Thursday, December 5, 2019

Science Demands a Sacrifice!

So I've been pretty focused on the literature about fascists that I almost feel like I'm not an economist anymore. To combat that, I've decided to read more of the economic literature. Obviously, I'm still going to read what I'm interested in, but my research interests have gotten...weird. I combed through the American Economic Review until I found a title that interested me. It's about scientists dying. I picked the one about scientists dying.

In Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time? economists Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Joshua S. Graff Zivin seek to answer the question asked by their title. They find that, on average, yes, the death of star scientists prompts publishing and funding shifts, suggestive of a shift away from their ideas.

Despite the ingenuity of their research design, the trio evidences a remarkable lack of familiarity with the philosophy of science literature in which this article ought to be embedding itself. Apart from Kuhn, the trio does not seem familiar with any of the philosophy of science literature or the economic methodology literature that it has spawned. In any case, the trio is only concerned with testing a passing observation of physicist Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Using the life sciences literature, the economists test whether the death of star scientists shift the publishing composition of the subfields they are in. They identify 12,935 individuals, comprising about 5% of the labor market and conclude that their deaths, on average, prompted entry from subfield outsiders and a diminished contribution from former collaborators with growth to the subfield overall.

I'm not sure how I feel about empirical approaches to the philosophy of science. On the one hand, as with empirical approaches in general, they allow for greater and more systematic descriptivity than heuristic approaches allow. On the other hand, assumptions made for the sake of convenience can delude researchers into believing very strong conclusions that may only be weakly supported by their research design. This may be the case for the trio's paper given the criteria they needed to craft to construct a data set of star scientists.