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The Epistemic Benefit of Transient Diversity

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Abstract

There is growing interest in understanding and eliciting division of labor within groups of scientists. This paper illustrates the need for this division of labor through a historical example, and a formal model is presented to better analyze situations of this type. Analysis of this model reveals that a division of labor can be maintained in two different ways: by limiting information or by endowing the scientists with extreme beliefs. If both features are present however, cognitive diversity is maintained indefinitely, and as a result agents fail to converge to the truth. Beyond the mechanisms for creating diversity suggested here, this shows that the real epistemic goal is not diversity but transient diversity.

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Notes

  1. When defending alternatives to the classic interpretation of quantum mechanics, Feyerabend succinctly declares, “It takes time to build a good theory” (1968, p. 150).

  2. Feyerabend is perhaps the most extreme in this regard. He says, “This plurality of theories must not be regarded as a preliminary stage of knowledge that will at some time in the future be replaced by the ‘one true theory.’" (1965, p. 149). But even in papers of this era (1965, 1968), he does not advocate holding onto inferior theories indefinitely.

  3. This result is explicitly impossible in the models considered by Kitcher and Strevens. In their models a theory succeeds or fails and this success or failure is known by all agents.

  4. Although, bismuth (an antimicrobial) had been used to treat ulcers dating as far back as 1868, the first report of an antibiotic occurs in 1951 (Unge 2002).

  5. Marshall speculates that the long delay between the reports of his own discovery and the widespread acceptance of the bacterial hypothesis were (partially) the result of the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies (Marshall 2002). While this may be an example of pathological science, the dismissal of the bacterial hypothesis from 1954 to 1985 probably is not.

  6. For the interested reader, Paul Thagard (1998a, b) presents a discussion of the relationship between this episode and the history of science which considers different philosophical aspects of the history.

  7. For example, a recent study on the effect of circumcision on the transmission of HIV was stopped in order to offer circumcision to the control group because the effect was found to be very significant in the early stages of research.

  8. Nothing requires that we limit ourselves in this way. The models described later in this paper have a larger set of possible outcomes.

  9. This point is due to a conversation with Michael Weisberg and Ryan Muldoon. They present a rather different model of scientific practice which centrally models science in this way (Weisberg and Muldoon 2008).

  10. Although evidence is always arriving, what evidence arrives depends on the actions taken by individual scientist. Their actions, depend, in turn, on what their beliefs are about the efficacy of different methodologies. This represents a violation of the “relative autonomy of facts” which is criticized by Feyerabend (1965, 1968).

  11. The chose of [0, 4] was chosen so that the initial beliefs do not swamp even a single experimental result.

  12. Each trial represents 1,000 “pulls”, which have a 0.5 and 0.499 probability of “winning” respectively.

  13. These results are qualitatively similar to the results obtained by Zollman (2007) in studying a more limited model. This lends additional support to the conclusion that bandit problem-like situations information is not uniformly helpful.

  14. A similar sentiment is echoed by David Hull (1988, 32) and Miriam Solomon (1992).

  15. In this case α and β are drawn from a uniform distribution on [0,7000].

  16. For a rather different discussion of the two sides of this debate see (Laudan 1984).

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Brian Skyrms, Kyle Stanford, Jeffrey Barrett, Bruce Glymour, Sam Hillier, Samir Grover, Kevin Kelly, Teddy Seidenfeld, Michael Strevens, Michael Weisberg, Ryan Muldoon, several contributors at the Wikipedia reference desk, and the anonymous referees for their assistance. Code for the simulations can be obtained from the author’s website: http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/users/kzollman/.

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Correspondence to Kevin J. S. Zollman.

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Zollman, K.J.S. The Epistemic Benefit of Transient Diversity. Erkenn 72, 17–35 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-009-9194-6

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