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The natural selection of conservative science.

  • Author(s): O'Connor, Cailin
  • et al.

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Social epistemologists have argued that high risk, high reward science has an important role to play in scientific communities. Recently, though, it has also been argued that various scientific fields seem to be trending towards conservatism-the increasing production of what Kuhn (1962) might have called 'normal science'. This paper will explore a possible explanation for this sort of trend: that the process by which scientific research groups form, grow, and dissolve might be inherently hostile to such science. In particular, I employ a paradigm developed by Smaldino and McElreath (2016) that treats a scientific community as a population undergoing selection. As will become clear, perhaps counter-intuitively this sort of process in some ways promotes high risk, high reward science. But, as I will point out, risky science is, in general, the sort of thing that is hard to repeat. While more conservative scientists will be able to train students capable of continuing their successful projects, and so create thriving lineages, successful risky science may not be the sort of thing one can easily pass on. In such cases, the structure of scientific communities selects against high risk, high rewards projects. More generally, this project makes clear that there are at least two processes to consider in thinking about how incentives shape scientific communities-the process by which individual scientists make choices about their careers and research, and the selective process governing the formation of new research groups.

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