The Challenges of Doing Revolutionary Science (Part 1)
October 1, 2020
Originally published on Economics from the Top Down.
Science is miraculously improbable. To work, it must fight against a deep human instinct — our desire to conform.
As social animals, humans are built to do as others do. Why? Presumably because it’s advantageous. In our evolutionary past, conformist groups beat out non-conformist groups. And so here we sit, a conformist species.
But while evolutionarily successful, conformity comes with a big problem: it needn’t respect the scientific truth. Conformity can be successful, yet be based on ideas that are false. Probably the best example of this seeming contradiction is religion. It’s a successful system of conformity whose foundations are manifestly false.
So here’s where science comes in. The role of science, I’ll argue, is to keep conformity in line with the truth. Scientists hold ideas up to evidence, and discard those that don’t withstand scrutiny.
This is a simple process, in principle. But in practice, it can be messy. Sometimes false ideas get entrenched and science goes down the wrong path. To put science back on track, a special type of scientist is needed — a revolutionary scientist.
In this two-part post, I’m going to explore the challenges of doing revolutionary science. The revolutionary scientist has the thankless task of declaring that everyone else is wrong. It’s a job that few people are willing to do. And yet it must be done. So let’s celebrate revolutionary science and think about ways to get more people to do it.
Normal vs. revolutionary science
The philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued that there are two kinds of science: normal and revolutionary. Normal science is about refining the edges of an accepted theory. Revolutionary science, in contrast, is about taking an accepted theory and tearing it to shreds. 
Most scientists do normal science. And that’s a good thing. Science is an iterative process that builds on existing knowledge. So if our existing knowledge is secure, doing science means filling in small cracks. We should praise such artisanal work.
But what happens when our existing knowledge is wrong? Then doing normal science isn’t praiseworthy. No, it’s actually an insidious waste of time and resources. When the foundations of our knowledge are wrong, doing normal science amounts to turd polishing.
Unfortunately, scientific turd polishing happens more than we’d like to think. Economics is a case in point. Most economists take the principles of neoclassical economics and refine how they’re applied. With each refinement, economists proclaim that they’ve advanced science.
Sadly, the truth is less sanguine. The foundations of neoclassical economics are, to put it bluntly, bullshit. So each refined neoclassical model isn’t an advancement. It’s a new layer of gloss on the neoclassical turd.
To fix economics, we need to stop polishing the neoclassical turd. We need to throw neoclassical economics in the garbage and replace it with something better. In short, we need to do revolutionary science.
This solution seems simple enough. But it’s easier said than done. For over a century, heterodox economists have tried to take down the neoclassical juggernaut. And yet the beast lumbers on. While it’s tempting to blame heterodox economists for this failure, the truth is that doing revolutionary science is always an uphill battle. Why? Because it cuts against a core human instinct. As social animals, we have a strong instinct to conform.
When we do revolutionary science, then, we’re not just fighting a false scientific theory. We’re fighting a deep human instinct. This makes doing revolutionary science doubly hard. Not only must the revolutionary scientist resist their own conformist instincts, they must convince others to do so as well. That’s a tall order. Faced with new ideas that challenge our core beliefs, most people react swiftly and predictably. We punish the messenger.
So the main challenge of doing revolutionary science isn’t scientific. It’s sociological. The revolutionary scientist must think differently than others. And they must be willing to be punished for it. No wonder revolutionary scientists are rare. No wonder entrenched theories are so difficult to uproot.
Sociality as conformity
To understand why doing revolutionary science is so difficult, let’s look at the human instinct to conform. I’m going to argue that conformity is a fundamental part of sociality.
Skeptical of this idea? To ease your skepticism, let’s play a game. When someone says the word ‘conformity’ to you, what pops into your head? Personally, I think of a North Korean military parade. Have you ever seen one? They’re mesmorizing — thousands of identically-dressed soldiers marching in lockstep. And the march itself is bizarre — a hybrid of a goose step and a jig. Seriously, who came up with this?
