Joining the Dots
Gordon Tullock on the decline and fall of scientific empires

Rafe Champion

A generation ago the economist Gordon Tullock sketched a scenario for the decline of a scientific discipline, given a particular combination of motivational factors and institutional incentives. The end game in his scenario begins when the point of view expressed in a paper becomes a criterion for publication or rejection. He wrote “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”. He had no concerns about the natural sciences as he wrote in the 1960s, long before the current troubles in climate science.

The first part of this paper is an exercise in ”joining the dots” to take account of several influences which have undermined the performance and the morale of people who live in what Jacques Barzun called “the house of intellect”. This is the realm of ideas which are in common currency among educated people. Barzun wrote a great deal about the housekeeping required to maintain effective thought and action by people who take ideas seriously, including people who are not professional engaged in teaching, research or scholarship. He wrote about education, especially the universities, but his concerns extended much further to encompass the quality of critical commentary in the press and the way people exchange ideas in the daily commerce of life. He considered that the dictum “no politics or religion at the dinner table” marks a failure in “polite society” to handle serious disagreements in a civilized manner.

The tenor of public debate about complex and contentious issues reflects the condition of “the house of intellect” and the climate science debate suggests that some cleaning and renovation may be in order. For instance we might look at various problematic features of the politics, funding and governance of science and the rise of radical environmentalism. 

The “dots” in this picture are:

Jacques Barzun’s extended commentary on education; 
the radicalization of the student “generation of ‘68”; 
John Grover’s account of the international campaign against nuclear power which grew out of the Ban the Bomb protests in the 1950s; 
the postwar emergence of Big Science; 
the rise of “normal science” flagged by T S Kuhn. Moving on to climate science there is 
the role of “environmental entrepreneurs” in the United Nations; 
the partnership between Western governments and the IPCC and 
the governance of the IPCC itself. 

Taking the “dots” one my one. Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) published four significant books on the trends in US education, starting with Teacher in America in 1944. (The Preface of the 1983 reprint is on line). The book is a survey the major deficiencies and impediments in the education system, like the idea that all learning has to be “fun” and the soul-destroying drudgery of the PhD ordeal. In The House of Intellect (1959) he explored the influences that distract educated people from clear, direct and critical thinking. He described some problems which follow the well-meaning efforts of foundations and corporations to save the world by funding university-based research and the international exchange of ideas. One result has been the trampling of long-term research programs in the rush to obtain grants for "exciting and relevant research" followed by international conferences in exotic parts of the world.

In Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1963), he catalogued and criticised several popular misperceptions of science, some of them trivialising and others sensationalising the activities of scientists. Finally The American University: How It Runs, Where Is It Going? (1968) documenting the confusion that prevailed about the purpose of higher education after decades of rapid growth. To underline his concerns, the book appeared in the year when students around the world started setting fire to their campuses, including his own base, Columbia University, New York.

Those fires were extinguished but now the flames of politicization on campus are burning stronger than ever. That is the lagged, downstream effect of the Vietnam war and especially the impact of the draft. The Vietnam debate activated a new generation of radicals who made careers on campus, in the school system, in politics including the burgeoning NGOs and in the media. All of this shifted the political orientation of the middle class towards the left, and if not to the left, to a hair-trigger sensitivity to environmental issues. A case could be made for the war but to send conscripts to “fight for freedom” was a very different matter. This cost conservatives a deal of intellectual and moral credibility, with major impacts in the long term, which is now the present! In Australia and most likely in the US the conscription issue had a tsunami effect. “With barely a ripple on the voting figures at the time, the conservative ships of state rode on to more election victories until the waves of activism and organisational acumen broke on the electoral shores during the 1980s and beyond.” (Champion, 2008). The full impact is being realised now after people in the cohort who were radicalized a generation spent their careers exerting ever-increasing influence as they rose in their professions. 

John Grover, an Australian mining engineer, wrote  Struggle For Power (1980) to describe the worldwide push to block the building of nuclear power stations. The campaign grew out of the Ban the Bomb movement of the 1950s and became an anti-Western force in the Cold War, opposed to the deployment of western nuclear arms and the development of atomic power. In the latter it was completely successful in Australia and substantially successful in the US. The movement had next to no support from scientists but it moved into the environmental movement and took control of it as the movement became a significant force in the 1960s and ‘70s. Several churches became involved, and school teachers unions were effective in generating community resistance, alongside well-funded and highly professional campaigns run by the likes of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They laid the foundations for the developments which Alan Carling described in his book Environmentalism Gone Mad, with special reference to climate science.

