committees. And the critics. Sure, a couple folks will pay a couple years mortgage, but a bit of financial and status injustice are a small price to pay while we keep the scientific mission moving forward. At least until we’re all crabs.

The Problem is the Science

The University has been the engine of basic science in the US and abroad for a long time. Any hand-wringing in recent years over its imminent obsolescence was borne of advances in remote learning and new found capacities to exponentially scale single instructors to reach tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students across the globe. How, in this brave-ish new world, would matriculant tuition accruing to a handful of instructional specialists/celebrities continue to subsidize the scientific mission?

If the arrival of YouTube and Khan Academy gave credence to the academic apocalypse theory, then the coronavirus pandemic and the global adoption of Zoom instruction would surely make a reality of it. I will admit, for the first time in my career, I’m seeing the cracks in the edifice of the academy. And, yes, it was the pandemic that made them more prominent to me.

But its not on the educational side of our dual mission. It’s the science.

Dr. Katalin Kariko is very likely to win a Nobel prize for her immense contributions to our understanding of messenger RNA (mRNA) and how it can be manipulated to create an entirely new class of vaccines that, it is not hyperbole to say, stand to offer a global shift in health. The prospect is there for not just an HIV vaccine, or a broad-spectrum influenza vaccine, or a malaria vaccine, but the broad mitigation of viruses as a burden on humanity.

Dr. Kariko has been pursuing her scientific mission with a single-mindedness that jumps off the page in everything that has been written about her. What also jumps off the page, at least to those of use who have been trying make a career in academic research, is the university system that has worked diligently for decades to push Dr. Kariko, and her scientific mission, out of the academy. At every stage of the hiring, retention, and grant application process, Dr. Kariko’s research has been bludgeoned with not so much criticism or doubt, but what seems more like horrifying indifference. Grant reviewers saw little value, her colleagues noted that she lacked finesse in writing grant applications, and the academic institutions that employed her saw little value in employing someone, even for less than $60k a year in salary, that was unable to consistently bring in large grants (sidenote: her husband often estimated her effective wage to be roughly a dollar an hour: from the university’s point of view, it wasn’t the expense she represented on the balance sheet, it was the opportunity cost of the grants she wasn’t winning that someone else in her slot would).

This is a problem.

To be clear, this indifference is far more damning than any sort of broad disagreement would have been. The nature of science is such that most advances are incremental, but every now and then there are the rare revolutionary upheavals, where something we thought we absolutely knew for sure turns out to be completely wrong. That scientific mavericks that push such theories, most of which are completely wrong, meet resistance is natural (and probably optimal). But indifference is a problem, because indifference does more to reveal the underlying incentives propelling researchers. Universities were indifferent to her research because it wasn’t generating grant money, and that is the job she was hired to do.

Patents are great. Prestigious awards are welcome. Published papers are not entirely a waste of your time. But make no mistake, if you don’t successfully apply for grants, your days in academic science are numbered. I spent three years as an oddly appointed economist in arguably the greatest medical school of the last decade. I got to hang around brilliant physicians who spent a lot of their time every week actually (not figuratively or indirectly) saving lives. I also witnessed dedicated researchers break down into tears upon receiving the news that their grant application had been denied, which meant their contract with the university would not be renewed and their research career effectively terminated. I saw how little grant application aptitude correlated with talent or passion. I saw people thrive in system while others failed, with little in the way of scientific aptitude to distinguish them.

The most practical advice I was privy to was this: work in someone’s lab, pursue your project in parallel with their resources. Once you have an advance that would be worthy of a grant application, write up the application for a project you‘ve already completed. List your previous PI as a collaborator, promise exactly the results you already have, describe your budget, schedule, and proposed outputs in shocking detail, and then radically oversell the importance of the discovery. Once you win the grant, use that money to pursue your next project while writing up the outcome of your previous one. Once you have results, apply for yet another retrospective funding grant, and continue to daisy chain that until you win a massive grant, a coveted NIH R-1 perhaps, within which you can bundle a series of projects, hiring as many post-docs and early researchers as you can. You will then manage this team who will execute your research while hopefully starting their own retrospective grant application daisy chains. Is this a common strategy? I don’t know – it seems odd that the dates of human subjects testing could be obscured. But the point was made to me – this isn’t about science, this is a career life-or-death game where only the 20% of applicants are funded.

To be honest, I don’t care that people are gaming funding institutions. And, to be clear, “playing the game” is part of any career, no matter how idealistic you want to be. Academic research science is in deep, deep trouble, however, if grant application gamesmanship dominates scientific ingenuity in the talent acquisition and retention strategies of major universities. It means we’re no longer scientists, we’re rent-seekers. We’re the person in the village best at memorizing Mao’s Little Red Book: smart, talented, but in the end wasted. Or, much worse, we’re just poseurs.

Piecing together what I’ve read in articles and her Wikipedia entry, after Penn demoted her to adjunct status, Dr. Kakri found a home at BioNTech in 2013, where they and other biotech firms saw tremendous value in her work, yada yada yada, her research with Draw Weissman saved millions of lives going forward and maybe just the whole damn world.

Two takeaways:

  1. If Penn, after demoting her to being an adjunct, tries to claim her and her work as their own we riot.
  2. What is the marginal value of university research if all we’re producing is grant applications?

Part of the blame, of course, has to be placed at the door of the NIH and NSF grant application review process. But how much longer are they going to matter either?

