When you consider that our grouping instincts are optimized for 50-person hunter-gatherer bands where everyone knows everyone else, it begins to seem miraculous that modern-day large institutions survive at all.
Well—there are governments with specialized militaries and police, which can extract taxes. That's a non-ancestral idiom which dates back to the invention of sedentary agriculture and extractible surpluses; humanity is still struggling to deal with it.
There are corporations in which the flow of money is controlled by centralized management, a non-ancestral idiom dating back to the invention of large-scale trade and professional specialization.
And in a world with large populations and close contact, memes evolve far more virulent than the average case of the ancestral environment; memes that wield threats of damnation, promises of heaven, and professional priest classes to transmit them.
But by and large, the answer to the question "How do large institutions survive?" is "They don't!" The vast majority of large modern-day institutions—some of them extremely vital to the functioning of our complex civilization—simply fail to exist in the first place.
I first realized this as a result of grasping how Science gets funded: namely, not by individual donations.
Science traditionally gets funded by governments, corporations, and large foundations. I've had the opportunity to discover firsthand that it's amazingly difficult to raise money for Science from individuals. Not unless it's science about a disease with gruesome victims, and maybe not even then.
Why? People are, in fact, prosocial; they give money to, say, puppy pounds. Science is one of the great social interests, and people are even widely aware of this—why not Science, then?
Any particular science project—say, studying the genetics of trypanotolerance in cattle—is not a good emotional fit for individual charity. Science has a long time horizon that requires continual support. The interim or even final press releases may not sound all that emotionally arousing. You can't volunteer; it's a job for specialists. Being shown a picture of the scientist you're supporting at or somewhat below the market price for their salary, lacks the impact of being shown the wide-eyed puppy that you helped usher to a new home. You don't get the immediate feedback and the sense of immediate accomplishment that's required to keep an individual spending their own money.
Ironically, I finally realized this, not from my own work, but from thinking "Why don't Seth Roberts's readers come together to support experimental tests of Roberts's hypothesis about obesity? Why aren't individual philanthropists paying to test Bussard's polywell fusor?" These are examples of obviously ridiculously underfunded science, with applications (if true) that would be relevant to many, many individuals. That was when it occurred to me that, in full generality, Science is not a good emotional fit for people spending their own money.
In fact very few things are, with the individuals we have now. It seems to me that this is key to understanding how the world works the way it does—why so many individual interests are poorly protected—why 200 million adult Americans have such tremendous trouble supervising the 535 members of Congress, for example.
So how does Science actually get funded? By governments that think they ought to spend some amount of money on Science, with legislatures or executives deciding to do so—it's not quite their own money they're spending. Sufficiently large corporations decide to throw some amount of money at blue-sky R&D. Large grassroots organizations built around affective death spirals may look at science that suits their ideals. Large private foundations, based on money block-allocated by wealthy individuals to their reputations, spend money on Science which promises to sound very charitable, sort of like allocating money to orchestras or modern art. And then the individual scientists (or individual scientific task-forces) fight it out for control of that pre-allocated money supply, given into the hands of grant committee members who seem like the sort of people who ought to be judging scientists.
You rarely see a scientific project making a direct bid for some portion of society's resource flow; rather, it first gets allocated to Science, and then scientists fight over who actually gets it. Even the exceptions to this rule are more likely to be driven by politicians (moonshot) or military purposes (Manhattan project) than by the appeal of scientists to the public.
Now I'm sure that if the general public were in the habit of funding particular science by individual donations, a whole lotta money would be wasted on e.g. quantum gibberish—assuming that the general public somehow acquired the habit of funding science without changing any other facts about the people or the society.
But it's still an interesting point that Science manages to survive not because it is in our collective individual interest to see Science get done, but rather, because Science has fastened itself as a parasite onto the few forms of large organization that can exist in our world. There are plenty of other projects that simply fail to exist in the first place.
It seems to me that modern humanity manages to put forth very little in the way of coordinated effort to serve collective individual interests. It's just too non-ancestral a problem when you scale to more than 50 people. There are only big taxers, big traders, supermemes, occasional individuals of great power; and a few other organizations, like Science, that can fasten parasitically onto them.
