Organic Prestige Doesn’t Scale

Some parts of our world, such as academia, rely heavily on prestige to allocate resources and effort; individuals have a lot of freedom to choose topics, and are mainly rewarded for seeming impressive to others. I’ve talked before about how some hope for a “Star Trek” future where most everything is done that way, and I’m now reading Walkaway, outlining a similar hope. I was skeptical:

In academia, many important and useful research problems are ignored because they are not good places to show off the usual kinds of impressiveness. Trying to manage a huge economy based only on prestige would vastly magnify that inefficiency. Someone is going to clean shit because that is their best route to prestige?! (more)

Here I want to elaborate on this critique, with the help of a simple model. But first let me start with an example. Imagine a simple farming community. People there spend a lot of time farming, but they must also cook and sew. In their free time they play soccer and sing folk songs. As a result of doing all these things, they tend to “organically” form opinions about others based on seeing the results of their efforts at such things. So people in this community try hard to do well at farming, cooking, sewing, soccer, and folk songs.

If one person put a lot of effort into proving math theorems, they wouldn’t get much social credit for it. Others don’t naturally see outcomes from that activity, and not having done much math they don’t know how to judge if this math is any good. This situation discourages doing unusual things, even if no other social conformity pressures are relevant.

Now let’s say that in a simple model. Let there be a community containing people j, and topic areas i where such people can create accomplishments aij. Each person j seeks a high personal prestige pj = Σi vi aij, where vi is the visibly of area i. They also face a budget constraint on accomplishment, Σi aij2 ≤ bj. This assumes diminishing returns to effort in each area.

In this situation, each person’s best strategy is to choose aij proportional to vi. Assume that people tend to see the areas where they are accomplishing more, so that visibility vi is proportional to an average over individual aij. We now end up with many possible equilibria having different visibility distributions. In each equilibria, for all individuals j and areas i,k we have the same area ratios aij / akj = Vi/ Vk.

Giving individuals different abilities (such as via a budget constraint Σi aij2 / xij ≤ bj) could make individual choose somewhat different accomplishments, but the same overall result obtains. Spillovers between activities in visibility or effort can have similar effects. Making some activities be naturally more visible might push toward those activities, but there could still remain many possible equilibria.

This wide range of equilibria isn’t very reassuring about the efficiency of this sort of prestige. But perhaps in a small foraging or farming community, group selection might over a long run push toward an efficient equilibria where the high visibility activates are also the most useful activities. However, larger societies need a strong division of labor, and with such a division it just isn’t feasible for everyone to evaluate everyone else’s specific accomplishments. This can be solved either by creating a command and status hierarchy that assigns people to tasks and promotes by merit, or by an open market with prestige going to those who make the most money. People often complain that doing prestige in these ways is “inauthethnic”, and they prefer the “organic” feel of personally evaluating others’ accomplishments. But while the organic approach may feel better, it just doesn’t scale.

In academia today, patrons defer to insiders so much regarding evaluations that disciplines become largely autonomous. So economists evaluate other economists based mostly on their work in economics. If someone does work both in economics and also in aother area, they are judged mostly just on their work in economics. This penalizes careers working in multiple disciplines. It also suggests doubts on if different disciplines get the right relative support – who exactly can be trusted to make such a choice well?

Interestingly, academic disciplines are already organized “inorganically” internally. Rather than each economist evaluating each other economist personally, they trust journal editors and referees, and then judge people based on their publications. Yes they must coordinate to slowly update shared estimates of which publications count how much, but that seems doable informally.

In principle all of academia could be unified in this way – universities could just hire the candidates with the best overall publication (or citation) record, regardless of in which disciplines they did what work. But academia hasn’t coordinated to do this, nor does it seem much interested in trying. As usual, those who have won by existing evaluation criteria are reluctant to change criteria, after which they would look worse compared to new winners.

This fragmented prestige problem hurts me especially, as my interests don’t fit neatly into existing groups (academic and otherwise). People in each area tend to see me as having done some interesting things in their area, but too little to count me as high status; they mostly aren’t interested in my contributions to other areas. I look good if you count my overall citations, for example, but not if you only my citations or publications in each specific area.

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