OK, what’s the point of this game? It’s not about the outrageous act of conformity that popped into your head. No, it’s about what you didn’t think about. I’ll bet you didn’t think of language as an act of conformity. And yet it is. Without conformity, language would be impossible.
Think about the rules of vocabulary and syntax. They’re nothing but a system of conformity. When we don’t conform to these rules, we can’t communicate with each other. It’s called speaking a different language.
That we don’t consider language an act of conformity is revealing. It suggests that when it comes to language, the instinct to conform is so strong that we’re not aware we’re doing it. Put another way, we don’t have the ability to rebel against language. Learning disabilities aside, children never refuse to learn the language spoken around them. Our instinct to conform is too strong.
Other types of conformity are less instinctive, but still an important part of being human. All state societies enforce conformity to the law. Capitalist societies enforce conformity to the rules of trade. Religions enforce conformity to dogmas. I could go on, but you get the point. Conformity is a fundamental part of our sociality.
The advantages of conformity
Humans are not alone in our conformity. It’s a trait we share (at least to some extent) with all social species. So why do social animals conform? To answer this question we ask: cui bono? Who benefits?
Evolutionary theory gives us three possibilities:
- Conformity benefits no one
- Conformity benefits individuals
- Conformity benefits groups
Possibility 1: Conformity benefits no one
It seems odd to suppose that no one benefits from conformity. But this is possible.
Not all traits are adaptive. Some traits can be what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called ‘evolutionary spandrels’. Spandrels are the byproduct of selection for some other trait. Gould argued that many of our mental properties (like the ability to do math) are actually spandrels:
Natural selection made the human brain big, but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels – that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity.
—Stephen Jay Gould in Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism
Thinking of mental processes as spandrels is interesting. But I’m skeptical that conformity is an evolutionary byproduct. If anything, selection for conformity created spandrels.
Consider the work of Soviet zooligist Dmitry Belyayev. Over many years, Belyayev selectively bred red foxes for tameness. In each generation, he selected the foxes that were most friendly to humans. Although Belyayev selected a behavioral trait, he found that over time the foxes changed physically. The foxes’ ears grew floppy. Their brains grew smaller. Their faces grew ‘cuter’. In short, the foxes acquired all the physical traits that we now call ‘domestication syndrome’.
Interestingly, humans share many of these traits. Compared to other (extinct) hominid species, our heads are smaller and our brow ridges are less pronounced. These features suggest that we domesticated ourselves.
Self domestication seems like something out of the The Twilight Zone. Yet scientists are seriously considering this hypothesis. If true, it means that many of our physical features are spandrels shaped by selection for sociality. In other words, we look like we do because we conform.
This idea remains controversial. But at the very least, it suggests that conformity is adaptive.
Possibility 2: Conformity benefits individuals
Next on our cui bono list are individuals. Is conformity an individual-level adaptation?
The answer is no.
To be an individual-level adaptation, conformity must be the best strategy for individuals. The problem is that this isn’t true. When you’re surrounded by conformists, it’s actually best to be a rebel.
Here’s an example. Imagine a society in which everyone is utterly conformist. We’ll call this ‘Conformist Land’. In Conformist Land, everyone pays their taxes. In fact, people are so conformist that there’s no punishment for not paying taxes. Nobody’s ever done that before!
Enter a Machiavellian named Bob. Upon moving to Conformist Land, Bob stops paying his taxes. When this defiance goes unpunished, Bob gets bolder. He opens an accounting firm. Soon Bob is doing everyone’s taxes. But instead of transferring the tax to the government, Bob keeps the money for himself. He lives like a king and never gets caught.
Clearly, then, conformity isn’t always a good strategy for individuals. When you’re surrounded by conformists, it pays to be a conniving jerk. So conformity can’t be an individual-level adaptation.
Possibility 3: Conformity benefits groups
Last on our cui bono list are groups. It’s here that we see clear benefits to conformity.