I'd like to see some examples of types of large institutions that you believe should exist, but don't due to lack of coordination.
In conservation biology, flagship species play the role of cute puppies:
This is fighting a bias with a bias: people do not care as much as they should about conservation while they care too much of cute puppies. Science in general could adapt this technique: use "popular" subjects to attract funds to "good but unpopular" subjects.
If this is too much of the "dark side" for you, umbrella species might be more appropriate.
I'm not sure I'm following the logic here. The failure of science to raise money via voluntary means is evidence that it is too much of a non-ancestral problem?
Well, I'll agree that if we somehow had science as it exists now for a few hundred generations, we'd probably be better at funding it. But thats true of anything. Standard economics predicts that funding large-scale public goods is difficult via voluntary means, and public choice explains why its difficult for governments too. If you believe Coase this difficulty is a feature, not a bug, because it takes transaction (i.e., organizational) costs into account.
Of course, it shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone that a scientist is complaining that people don't fund enough science ;) To be honest, I don't know where I could donate money to science to make a difference. Its very hard for non-scientists to judge the feasibility of scientific projects. So much of science seems to be a complete and utter waste of smart people and resources.
One thing we can do is promote the use of prizes over normal funding.
As has been already mentioned, science of old was largely funded by individuals; scientists (or 'natural philosophers') were largely patrons of wealthy individuals. Presumably, this was because supporting an individual provides a good emotional fit (and thus serves as a good signal of status) in a way that funding pure research does not.
But individuals do fund science (at least in the US): individuals give pretty substantial amounts to universities, even if it's less overall than what's provided by governments.
As you sort of allude to later, the issue may be less that individuals don't fund science, as that they don't fund particular science. I would speculate that this is in no small part because we generally realize that we wouldn't be very good at picking particular science to fund, so we give general, and let other people decide exactly what projects to pursue. This opens the process up to lots of problems, but it's not obvious that it's worse than the feasible alternatives.
(In the same way, lots of people choose to give to generalist charities like Oxfam, rather than trying to evaluate specific projects for themselves, though (a) I suspect it's easier to tug people's heartstrings for charitable projects; and (b) people probably overestimate their knowledge of what works in charity more than in science.)
"But it's still an interesting point that Science manages to survive not because it is in our collective individual interest to see Science get done, but rather, because Science has fastened itself as a parasite onto the few forms of large organization that can exist in our world."
Can't it be both? It's not as if the government's support of science is completely unrelated to its being in our collective interest. It's awfully cynical simply to presume, without comment, that governments don't ultimately work for our collective interest (even if they can at times be very misguided).
More generally, this post seems full of lots of lines, like the above, that sort of seem true at first glance, but upon closer inspection are either quite banal, vacuous, or only questionably correct. How about some supporting evidence or arguments?
In the old days science was done by independently wealthy people, and how successful it was. Can today's scientists create profitable enterprises to fund their work? FHI is supposedly full of good programmers. Say, everyone works on a joint project half a week and does science the other half. Sounds like a real world application for the community's rationality and cooperation abilities, what do you say Eliezer?
The answer is, of course, that there was just as much shallow and awful music then as now. The difference is that what people think of as "classical" is the best of the past few hundred years. Those who compare hundreds of years of "classical" (which wasn't a single genre in any case) to fiftyish years of rock are comparing the best of one to the mediocre of the other. And these days, record labels are (tending to "were") a patronage system.
Don't think I haven't thought about it....
Obvious title: Night Is To Be Loved (in Latin: amanda nox).
Edit: Another piece I've contemplated writing: Paperclip Maximizer for contrabass clarinet.
