Scientific bets vs. scientific influence

Martin Rees and Steven Pinker have a new piece in New Statesman about their friendly bet from a number of years ago, on whether “bioterror or bioerror” would kill a million people in a single event within a 6-month period before 31 Dec. 2020. Rees bet yes, Pinker took the other side. The winner of the bet depends on whether the “lab leak” hypothesis for the origin of Covid-19 turns out to be true. (Here’s a brief overview of the evidence on that.)

I’m not so interested in Rees and Pinker’s piece; it’s mostly a generic popsci overview of tail risks in biomedical research. I presume the reason it’s in a fairly high-profile outlet like New Statesman is some combination of (i) Rees and Pinker are famous, and (ii) the betting angle.

I think the interplay of (i) and (ii) is kind of interesting. I’ve written a lot in the past about scientific bets, and their cousin, adversarial collaborations. The purported purpose of scientific bets, and adversarial collaborations, is to settle scientific disputes. The idea is that, by committing to one side of a claim, and to the evidence that would decide its truth, you tie your own hands. Making a public bet forces you to make a specific, unambiguous, checkable claim, and so forces you to admit if that claim is right or wrong. That’s the theory, anyway, but in practice it doesn’t work out that way. Based on the examples I know of, I don’t think scientific bets and adversarial collaborations actually settle disputes (case in point). I can’t think of a case in which the loser of a public scientific bet admitted to being in the wrong. People can always find some excuse to retroactively wriggle out of the bet, or out of the scientific implications of the bet.

But just because scientific bets don’t serve their purported purpose doesn’t mean they don’t serve some other purpose.

I think the main purpose of public scientific bets is to gain or maintain influence. The bettors might not care so much about winning or losing the bet. They mostly just want others to pay attention to them, and to whatever scientific issue they’re betting on. Which only works if you’ve already got some measure of influence, I think. I mean, if two scientists with no public profile had made the same bet as Rees and Pinker, would anyone else care?

But I wouldn’t criticize Rees and Pinker for making their bet, and then taking up an obvious opportunity to write about it in the New Statesman. Lots of scientists, from the most famous down to the most obscure, try to bring themselves and their ideas to the attention of others, in all sorts of ways. Different ways of doing that will be most effective for different people. As best I can tell, there’s not much agreement as to which ways of seeking attention and influence should be totally beyond the pale, if any.

So I think it’s fine for Rees and Pinker to make a public bet and then write about it. Just as I think it’s fine for me to write a quickie blog post about it. They’re doing what works for them, and I’m doing what works for me. 🙂

p.s. There is a meaty post from Brian in the queue for Monday! This post is like chips and dip, tiding you over until your next proper meal. 🙂

6 thoughts on “Scientific bets vs. scientific influence

  1. So my question is – does anything other than personal satisfaction come from scientists seeking to bring attention to themselves?

    • Does anything other than personal satisfaction come from scientists seeking to publish in journals many other scientists read? From blogging? Etc.? All those things certainly can bring attention and personal satisfaction to the scientists who do them. But they also can be done for other reasons and have other effects.

      Further, at some level a scientific field is defined by “who and what scientists pay attention to”. Which is why I’m not sure if or how one could draw a line between “scientists seeking attention”, and “scientists doing science”.

    • I mean, think of it this way: if you did science that you deliberately hid from the world, wouldn’t *that* science also lead to nothing but your own personal satisfaction? You can chase personal satisfaction by seeking attention, or avoiding attention.

      • All good points , Jeremy. I guess I am a little bothered by a trend in all things (art, science, philanthropy) for quality to be measured by ‘number of eyes on’. I suspect there’s a sweet spot and I’m not sure how to know it or find it.

  2. In physics at least, it’s not unusual for bets to be resolved and for the losers to be very gracious and believe whole-heartedly that they lost.

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