Discover more from Fresh Economic Thinking
Can Fresh Economic Thinking become a new science institution?
My thoughts on how trust changes where science happens
This is a speech that I delivered on 19 November 2023 at the Australian’s for Science and Freedom conference in Sydney, Australia. It was intended to share insights about trust in science and the role of new independent researchers on Substack and elsewhere.
Why do we have our existing science institutions? If they are degrading, as many think, how can new science institutions be successful?
I will share some thoughts on these questions and a couple of examples I have come across of I think can be called embryonic 21st-century institutions of science.
Science is social
My answer to these questions starts with the observation that science is not a lone endeavour. Science is of course a process of experimentation, analysis, and prediction. But if you experiment by yourself in the garage and never tell anyone, never get that social feedback, is that science?
Two big social functions of science are:
Communicating and sharing useful knowledge with other scientists
Passing on knowledge via teaching
Collective social action requires coordination. Institutions coordinate. They do this by lowering the cost of verifying communication via the currency of trust. Yes, institutions need a bank balance to operate. But institutions exist and survive on a “trust balance” as well. The beauty of the institution is that money AND trust is pooled amongst members and passed on into the future.
Consider the Wild West situation of many individuals experimenting and testing theories of science. I show in this image people undifferentiated in their reliability, all working independently on the non-social aspects of science—experimentation, analysis, and prediction.
In the Wild West it takes a lot of effort for anyone to work out which person reporting the results from their garage is reliable and trustworthy.
Anybody can tell me something. Anyone can publish something. Remember when the internet was new the main mantra was: “Don’t just trust anything from the internet”. It was the Wild West. It was expensive and time-consuming to learn who to trust.
Learned societies, guilds, businesses and what we call think tanks, are all institutions that trade in trust. Universities became a place where economies of scale could function as well. The trust balance of those organisations was earned over a long time as their information went through the costly process of testing and found to be reliable by others. Their methods would work. The more they work, the more the institution becomes trusted.
With a range of trusted institutions, we no longer have the Wild West of pre-science. We can go to the library, read textbooks from reputable authors working in reputable universities published by reputable publishers and immediately and cheaply trust the information. Perhaps I read from an academic journal, trusting these institutions and their peer review.
Universities often inherited trust from governments, royalty, and key benefactors, as well as building trust over time by offering verifiable predictions and theories over centuries, and in doing so attracting the greatest minds to add to the trust balance. They even built physical expressions of trustworthiness and timelessness.
Trust solves the problem of determining which theories are reliable and should be taught to the next generation.
For those seeking out knowledge, part of the value is in demonstrating to others that I possess useful knowledge. Perhaps I could learn more about a topic than most people who get an undergraduate degree at a reputable university from online resources, but who would believe me?
“You’ve had no formal training”. This phrase reveals the power behind the trust held by science institutions.
But trust can be abused.
Few would disagree that the behaviour of many academics within our institutions during COVID allowed many of us to peek behind the curtain, revealing that some of the trust we had was misplaced. Internal, personal and political incentives led to censorship—completely in opposition to the social task of science. More broadly, trust is degrading in areas like psychology with its replication crisis, in economics with growing cases of fraud, and in nutrition and health science which are regularly hijacked by financial conflicts. For every useful and verifiable prediction that grows the trust balance, there are useless and wrong ones that subtract from it.
Some individuals have left universities, taking their personal trust balance with them.
This decline in trust within existing institutions opens up the market to new competitors who can build new trusted institutions that fulfil the social role of science.
Taking trust from individuals to new institutions
New institutions will start with the trust balances of their founders.
Robert Brennan mentioned yesterday that new institutions come from “forming high trust nodes and networks involving real people” and then trying to “scale it up .”
But those steps are tricky. Institutions require trust, and trust requires consensus amongst the members. In a conflict between building the trust balance or building the bank balance, members of the institution must enforce the consensus of building trust in science.