An ad-hoc (more-or-less-)top-of-my-head sampler, if you're really curious (sorted alphabetically by composer and chronologically by work):
Babbitt: 1948, 1954, 1964, 1984 1992, 2003
Carter: 1955, 1980, 1971, rehearsal of a 1995 work
Ferneyhough: 1980, 1997, 2006, 2007
Westergaard: 1958, 2006
Wuorinen: 1971 1984, 1998
Folks like these are the intellectual (if not "cultural") heirs of the "standard canon". Some of them are as good as the three B's (most of them are at least at the level of say, Schumann or Mendelssohn), and all of them are currently living academics (or former academics).
(Then, in addition, there are the European non-academics like Boulez, etc.)
But much less rarely do people appreciate a good plane without study of aerospace engineering. Exceptions would be people who think "a good plane" is a plane with reclining seats and champagne, and the stealth bomber.
In this sense, people can and do appreciate the Beatles without study of musical theory, but rarely can they appreciate 'classical masters' without it. (Of course, this is blurred by cultural and social forces requiring you to signal enjoyment and admiration for the names Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc)
I think the key point is
and that in some cases (classical master), it requires understanding of the specific field to recognise the achievement, and in other cases (Beatles) it doesn't. Or rather, it relies on something that's already present in the vast majority of humans, and so isn't considered a specific field. The Beatles were playing on understandings that were already present; current masters are playing on understandings that require training.
I think people without the specific understandings conflat... (read more)
Is it your contention that modern musicians write Clasical minuets and Baroque fugues which are in some cases better than the best of the older works that are still listened to, but that no-one cares because much of the value of those works is in their role in a canon?
I could easily believe that in those cases, but I simply don't believe it in the case of Opera. The Opera cannon is just not very large. Some people have heard the whole thing and only like a few dozen operas. It doesn't seem likely that there isn't demand among such people for higher quality new material in old styles, so if no new material is becoming popular then the un-met demand makes me think that contemporary music students are failing to produce work that this audience actually values due to now knowing how to replicate the merits of older compositions.
It should really be pretty easy to do a controlled experiment with a naive population to see how common it is for modern artists to be able to impress an audience as much as their 18th and 19th century precursors did.
I'm seriously interested in someone performing some experiments on this subject. It seems to me that it would provide an extremely practi... (read more)
I went to a few lectures on mathematical music theory once. I've forgotten most of it, but I recall learning that most of the music I can enjoy (pre-1900 Western classical, 20th century pop and rock) is, structurally, confined to a very special case among all the possible scales that a music system could be built on. Someone like Schoenberg is to all the other music I listen to, as Mars is to all the different continents of the earth.
(Aside: remember the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where the aliens communicate in music? I saw it again recently, and it cracked me up, because it was obviously trying to sound "alien" but it really wasn't. It sounded like the tricky part of a Leonard Bernstein piece. There's much more "alien" music right here on this planet!)
So I think Beethoven really might have been more accessible to the listeners of his day than contemporary classical music is to us. Beethoven, at least, wrote his symphonies in the same key as an ordinary folk ditty. (Sometimes he even kept the ditty!)
I'm not sure how possible it is to adapt one's ear so that a totally new scale sounds pleasant. I can't listen to much classical music past Stravinsky and get any pleasure out of it. But then again, I first listened to Indian classical music in adolescence, and that has a completely different structure than Western music, and it sounded good to me instantly, no inferential distance at all.
In addition to the emotional issues you raise, there's the question of thresholds and scalability. If the puppy program already exists, giving $10 will help more puppies. But, for many scientific research projects, there's no point in even starting with less than $100K in hand. That could be $10 each from 10,000 people. An easy decision, perhaps, for the 9999th person, but who wants to give the first $10?
Elsewhere I've suggested "Social Escrow" as a solution. You pledge a certain amount, contingent on enough other people doing so and perha... (read more)
"But by and large the answer to the question "How do people maintain the functioning of their bodies" is "They don't!" The vast majority of people - some of them extremely skilled in medicine and physiology - simply fail to exist in the first place."
Managing to misunderstand a question you yourself ask is a pretty impressive feat.
Just the weekend before last I was hearing a scientist say "we have 30 projects we know, know, will give good results. That's not even counting the worthy speculative work. We can fund: maybe five."