To see these benefits, we’ll look at the most social of animals — the cells in your body. Suppose that two people — Alice and Bob — are running from a lion. Alice has normal muscle cells that are highly conformist. When Alice’s brain says run, her muscle cells fire collectively.
Bob, on the other hand, has muscle cells that are non-conformist. When Bob’s brain says run, his muscle cells say: “We’ll fire when we damn-well want to!” So when Bob tries to run, he collapses in a heap.
Who’s better adapted? Obviously Alice. Bob is lion fodder.
So conformity is advantageous for groups of cells (i.e your body). It’s also advantageous for groups of people. This conformist advantage is most poignant in warfare. Armies that attack as a cohesive whole tend to beat armies that don’t. For a book-length exposition of this principle, see Peter Turchin’s book Ultrasociety.
So conformity, it seems, is a group-level adaption. To paraphrase E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson, non-conformists beat conformists within groups. But conformist groups beat non-conformist groups.
The downsides of conformity
Just because conformity has evolved, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial. We can think of conformity as obeying a set of rules. Conformity is bad when the rules are bad. Here’s three ways it can happen.
- The rules are bad for the group
- The rules benefit a subgroup (not the whole group)
- The rules are scientifically false
Pernicious Conformity Type 1: When the rules are bad for the group
The whole point of conformity is to confer a group advantage. If it doesn’t do this, it’s pernicious.
To understand pernicious conformity, we’ll return to our multicellular friends, Alice and Bob. Imagine again that Alice has normal cells and Bob has abnormal cells. But this time, Bob’s cells aren’t abnormal because they’re non-conformist. They’re abnormal because they conform to a bad rule. Bob’s cells ‘agree’ to get rid of the immune system. “We don’t need it,” they say, “so let’s get rid of it.”
Who’s better adapted? Clearly Alice. She gets a cold and has a runny nose. Bob gets a cold and dies. That’s conformity gone wrong.
Bad rules can undermine human groups in much the same way. The history of medicine, for instance, is littered with practices that killed patients. (Think of the practice of bloodletting.) In even more extreme cases, conformity can lead to group extermination. (Think of the odd practice of mass suicide.)
Although pernicious conformity can be spectacular, it’s often quite subtle. Take fashion. As most males do, I’m currently wearing pants. But a thousand years ago men wore robes or kilts.
Why the switch? Peter Turchin argues that it stems from riding horses (see his two-part post here and here). As mounted warfare spread, pants became the norm. Why? Because riding a horse is uncomfortable with a bare ass. So if your society wages mounted war, the practice of wearing robes and kilts is pernicious (if only for your underside).
Pernicious Conformity Type 2: When the rules benefit a subgroup, not the whole group
Another way that conformity can go wrong is if it benefits a subgroup more than the whole group.
This type of conformity is rampant in human society. Take the ancient practice of endowing kings with divine right. It’s easy to see how this benefited kings. (Think of the opulence of Versailles). But it’s hard to see how divine right benefited the rest of the population. Fortunately (for modern observers), people eventually saw through the ruse and got rid of divine kingship. While the results weren’t always ideal (think of the Reign of Terror), few would deny that we’re better off without kings.
A more comical example of good-for-a-subgroup conformity comes from the film Idiocracy. The film imagines a dystopian future in which US farmers irrigate their crops with a sports drink called ‘Brawndo’. Not surprisingly, nothing much grows.
So why do farmers do something that’s so clearly bad for them? Because Brawndo’s parent corporation owns the regulatory agencies! Brawndo sets the rules. And, not surprisingly, the rules are bad for everyone but Brawndo. It’s good-for-a-subgroup conformity at its most absurd. (Sadly, the Trumpian US seems headed for a similar type of kleptocracy.)
So just because conformity exists doesn’t mean that it’s good for a whole society. Conformity benefits groups, yes. But which group? I’d wager that a lot of conformity helps elites, not the average person.
