Tyler Cowen and scientific progress

One of the recommendations Tyler Cowen – Professor of Economics at George Mason University – gives in The Great Stagnation (2011) for reversing the (supposedly) declining trend in technological innovation is to:

“Raise the social status of scientists.

[…] If we are going to see further major technological breakthroughs, it is a big help if people love science, care deeply about science, and science attracts a lot of the best […] minds. The practice of science has to yield social esteem, and teams of scientists should have a strong esprit de corps and feel they are doing something that really matters.

When it comes to motivating human beings, status often matters at least as much as money. […] Right now, scientists do not earn enough status and appreciation. […] Science doesn’t have the cache of law, medicine, or high finance.

[…] I don’t want a bunch of extra science prizes […]; what I want is that most people really care about science and view scientific achievement as a pinnacle of our best qualities as leaders of Western civilization.” (pp. 83-5)

What Cowen is arguing for is similar to what Sir Francis Galton argued for (and what subsequently was achieved, relatively speaking) near the end of the 19th century:

“As regards the future provision for successful followers of science, it is to be hoped that, in addition to the many new openings in industrial pursuits, the gradual but sure development of sanitary administration and statistical inquiry may in time afford the needed profession. These and adequately paid professorships may, as I sincerely hope they will, even in our days, give rise to the establishment of a sort of scientific priesthood throughout the kingdom, whose high duties would have reference to the health and well-being of the nation in its broadest sense, and whose emoluments and social position would be made commensurate with the importance and variety of their functions.” (English Men of Science, 1873, p. 259)

Galton was writing this in the exact year that, according to Jonathan Huebner (whose work Cowen references), technological innovation per capita peaked, i.e., 1873. Yet, since Galton’s time scientists’ emoluments and social position in broader society have risen significantly. So, over precisely this period where scientists’ status has increased, innovation has fallen. The sort of achievements made by a handful of men in Galton’s day have not been replicated in more and more cases per capita as more people have become scientists.

Compare the above with what Bruce Charlton writes in ‘The main reason science has declined‘:

“When scientists believe in reality and are motivated to seek the truth about it, then science will work.

That is all that is needed.

Therefore real science is very, very simple.

Questions of scientific methods are irrelevant, questions of organization are irrelevant – such real scientists will find a way.

But, since the pre-requisites are rare (not many reality-based people are truly truth-seeking and truthful), and the pressures for corruption are so strong, that real science is both rare and fragile.”

Increasing emoluments or social position increases the pressure for corruption, i.e., tends to attract people who then have an interest in those things instead of just figuring out the truth. My guess is that this is one reason why ‘amateur science‘ has been so successful – the people practicing it do so more to find things out than for status.

One thought on “Tyler Cowen and scientific progress

  1. bgc

    Agree – TC’s plan is already in place and led us to where we are now.

    Reforms of science are impossible because they amount to getting turkeys to vote for Christmas: 99 percent of ‘scientists’ (i.e. professionals employed in doing research) should be doing something else.

    So the only hope is collapse and rebuild.


    It is notable that much of the good work in the past was done by people in their spare time from doing other things – teaching, for instance, or being a clergyman.

    And by these people doing something other-than what they were supposed to do: working in different fields.

    And that modernity strives to make this impossible by filling jobs with regulated (pointless) tasks, and forcing people to specialize ever more narrowly.

    (As a micro-example – in the UK now – thanks to the national Research Assessment Exercise, research and publications outside of the always-narrowing bounds of the ‘department’ in which an academic is employed ‘does not count’ as research at all; indeed it is regarded as a negative – being evidence that you are not doing what you are supposed to do, and doing something else instead, misdirecting your energies.)

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