Playing dirty, fraud and financial influence should all be pushed out by a consensus of members. Any effective new science institution must have consensus beliefs about what honest scientific analysis means. ASF is building a consensus about such beliefs.
With that background in mind, I want to turn to the mechanics of how trusted people are at the early stages of forming new science institutions.
An initial ingredient is to keep up the trust balance as an individual without institutional backing. A citizen researcher. A citizen journalist. We have many here. However, maintaining the trust balance requires a bank balance.
The idea that you can earn a living with only 1,000 true fans, outlined in a famous 2008 essay by Kevin Kelly, is useful to understand here. A true fan is willing to give you over $100 per year—whether that’s subscriptions, merchandise profits, paying for courses or any other product. One thousand true fans will get you $100,000 plus per year, which should be enough to sustain trust-building science.
Many newly independent and trusted researchers are coalescing around Substack as a tool for building trust and bank balances. The Substack system allows subscription payments while avoiding censorship and saving time.
It’s not an academic journal, but when trusted individuals use this tool it can perform a similar function. The newsletter of the New Zealand Association of Economists (NZAE) is called Asymmetric Information and is hosted on Substack. It’s not a stretch for this publication to become an outlet for new research results, carrying over the trust of the existing association to this new institution.
Here are some examples of individuals at early stages of building their trust balance and bank balances while doing science.
The Intrinsic Perspective
Erik Hoel is a neuroscientist who has left academia and writes full-time on Substack. He writes “I’ve come to believe I can do more original and meaningful intellectual work outside of academia.” I don’t think statement is always true. But I think it is more true in recent years in certain fields.
Erik is likely to sustain his trust balance and his income independently. He shows the value of the 1,000 true fans approach. With over 30,000 subscribers, a 3% paid sign-up rate gets to 1,000 true fans.
Another example is Sensible Medicine, which was started by a team of doctors, including the prolific Vinay Prasad. Each has substantial personal trust balances, which they built within established institutions. They have over 74,000 people subscribed to read their analysis.
Our goal is a showcase of a range of ideas and opinions, and we may disagree with each other. Once upon a time, that was how progress occurred. We hope to return to vigorous dialogue.
As a group, they have a large trust balance, and they use it to be bold—calling out bad analysis, poor science, conflicts of incentives, and more. When they get it right, their trust balance rises further and passes to this new institution an on to others who join it.
Given the influence of pharmaceuticals and other financial interests in the health sector, it may be a field with a large market for more of these new trusted science communication outlets.
I wonder if Vinay and his mates could turn this embryonic communication institution into a new education institution. Could they also attract funding and conduct original research without needing their other university affiliations? I don’t know. In my view, it’s a path they could take with the trust balance they have.
Slime Mold Time Mold
An interesting case is not on Substack but has some Patreon supporters and is called Slime Mold Time Mold. It’s an anonymous sibling duo of researchers, likely working within existing universities, which is tricky for trust. But their writing speaks for itself.
The interesting lesson from this example is that they are doing research studies into diets and weight loss and sharing them via their new trusted institution. Their potassium diet trial had 233 participants and their famous potato diet trial had 53. Not bad for the standards of the discipline.
The results are published directly on their website. Their trust balance is high enough that these research findings won’t be ignored but be reviewed, cited, and tested by others.
Ben van Kerkwyk is trained formally in computer science by our trusted university institutions but is a self-taught archeologist. He’s Aussie (I don’t know him). I know him because he has built his trust balance online with a YouTube channel called Uncharted X about ancient societies and specifically, the engineering realities of ancient sites.
He has built trust with local guides and others, mostly outside the established university departments.
This case is interesting because of what he has done with that trust.
First, so high is his trust, that private collectors are willing to provide their ancient artefacts to him for inspections. He has teamed up with an engineering firm to conduct high-precision measurements of these collector’s artefacts and published the results online via his website. No need for academic journals here.
He is so trusted that established institutions will be forced to take him seriously, acknowledge and build on his research on artefact measurement, further building his trust balance. His science will be passed down by those institutions.