Pernicious Conformity Type 3: When the rules are scientifically false
The last way conformity can go wrong is if it locks in ideas that are false. Note that this isn’t an evolutionary downside. It’s a scientific one.
Let me explain.
Science and evolution are similar in many ways. Both are iterative processes that build on what’s come before. And both separate what ‘works’ from what doesn’t. Yet science differs from evolution in one key way. Science cares about the truth. Evolution does not.
Often what ‘works’ in evolutionary terms is, in scientific terms, a massive lie. Take color vision. It allows organisms to see features of their environment that would be otherwise invisible. So color vision is obviously beneficial. And yet it’s a lie. Color, as we perceive it, doesn’t exist. It’s a mental fiction — the brain’s interpretation of different wavelengths of light.
So biological evolution can (and does) diverge from the scientific truth. The same is true of cultural evolution. Put simply, ideas can be useful but false. Take religion. It’s littered with falsehoods. (My favorite is Jonah living in a whale.) But despite these falsehoods, religion persists. Why?
Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have one idea. They think that religion is a thought virus to which the human mind is (unfortunately) predisposed. But the biologist David Sloan Wilson has a different idea — one that casts religion in a more positive light.
In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson admits that religions are riddled with falsehoods. But he insists religions are beneficial in one key respect — they make groups cohesive. Religions give us a compelling narrative for why we should conform.
If you think about human psychology, this isn’t surprising. What motivates us to conform isn’t the appeal to evidence. It’s a good story. Spin a good yarn and you’ll have people begging to follow you.
Good military leaders know this intuitively. To rally the troops, they don’t appeal to evidence. If they did it might sound like this:
The Scientific Rallying Cry
Soldiers! We are only distantly related. But evolutionary theory tells us that, despite our differences, it is beneficial to unite. Yes, many of you will die. But if we fight together, the group will survive. And in evolutionary terms, that’s what matters. So charge now to your imminent death, but take comfort knowing that science is on our side.
Faced with imminent death, would you want to hear this speech? I wouldn’t. The scientific truth just doesn’t make a compelling story. It’s not worth dying for.
Good military leaders don’t appeal to evidence. They appeal to emotion. And there’s no better way to evoke emotion than to put God on your side:
The Religious Rallying Cry
Brothers! Our enemies have stolen our land and defiled the Earth with their godless ways. For this, God has willed they must die. So let us do God’s bidding. To battle! May the martyred be reunited in heaven!
I admit that I’m not very good at writing rallying cries (I’m a scientist after all). Still, I think the religious rallying cry is the more potent one. It’s what I’d rather hear if I was on the front line.
And there’s the rub. The ideas that make us conform are often scientific falsehoods. To a scientist like me, this is disturbing. I’d like to think that cultural evolution is synonymous with scientific progress. But it’s not.
Adding the truth as a cultural selection criteria
Cultural evolution is the search for types of conformity that ‘work’. And by ‘work’, I mean beat other types of conformity. It’s a blind process. Only rarely will it respect the scientific truth.
It’s a wonder, then, that we have science at all. But we do, and we should be thankful for it. Science works by adding the truth as a selection criteria for cultural evolution. Science kills ideas that don’t respect evidence. If all works well, cultural evolution equates with scientific progress.
Science, however, isn’t perfect. Sometimes false ideas become entrenched. When they do, a special kind of scientist is needed — someone willing to uproot an entrenched system of conformity. Enter the revolutionary scientist.
We’ll talk more about this person in Part 2. Stay tuned.
Cover image source: Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes, though, this conservative approach doesn’t work. If the theory you’re replacing is garbage, then it should be torn to shreds. Copernicus, for instance, didn’t make his heliocentric model of the solar system ‘reduce’ (in some limit) to the geocentric model. No, Copernicus boldly declared that the geocentric model was bullshit.
The same bold action is needed in economics. We need to tear neoclassical economics to shreds and hope future generations forget it existed.