  1. 2021 NSF Budget: $8.5 Billion
  2. 2021 NIH Budget: $43 Billion
  3. Tesla Market Cap: $650 Billion
  4. Elon Musk net worth: $167 Billion

The whole point of the NSF, NIH, and the academic research project is the production of the public good that is basic science. Absent private profit incentives, they should be able to pursue the big picture project that are too broad in application for private companies and the high risk-high reward projects that are or venture too risky even for venture capital.

The advantages of government agencies, however, are limited if they are overwhelmingly surpassed in scale by private market science. Even if 99% of firms can’t overcome the public goods problem, the 1% (ironically within public economics what would be referred to as “privileged groups”) of firms that stand to profit from advancing basic science have the scale to execute such ambitions. More importantly, however, they may also have better incentives. Yes, they are greedily trying to make a profit off of their innovations, but at least the innovation remains their goal.

I’m not worried about the value of university professors as educators. It turns out that education doesn’t scale as well as we thought. That there is tremendous value to be in a room together when you’re trying to pass on explicit, complex, and tacit knowledge. Nor am I worried in the slightest about capital-S Science. There is a bright future for any and every institution producing science, even the most basic, broadest science that no private company or patent strategy could ever exclude others from benefiting from. But, I’m afraid, there is no future for the production of grant applications or the institutions that pursue them at the expense of brilliant minds trying to solve our most important puzzles.

Slips of the Atheist’s Expert Tongue

People have a lot of opinions about diet. For many, dietary opinion is individual – they don’t prescribe that anyone else adopt their beliefs and practices. Others have a more universal bent. Some people are dead-set against starches and others think that meat is taboo – for themselves and others. There are a lot of beliefs about diet.

The reasoning that people use for their dietary beliefs are just as diverse. Motivations range from religious beliefs, moral systems, social signaling, personal experimentation, anecdotal evidence, and so on.

Some people use the theory of evolution. They reason that we have canine teeth, like carnivores, so our ancestors had advantages in meat-eating. Others reason that we have relatively long small intestines, like herbivores, so our ancestors had advantages in plant-eating. Expert scientists from any one of a plethora of subjects are interviewed or write as authorities on the matter.

Scientists who are atheists say things like “Were humans designed to eat meat?”, or “If humans were meant to eat meat, then…”, or “our canines aren’t specially meant for processing meat”.

The problem, of course, is that using words like ‘meant’ or ‘designed’ implies one who ‘means’ or one who ‘designs’. For most religious people, there is no conflict. For an atheist, it’s strange turn of phrase. Why? Because evolution has two parts: 1) mutations that introduce variety and 2) natural selection. The former occurs prior to an animal’s birth. The latter occurs as a result of environmental reproductive pressure and opportunity.

In other words, to an atheist, there is no designer. So, what gives? I’ve settled on several plausible good-intentioned explanations that I order by increasing charity.

  1. Poor Evolutionary Understanding: The atheist scientist’s understanding of evolution is flawed. Maybe their theory includes first-person or third-person intentionality. An example would be that giraffes stretched and intended that their necks would become longer over the generations. An alternative poor belief is that environmental pressures, including predators and vegetation, intended that giraffe necks would lengthen. Environmental pressures achieved their goal through reward of the long-necked and the punishment of the short-necked. I like to think that scientists have a better handle on their area of expertise rather than having beliefs such these.
  1. Poor Grasp of English: The atheist scientist has a perfect grasp of evolution, but they are unpracticed at English in contexts of emergent order. Economists often have similar challenges and often refer to speaking allegorically as a crutch. Economists will say that prices ‘want’ to change or that a government desires social outcomes. Neither of which is true. Suppliers lower prices as their sales become lackluster.  Policy outcomes are desired by someone within a governing process – though the social outcomes may be desirable by nobody. Similarly, predators desire to eat and unknowingly exert selective pressure for genetic traits. Or, a drought causes smaller lizards to survive and larger ones to dehydrate and die. English speakers have difficulty discussing biological processes without intention-denoting verbiage.
  1. Implicit Theism: The atheist is really no atheist at all, but has belief in God that they cannot shake, despite their professions and logic otherwise. Using the past perfect tense in regard to the design of humans is case of parapraxis – a Freudian slip.
  1. An Expertise Gap: Specialists in arts and sciences utilize highly specific jargon so that very specific concepts can be expressed concisely. But such jargon muddies communication with those who aren’t specialists in the field. The specialist grapples with this expertise gap. Although the struggle deserves sympathy, anthropomorphizing is far different from the expert’s idea of the truth.
  • The problem is that jargon has highly a specific meaning. So, when a specialist makes a claim with jargon, the claim is also specific. A narrower set of applicability has less room for credible challenges at the margins of a claim and ideas can be clearly communicated precisely – though, the applicable cases may not be interesting. As the breadth of a claim increases, jargon can help to ensure that the breadth is limited to appropriately specific cases.
  • When the listener is not an expert, the scientist is uncertain of the gap in knowledge. They attempt to make relatively broad and interesting claims, but without the aid of their case-narrowing jargon. The result is that the expert says something which is clearly false to another specialist, but may be mostly true – or true enough for the listener.

Again, these four interpretations of misspeaking and miscommunicating experts are ordered by charity. I especially sympathize with the last interpretation. Imagine trying to teach a student that inflation is always costly, but sometimes more beneficial than costly. And that the costs still exist when the benefits outweigh the costs. So, should we have a policy of inflation? The true answer is highly specific.

Does an atheist scientist understand that there is no designer of human bodies – much less one that had diet in mind? Very much. Does the same atheist scientist know how to communicate unintentional biological advantages to the non-specialist? They do not.  What’s more is that they are not alone. Specialization introduces a knowledge gap and the unavailability of common jargon prevents adequately finessed broad claims.