The world of science changed out of recognition after 1945 with major government spending for the war effort epitomized by the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. The philosopher Karl Popper feared for the future of Great Science as a result of Big Science in the service of politicians. He saw the danger of too much money chasing too few ideas, the publication explosion (good buried under bad) and the distortion of incentives for scientists by the pressure to obtain grants for fashionable and the politically “hot” topics. He was also alarmed by the concept of normal science put about by T S Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the face of the traditional function of healthy scepticism at the heart of the scientific endeavour, for Kuhn real science starts when criticism stops. Hence “consensus rules” and the concept of serious criticism of the paradigm is rendered eccentric or obsolete. Admittedly Kuhn shifted his ground and eventually conceded that Popper’s approach is appropriate when science is in crisis, “Even in the developed sciences, there is an essential role for Sir Karl’s methodology” (Kuhn, 1970, p 247). But in the world where “the science is settled” there are no crises and Kuhn’s concession is rarely reported.

Popper voiced his concerns from his chair of Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. Some of his views were shared by a man with a very different vantage point – the Oval Office in the White House in Washington DC. In his farewell speech at the end of his term President Eisenhower warned “The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present.” He noted the “equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite (Eisenhower, 1961).

Both of those possibilities became real after the governments of the western world and the United Nations embraced environmentalism under the influence of the worldwide green movement. New international forums and agencies proliferated, driven by a new class of political entrepreneurs like Maurice Strong. They played up the challenge of climate change, and created additional vehicles for this particular issue, notably the IPCC. All of that activity went ahead regardless of the views of the ordinary voters of the world, indeed independent of the democratic process and far beyond the influence of the most powerful private interest groups. 

All those developments provide the background to the world of science which Gordon Tullock surveyed in his book The Organization of Inquiry (1966). As a student of legal, social and economic systems he was intrigued by the way that scientists, who he considered to be highly individualistic, nevertheless were highly coordinated.
“The most effective way of ‘organizing’ science seems to be the most perfect laissez faire. This, however, is a superficial view. Science is not unorganized. There exists a community of scientists, and this community is a functioning social mechanism which co-ordinates the activity of its members”. (5)

He addressed the issue of pure and applied research, noting that each draws extensively on the other, and he identified three kinds of curiosity.

1.Pure curiosity about the way the world works, producing a compulsive or obsessive quest for the truth, in the form of universal laws of nature.
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 large numbers of 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 especially 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 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, for the researcher with induced curiosity:

“scientific concern with the real world is secondary 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” (56).

He sketched a scenario where a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by investigators with induced curiosity whereby the work could “gradually slip away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects” (56)

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. Tullock speculated that this could happen in a field dominated by “induced” researchers rather than the dedicated truth seekers. “Hence in a field where truth seeking is not held in high esteem, the induced researcher may not be held to a high standard.” (59)

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. At this point “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” (58). This undermines the skepticism and respect for reality and the truth that has always driven the best science.

Returning to the theme of “joining the dots”, with specific reference to the “boom” in climate science, Butos and McQuade recently provided another piece of the picture with their work on the “dangerous liaison” of science and government and the impact on scientists of having “Big Players” in the field, notably the IPCC and the US government. They examined the field some four decades after Tullock published his book and their work can be seen as an investigation of the scenario that he sketched. They concluded:

“The current system makes scientists’ well-being dependent on the whims of political expediency. It creates winners and losers in the scientific community, where winning is not necessarily based on scientific achievement, but on the ability to secure and maintain a flow of politically motivated funding.” (2006)

They mischeviously coined the term “crony science” and they suggested that crony capitalism may not be far behind. They reported a study of $16 billion allocated to 27 firms, the majority with close ties to political insiders, campaign bundlers, donors and Department of Environment agency officials. As the four-year scheme wound down several had declared bankruptcy. In summary, only projects to the value of $350K were completed and the remainder of the $16 billion was in projects which were belly up, “troubled” or incomplete.

You can imagine the ghost of Gordon Tullock surveying this scene with a knowing and mournful expression.
Postscript. A late addition to the picture is the rising field of retraction studies, looking at the number of papers that are retracted for fraud or defects in methods. William A. Wilson made a strong contribution to this topic, including some strong words from one of Karl Popper’s pupils, Paul Feyerabend.

“It should be no surprise that even after outgrowing the monasteries, the practice of science has attracted souls driven to seek the truth regardless of personal cost and despite, for most of its history, a distinct lack of financial or status reward. Now, however, science and especially science bureaucracy is a career, and one amenable to social climbing. Careers attract careerists, in Feyerabend’s words: “devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on producing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes ‘scientific progress’ in many areas.”


W. Butos and T. McQuade, (2015). “Causes and Consequences of the Climate Science Boom” The Independent Review, Fall 2015: 177-208.
R. Champion (2008). “Why Labor Rules”.
Eisenhower, D. D. (1961). President Dwight D Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.
Grover, J. (1980). The Struggle for Power: The Real Issues Behind the Uranium and Nuclear Argument, Viewed Both Nationally and Internationally. E. J. Dwyer, Sydney. Summarised here
Kuhn, T. S. (1970). “Reflection on my Critics”. In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, eds Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave, Cambridge University Press.
G. Tullock, (1966). The Organization of Inquiry, Duke University Press.
Wilson, William A. (2016). “Scientific Regress”.