Science as an institution is absolutely poverty-bound. Find a way of getting it a bigger bite of GDP, and the speedup could be immense.
Find a way to give it a bigger bite of GDP, and new bureaucrats will arise to seize the money for worthless projects, generating more noise in the journals? We could be in a situation analogous to the situation in some countries where giving money to beggars just reallocates more of the economy to begging without increasing the income of the average beggar.
No doubt some of the marginal money would be wasted, but that's always true and is true now. Science is and would be worth it even if the haircut was immense, and I don't see a reason that the additional spending would be that much more wasted.
Also, the begging scenario you describe isn't particuarly scary. If giving more money to scientists meant there were more scientists each with the same funding levels we have now, that seems like a perfectly fine outcome. If it meant there were more fundraisers seeking money for science and each raised the same quantity of funds, that also seems like a fine outcome.
You're only looking at funds for "Science" that get used for something useful. How much of the funds are used suboptimally or completely wasted? Pretty much every funding (science, charities, government etc.) except for capitalist free market (and even that only in case where there's little potential for abuse) is extremely inefficiently spent, as there's no optimization mechanism based on results, so it's optimized for some very indirect proxies (number of publications, emotional appeal, political interest). Basic research almost by definition doesn't have anything to directly optimize on. So no - just giving "Science" more money wouldn't necessarily improve everyone's well-being.
I cannot think of any plausible mechanism how basic research can be funded in a self-optimizing manner. Prediction markets on its long term impact? That's the best I can think of, but considering how unproven real world prediction markets are even in far easier cases I wouldn't really have high hopes for that.
This kind of thing is often considered one of the main roles of government: funding important projects on a constant basis over a long period of time. It's hard to fund those with charity; charity funding tends to be inconsistent over time, and people who do give to charity are likely to give to whatever cause is "popular" that year. I wouldn't want to try to fund "maintenance of one specific bridge every year over the next 50 years" with just charitable contributions from people who use that bridge and benefit from it, because some ... (read more)
I'd love to see a followup post on these modern day institutions that don't exist. So much of our environment and experience is dominated by our tribal instincts that it is diffiucult to picture which institutions would exist were we somewhat more rational.
As I understand it, this is supposed to be one of the things government is for - to coordinate spending when trying to do these things privately would suffer from a free rider problem. I try not to talk about politics on here - mind-killer and all that - but one way to address this would be to try to improve the rationality of voters. I increasingly believe that preparing people to be participants in a democracy should be the primary function of schools.
The concept of a large modern-day institution that fails to exist strikes me as bizarre and incoherent. Is the idea a large institution that could exist if we were somehow able to twiddle causal factor X Judea-Pearl-style? (If so, it immediately poses the question of what causal factor X is for any specific proposed non-existent institution.)
No, seriously! How can Eliezer say that when they obviously do? For example, many countries are more than a hundred years old.
In some Greek myth there's a fleet heading off to war - an important endeavor, involving a group of more than 50 people - but they get held up by some bad weather. After exhausting all the usual remedies, the fleet's leadership determines that the gods have to be appeased by some extreme measure, so he summons his daughter from home and sacrifices her. It's all very sad, but it works; the storm abates and the war can proceed.
Have we considered encouraging people to donate to science in a similar way? Not r... (read more)
It's quite possible to raise money for microgrants (c. one-paycheck amount) for young scientists. From individuals. And then keep it up year in and year out. And add more subcategories (e.g., a friend of mine started with a single grant for both botanists and zoologists, then a year later there were two, and now other people started running their own and we have four.)
You can't fund big science this way, but people do pay money. You probably can't raise money for any kind of science, but it's not a general rule at the very least.
Old post, but I want to chip in some data regardless.
Science which can be done by nonspecialists gets wide participation. For example, the Audubon Society's annual Great Backyard Bird Count draws more than 150k participants per year: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/about-great-backyard-bird-count
I agree with your general point about funding Science. I agree with your general point about there being more potentially beneficial large scale institutions than actually exist.
I think that there are a small handful of additional types of large organizations which do manage to exist in addition to the types you've listed: