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What's Wrong with Invisible-Hand Explanations?

Author(s): David L. Hull

Source: Philosophy of Science, Vol. 64, Supplement. Proceedings of the 1996 Biennial Meetings
of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers (Dec., 1997), pp. S117-S126
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association
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What's Wrong with Invisible-Hand
David L. Hulltl

An invisiblehand seems to play an importantrole in science.In this paper I set out the
generalstructureof invisible-handexplanations,countersome objectionsthat havebeen
raised to them, and detail the role that they play in science. The most importantissue
is the characterof the mechanisms that are supposed to bring about invisible-hand

1. Introduction.In the midst of all the debunking of science that is

currentlyfashionable, we tend to lose sight of the fact that sciencehas
been and continues to be more successful than any other social insti-
tution in attaining its stated goals. That some critics wish that science
had goals different from the ones that it has is another matter. Of
course, sciencedoes not have to work all that well to be more successful
than any other social institution in attaining its stated goals. It does
not take much to work better than our legal system, Congress, or ac-
ademia for that matter. At worst, science is the tallest midget in the
freak show.
A few years back, I publisheda book (Hull 1988) in which I argued
that part of the explanationfor sciencebeing so successfulcan be found
in its social organization, and the most important part of this social
organization is a mechanism that is commonly termed "invisible-
hand." In utilizing invisible-handexplanations, I did not reason from
economics to the social structureof science, nor did I attempt to gain
supportfor my views by alludingto economics. I was awareat the time

tDepartment of Philosophy, NorthwesternUniversity,Evanston, IL 60208.

{I would like to thank Toni Carey, Arthur Diamond, Peter Godfrey-Smith,D. Wade
Hands, Alistair M. Macleod, Philip Mirowski, J. Tim O'Meara, George Reisch, and
Miriam Solomon for readingand commentingon early drafts of this paper.
Philosophy of Science, 64 (Proceedings) pp. S117-S126. 0031-8248/97/64supp-0011$0.00
Copyright 1997 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.


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that invisible-handexplanationshad somewhat of a tarnishedreputa-

tion in the social sciences, but I did not realize how tarnisheduntil I
read the reviews of my book. For example, Miriam Solomon (1995,
294) characterizedinvisible-handviews of science such as mine "opti-
mistic fantasies" (see also Solomon 1996). Other participantsin this
symposium add to these criticisms,especially subsequentattempts to
model such processesin a semi-quantitativeway (for an excellentsum-
mary of my views as well as socially concernedcriticisms,see Ylikoski
Because of these criticismsI have been led to look more closely at
invisible-handexplanations.What are invisible-handexplanations,and
what is wrong with them?In this paper I begin by presentinga general
analysis of invisible-handexplanations,then set out the invisible-hand
mechanismthat functions in science, and finally see how this invisible-
hand mechanismfits my general analysis.

2. Invisible-HandExplanationsin Their Causal Context. In the philo-

sophical literature,invisible-handexplanationsare a special sort of ex-
planation in terms of unintendedconsequences.Individualsbehavethe
way that they do in order to bring about one goal and in the process
bring about some other unintendedconsequenceas well. In the typical
case, the intended goals are calculated to benefit the individual,while
the unintended consequences have a more general effect. Sometimes
the unintended consequences are good, sometimes bad. In Adam
Smith's (1776, 129-130) classic example, agents pursuing their own
individual gain result in the realization of an unintended benefit for
themselves and others. Conversely, the tragedy of the commons is an
exampleof an "invisible-hand"explanationthat has bad consequences.
Although none of the farmersusing the commons intend to destroyit,
that is what they do (Hardin 1977). If invisible-handexplanationsare
optimistic fantasies, then apparentlythe tragedy of the commons is a
pessimistic fantasy, though no one has yet to call it that, possibly be-
cause the phenomenon is all too apparent.
However, in the economic literature,the distinction betweeninten-
tional and non-intentionalbehavioris of secondaryimportance.What
really matters is that the invisible hand must move a system toward
equilibrium. If invisible-handexplanations are limited only to those
systems that are moving toward or are at equilibrium,then they cer-
tainly do not apply very well to the course of science. One of the most
important features of science is that it changes and, it is hoped, will
continue to change. Particulartheories may well come to map a par-
ticular sort of naturalphenomenamore and more accurately,but such
periods are occasionally interruptedby spasms of fundamentalchange

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that restructurethat area of science from the bottom up. The history
of science does not look much like a movement toward equilibrium.
In addition, Mirowski(1994, 566) complainsthat invisiblehandsare
introduced primarily to compensate for treating scientists as if they
were marooned Robinson Crusoes, when in actuality scientists form
researchgroups of varyingdegreesof integration.If economic theories
lack any significantidea of "the social," then economics is in real trou-
ble. But invisible-handexplanationsneed not treatscientistsas hermits.
All that is necessaryis that sometimes these individualsact in relative
autonomy from each other with respect to the general good at issue
and that, within the groups that they form, an important concern is
looking out for themselves.
Severalauthors have also noted that invisible-handexplanationsof-
ten result from differencesbetweenappearanceand reality.A phenom-
enon that appearsto have been brought about by someone'sintention
actually was not. It was an unintendedconsequence of human inten-
tions. Conversely, sometimes what appears not to have been brought
about by anyone's intention actuallywas. How could all the electricity
on the east coast of America go out as it did a few years back?Either
some evil cabal was responsibleor else a whole seriesof flukesproduced
the shutdown.People who have a much higheropinion of the foresight,
understandingand competence of their fellow human beings than I
have are prone to such conspiracytheories. I myself tend to preferthe
second alternative. In any case, Nozick (1974, 19) terms conspiracy-
theory explanations"hidden-hand"in contrast to "invisible-hand"ex-
planations. In this paper, I limit myself to invisible-handexplanations.
The real problem with invisible-handexplanations is the specifica-
tion of the mechanismthat is supposed to bringabout the result(Pettit
1996,Ylikoski 1995).As Ullmann-Margalit(1978, 267-268) concludes,
the onus of invisible-handexplanations "lies on the process, or mech-
anism, that aggregates the dispersed individual actions into the pat-
terned outcome: it is the degree to which this mechanism is explicit,
complex, sophisticated-and, indeed, in a sense unexpected-that de-
termines the success and interest of the invisible-handexplanation."
Can the mechanismsresponsiblefor this behaviorin sciencebe set out
explicitly?Are these mechanismsadequate to bring about the effects I
claim for science, or do they merely appeal to mysteriouscoincidences
that serve only to paper over these anomalous states of affairs(Geertz
1973, 206)?
In sum, invisible-hand explanations are offered in human affairs
when individualsbehave the way that they do in order to bring about
their own self-centeredgoals and in the processbringabout some other
unintendedmore general consequence for a largergroup of people of

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which they are part. In the remainderof this paper I set out what I
take to be the mechanismsthat are responsiblefor the peculiarepiste-
mic characterof science and argue that these conditions are frequently
realizedin science as it has been practicedfor the past couple hundred
years in the West. I begin with some uncontroversial observations
about science and scientists-not about all scientists all the time but
about scientists when they are being the most successfulin coming to
understandthe world in which we live.

3. A Social Structureof Science. As science dribbledinto existence, it

rapidly became a winner-take-allmarket (Frank and Cook 1995). In
orderto force scientiststo make theirachievementspublic so that other
scientists could use them, the convention developed that the first to
make a discovery public gets all the credit. In addition, science (like
basketball and ballet) is a high resolution activity. Most of the credit
goes to a small percentage of scientists, and scientists do want credit
for their contributions. They want other scientists not only to notice
their work but also to use it, preferablywith a few generouscitations.
Scientists cite the work of other scientists in part to give credit where
credit is due but also in part to lend support for their own views.
Thus, scientists are caught in a bind. They want their work to be
accepted,but they also want it to appearas originalas possible. Show-
ing that it flows naturallyfrom the well-establishedwork of one's con-
temporariesis likely to increasethe likelihood that it will be accepted,
but such a practice automatically detracts from its originality. Con-
versely, omitting any referenceto the work of others makes one's own
work look more original but also decreases the likelihood that one's
fellow scientistswill take it seriouslyenough to incorporateit into their
own work. Even if they do, they are likely to be as generouswith their
citations as you were with yours.
Of course, mutual citation is far from an infallible guide to either
influence or credit, but it can serve as the sort of rough and ready
operationalizationthat is so common in science. Some authors seem
to expect the study of science to be more precise and conclusive than
science itself is. In addition, citations can be found in a variety of pro-
fessions other than science, including philosophy. The conventions of
science go a good deal deeper that just mutual citation. Replication is
crucial. Although scientists do not test each other's results as often as
some naive commentators seem to think that they should (Collins
1985), replicationdoes occur in science (Parascandola1995).
In fact, one of the definingcharacteristicsof science is the ability to
test the claims made by scientists about the naturalworld, and one of
its strengths is that not all such claims have to be tested. Scientists

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amass lots of data, some of it fairly isolated, but they also devise the-
ories that organize data and entail all sorts of conclusions about what
should be the case. Any error fed into the system is likely sooner or
later to produceerroneousresultssomewhere.If scientistshad to check
each and every result before incorporatingit into their own work, sci-
ence would slow to a crawl. However, as Mirowski has pointed out to
me, the social structureof science not only serves to reduce errorbut
also helps scientists to function successfully even in the presence of
Scientists are not peculiar in that they are constantly enjoined to
adhereto the strictestcanons of their discipline.Such invocationsmay
have some positive effect on how scientists behave, but in other areas
of human endeavor, comparable calls to do one's duty do not come
close to being sufficientto bring about the stated goals of the discipline.
Although appeals to duty certainlyhave some effect, it always helps if
individualsdo not have to sacrificetheir individualgoals for the good
of the group. Social systems work much better when virtue and indi-
vidual benefit go hand in hand. Once again, scientists are in a bind.
They would like to conduct their researchas quickly as possible, to get
their resultsout sooner than anyone else so that they can get the credit.
But the chief credit in science, the currencythat really matters, is use.
Scientistsdo not use the results of other scientistsidly. In adoptingthe
views of other scientists or using their data, scientists are voting with
their careers(Quillian 1994, 437). One of the most importantfeatures
of use as a criterion of worth is that only practicing scientists can assign
it. Nonscientists play many significant roles in science, but only sci-
entists functioning as scientistscan use the work of other scientistsby
incorporatingit into their own work.
As mentioned previously, scientists almost never test the results of
other scientistsbefore using them. However,if things startgoing wrong
with their own research,scientistsbegin searchingto see what the prob-
lem is. If the errors can be traced back to your work, you are in real
trouble. Citations may well give credit where credit is due, but they
also leave paper trails for assigningblame as well. With the possibility
of credit comes the possibility of discredit. One effect of uncovering
mistakes in the work of other scientists is increasedcare in using the
work of these scientists in the future. In fact, often one egregious in-
stance is enough for a group of aggrievedscientists to cease using the
work of those scientistsfound guilty.
Because scientists are invested in their own work, they are not all
that good at discoveringerrorsin their own pet hypotheses, but other
scientists are more than happy to fill the gap. Scientists get very little
creditfor replicatingother scientists'experiments,but they do get credit

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for discoveringmistakesin the work of others,especiallyif this research

is taking place in one of the "hot" areas of science.The rushto publish,
when properly constrained,increasesthe pace of science. The monitor
on this pace is the punishmentmeted out to those scientistswho pro-
duce unreliableresults. Some errorsare more understandablethan oth-
ers, but any errorimpedes the researchof anyone who uses it.
Failure to include appropriatecitations hurts the careersof the sci-
entists who are not cited. Erroneousresultshurt the careersof anyone
who uses them. Thus, with respectto error(not fraud!),sciencecan be
viewed as a self-policingsystemof mutual exploitationor, if you prefer,
cooperation. It is also the only self-policing profession that actually
polices itself to any significantextent. As Ziman (1994, 180) remarks,
this systemis "notjust a quaint tribalcustom:it is the social mechanism
by which reliablescientificknowledge is generatedand evolves."
4. Invisible-HandExplanationsin Science. The first differencebetween
Smith's invisible hand and science as a social activity is that scientists
frequentlyclaim to have higher goals in mind. They are not interested
in such paltry rewardsas citations, researchgrants and Nobel prizes.
They are interestedprimarilyin knowledge for its own sake. I suspect
that to a significantextent scientistsreally do hold such beliefs. As Sir
Peter Medawar (1972, 87) once remarked, "Scientists, on the whole,
are amiableand well-meaningcreatures.Theremust be veryfew wicked
scientists. There are, however, plenty of wicked philosophers,wicked
priests, and wicked politicians." And later in connection with the flap
over DNA splicing, "Scientistswant to do good-and very often do"
(Medawar 1977, 20).
But philosophers,priestsand even an occasionalpoliticianalso want
to do good. Why are scientistsbetter able to realize their higher goals
than the rest of us? Are scientists superiorbeings, as Medawar seems
to imply, or might the answer lie in the social organizationof science?
Part of the answer can be found in the frequentcoincidencein science
of individual "selfish" goals and the greater good. Because scientists
must use each other's results and use implies worth, they are forced to
give at least some credit where credit is due. In addition, both truth
and falsity ramify. If other scientistsmake major advances in part be-
cause they have used your work, you will receiveat least implicitcredit.
If, to the contrary, the use of your work leads to dead ends or endless
error, you will receive discredit, extensive discredit, most likely explicit
extensive discredit.
If scientistswereinterestedexclusively,or even primarily,in the good
of science, then prioritydisputeswould be rareor nonexistent,but they
are the most frequentsource of discordin science, and this discordcan

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hold back the progress of science. In the past decade, two of the most
innovative and powerful scientists in the world devoted a significant
amount of theirtime and the time of theirco-workersarguingoverwho
really discoveredthe virus that causes AIDS (Rawling 1994). Millions
of people are dying, and these scientistsare arguingoverpriority!Moral
indignationto one side, prioritydisputesare the pricethat must be paid
for the mechanismthat emergedto force scientiststo make theirdiscov-
eries public so that other scientistscan use them.
The preceding discussion hints at a second differencebetween the
causal mechanisms operative in science and pure invisible-hands-
scientists do not come close to working in total isolation from each
other. A high percentage of scientists work in tightly-knit research
teams (Sen 1983),and those scientistsworkingin such groupsaremuch
more productive than those working in relative isolation (Blau 1978).
From the perspectiveof rewardand punishment,these groups are the
relevant "individuals." Even in the absence of such well-integrated
groups, scientistsinfluenceand are influencedby other scientists,both
as individualsand as sources of information.Invisiblehandsjoin with
invisible colleges. In addition, scientists are much more responsiveto
local than to global comparisons (Frank 1985). Most scientistsdo not
expect their work to be noticed, let alone used, by all other scientists
but primarilyby those working in their own restrictedarea of science.
The most importantissue is whetherthe "individual"goals of scientists
and the good of science are sufficientlyindependentso that they can
work at cross-purposes. Once again, priority disputes provide some
evidence that they can.
As early as 1788 the authors of the FederalistPapers can be found
observing that the "desire of rewardis one of the strongestincentives
of human conduct." As a result, the "best security for the fidelity of
mankind,is to make interestcoincide with duty." (Hamilton,Madison,
and Jay 1818, 452). Scientists might well be as motivated to produce
knowledge for its own sake as they say they are, and perhaps these
admirablemotivations are sufficientto bring about the production of
reliable knowledge, but the really neat thing about the rewardsystem
in science is that it is so organizedthat, by and large, more self-serving
motivations tend to have the same effect as more altruisticmotivations.
Virtue and benefit go hand in hand. Scientists need not be saints to
contributeto science. To the extent that scientistsare motivatedby the
high opinion of others as evidenced by the use of each other's work,
they will be pressuredto behave themselves.
A third peculiarity of invisible-handmechanismsin science is that
scientists can become aware of them (Ylikoski 1995). Uncritical sci-
entists go about their work convinced that they are motivated almost

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entirely by the quest for knowledge for its own sake, but some have
become aware that they may also be influenced by less altruistic
motives. What effect might scientists' understandingof how science
works have on science?As in so many other cases, might not this self-
knowledge endangerthe fabric of science?Perhaps a less visible hand
might producestill better science,as Fuller(1994, 601) suggests?I think
not. As scientistscome to understandthe varioustensions and conflicts
that confront them in science, my best guess is that they will be better
able to handle them (Hirshleifer1977).
The precedingmay sound plausible, but is it true?Testing claims of
any sort is difficult enough. Testing claims about social phenomenais
even more difficult. In my Science as a Process (1988), I made a first
stab at testing my invisible-handexplanation. I broke down the pos-
tulated mechanisminto as many localized parts as possible and tested
each as separately as possible. For example, might not science work
better if it were organized differently?Might it not work better if sci-
entists submergedtheir individualegos to the generalgood as Francis
Bacon (1620) suggested?Such contrary-to-factconditionals are very
difficultto evaluate-unless they actuallyoccur-and in the case of the
preceding questions they have. The French Academy was formed in
1666 along Baconian lines so that all the credit for the contributions
of individual members of the Academy went to the Academy as a
whole, rather than to individual members, but by 1699 this noble ex-
periment was abandoned as a failure and replaced by credit for con-
tributions. The Royal Society of London adopted this structureright
from the start (Hull 1988, 322-323).
The one example that I have been able to find in which group effort
performedby seeminglyanonymous individualsled to majoradvances
in knowledge was the strange case of Nicholas Bourbaki in which a
group of young French mathematiciansset themselves the task of re-
working the foundations of mathematics. Rather than listing all the
individualswho contributedto this project through the years, they in-
vented an imaginarymathematicianwhom they named Bourbaki. By
the time that this projectwas completed, thirty-fourvolumes had been
publishedunder this pseudonym (Hull 1988, 223).
Even though this example concerns mathematicsand not empirical
science, it still counts against the mechanismthat I am postulatingfor
science because these mathematicians made major contributions to
mathematicswithout (apparently)getting any individualcredit.On my
view, not all scientists need insist all the time on receivingindividual
credit for their contributions, but any case of sustained success over
long periods by numerous scientists without individual credit does
bring my views into question. To be sure, the identitiesof the changing

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membership of Bourbaki were well known, and being asked to join this
prestigious group was an honor in itself, but I am committed to the
view that, upon closer examination, we will discover that these authors
did receive individual credit for their contributions (see Weintraub and
Mirowski 1994). A graduate student, Michelle Little, is currently work-
ing on a case in which one group of radio astronomers held up pub-
lishing a major discovery until other groups could catch up to them! If
too many cases of this sort can be uncovered, then my hypothesis about
the role of invisible hands in science is in serious jeopardy.

5. Conclusion. As I understand invisible-hand explanations, they do

not require that self-interest be the only motivation involved, nor need
all the mechanisms involved in a particular marketplace be totally in-
visible. As Sen (1983, 13) notes, some (partially) planned economies
are frequently quite successful. From the beginning conscious effort
has played an important role in developing the social structure of sci-
ence, and such effort has not always been detrimental. For example,
when improvements in technology resulted in increased publication de-
lays, date of receipt replaced publication date for awarding credit in
science. Is the social structure of science as good as it can get? Probably
not, but as the recent history of attempts by the federal government in
the United States to set up agencies to police science amply attest, such
cures so far have been far worse than the disease (e.g., Kevles 1996).
As science is now practiced,it is a combination of planned and un-
planned, conscious and unconscious decisions, but it is the invisible
hand that tends to keep scientists on the straight and narrow. The
patterns of behavior that I have sketched for scientists are not the result
of mysterious coincidences, nor are they optimistic fantasies. To the
contrary, the mechanism I postulate is, if anything, overly cynical.
What is wrong with invisible-hand explanations? As Ullmann-Margalit
(1978, 274) notes, nothing as long as they are both cogent and true. In
fact, such explanations are so meritorious that one "can only wish there
were more of them."


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