A second thing he does is run in-person expeditions to ancient sites. This further builds trust and builds his in-person network. I will speculate that this could be “formalised” into a branded educational experience.
Young psychologist Adam Mastroianni is another who has branched out to do their science exclusively at Substack.
The main reason to mention him as a case study is that even he believes that the education role of science needs to be done in person. The idea here he calls Science House, which is when a small number of trusted individuals pool that trust into a small new physical institution, specialising in their field, and using that trust to attract interested students.
That like-minded people leaving established institutions are thinking of rolling their trust into new research houses in particular fields suggests to me it is a promising avenue. Of course, a trick is to convince high-quality trusted students who will be well-served by existing universities to give that up for a niche science house educational experience.
Astral Codex Ten
Scott Siskind, writing as Scott Alexander, is a psychiatrist who built his trust online blogging anonymously about philosophy and science since 2013. In 2020 he shut it down after word of a New York Times piece on him.
“It is the one place I know of online where you can have civil conversations among people with a wide range of views,” said David Friedman, an economist and legal scholar who was a regular part of the discussion.
Now, Scott has rolled his trust balance into attracting a funding stream, from subscribers and wealthy philanthropists, and is using that to fund science with the ACX grants. In 2021 he gave out over $500,000 of grants and is building more networks to raise more funds to growth the program.
Fresh Economic Thinking
The above examples are a tiny sample of a larger trend of taking trust balances of individuals from established institutions and starting the social aspects of science anew.
My attempt at rolling individual trust into a new science institution is called Fresh Economic Thinking. Since these approaches are new, I find it best to call it a one-man think-tank.
Where I differ is that in 2024 I will offer “formal” economics courses. These will be initially aimed at the professional development market, where I have high trust and where there is demand for short courses and plenty of well-funded potential students.
The idea is to keep my trust balance inherited from universities topped up with mainstream media appearances, a new book published by a trusted publisher, and continue my work with trusted professional bodies.
One challenge I’ve encountered is the trade-off between the trust consensus and openness. People occasionally ask to publish something on Fresh Economic Thinking. But the more open I am to this, the less I build my trust balance. Because I build trust if I am right, not open.
Another tension is between trust balance and bank balances. When you rely on clicks, audience capture, where you change what you say to please the readers and attract more clicks, feels very real. It’s the same tension that can undermine trust within existing universities. So I think we need to be clear about the always delicate nature of trust balances and incentives.
I don’t know what a one-man science institution will ultimately look like. But I can see many others taking similar paths. It is likely that, like in many markets, new competitors will merge. That’s one avenue for bigger and more robust institutions that can outlive the trusted individuals that created them.
Returning to my visualisation of institutions organising the social aspects of science, this is what the formation of new institutions built from the trust of others looks like to me.
To wrap up, my view is that because science has social functions it happens in trusted institutions. I think the lens of a trust balance that grows via reliable predictions and useful ideas is useful.
The idea of a trust balance is I think useful for understanding how people can take their trust and use it to build new institutions for science, even starting from the smallest of beginnings, as the examples have shown.
Lastly, I hope it is clear that trust is delicate. There is a tension between trust and the consensus it requires, a tension between trust and openness, and a tension between trust balances and bank balances.
If I am right, then if these ideas are useful and help you make reliable predictions, this will only help build my trust in my new science institution.
Advertisement – Fat Tail Investment Research
Fresh Economic Thinking is reader-supported (thank you). I will also post advertisements from time to time.
Fat Tail Investment Research is an Aussie outfit that publishes research on a range of investment options. The people there have been readers of my work for many years.
Sign up for free using this link for their investment insights about stocks that historically pay a consistent income AND could deliver capital growth.
Thank you for reading Fresh Economic Thinking. Please subscribe and share this article.
Paid subscriptions are available, but for now, only get you good vibes. In 2024, better things are coming. My new book, The Great Housing Hijack, will be released and with your help, Fresh Economic Thinking will evolve into Australia's newest think tank.