Thursday, December 15, 2005

From a Discussion with Robin Hanson on Idea Futures

Robin Hanson:

"You are making a crucial assumption here - that the
main social role and function performed by academia is
to increase knowledge and offer informed assessments.
If this were true, then the customers of academia
might indeed switch to an institution which better
performed such roles and functions."

I agree that academia is driven by many preferences
other than "to increase knowledge and offer informed
assessments." But insofar as at least some funders,
including both philanthropists and the voting public,
believe that the primary purpose of universities is to
increase knowledge and offer informed asssessments,
idea futures create the prospect of driving a wedge
between this one popularly accepted function of the
universities and the actual matrix of preferences

Although numerous agents are able to have their
prestige needs met by means of existing academic
institutions (including donors, students, and their
parents), in effect they are free riding on the lofty
reputation of universities as purveyors of truth and
wisdom. A public social mechanism (such as idea
futures) that introduced a credible wedge between
existing academic pretenses, on the one hand, and
actual intellectual value, on the other, would have
tremendous repercussions for existing academic
institutions. I would bet on it.

Prizes do seem to be increasingly recognized as a
valid form of encouraging discovery. As you point
out, idea futures may be seen as a broader and more
flexible institution - information prizes. As this
approach became a credible means of adjuticating
disputes in areas of science in which it is difficult
to discern truths, such as climatology and economic
development, at some point there would be people
interested in "testing" the claims of academics in
sociology, cultural studies, etc.

There are individual academics in such fields whose
predictions would be seen to have no value. They may
avoid making specific claims, but if they were
continually pushed to make predictions in the areas in
which they alleged some empirical insight or
expertise, but refused to put their money on the
empirical implications of their claims, their
credibility (such as it is) would rapidly erode to

I am struck by the way in which in the market at large
there is a relentless ongoing pursuit to maximize
value. This does not mean that everyone everywhere is
always seeking to obtain as much value as possible,
but it does mean that entrepreneurs who offer greater
value than competitors can always find a niche in
which they will be successful. Idea futures would not
instantly change academia, but there would be at least
some suppliers of "knowledge and informed assessments"
who offered superior products and there would be at
least some consumers of "knowledge and informed
assessments" who would "purchase" such products
(philanthropically or as students).

These early adopters would recursively encourage the
exploration of new frontiers of value-added
intellectual advancement; new generations of such
suppliers and of such consumers would have ever-more
refined means of supply quality and perceiving

Perhaps some of our universities would adapt and
survive. Perhaps some would not. A new species of
institution might be created (like the joint-stock
company that you mention for pursuing a science
prize). We don't know what these new institutions
would look like, but they would be driven by the
pursuit of valid, "safe bet" knowledge in some manner
that is inconceivable to our current solipsistic
academic paradigm.

Indeed, such institutions would develop an incentive
to innovate ever better means of proving their
superiority over the dying universities. As they
obtained sufficient capital and talent, including
marketing and p.r. departments, they would find ways
to publicize their victories as compared to their
competitors. At some point thirty years from now,
perhaps "The Safe Bet Truth Corporation" (based in
China?) will challenge the Harvard faculty to a
comprehensive series of truth bets - and, in a high
profile case, blow them out of the water.

Tourists will nostalgically visit university campuses
much as they visit medieval cathedrals. And, just as
with medieval cathedrals, services will still be held
there, but the living power and prestige have gone