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Why the priority rule does not exist

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Scientists are rewarded for their work with prestige, and this prestige is allocated according to the priority rule. The priority rule says that the first scientist to make a discovery takes all the credit for it. This helps philosophers predict what kinds of behavior scientists are incentivized to engage in. We argue that there is no such thing as the priority rule: what counts as a discovery and how much credit is awarded for a given discovery makes all the difference insofar as determining scientists’ actual incentives is concerned. We show this in two ways. First, we briefly review Strevens’ account of the optimality of the priority rule for the division of cognitive labor and show that his argument breaks down when slightly more complicated cases are considered. Second, we introduce a new game-theoretic model of scientists aiming to maximize credit in a context where only statistically significant results are publishable (as is roughly the case for a number of scientific fields). We show that under some prima facie plausible interpretations of the priority rule this model generates very bad results – scientists claiming discoveries on the basis of essentially no evidence. This problem is avoided when the priority rule is augmented with a rule that says more credit is awarded depending on the level of rigor with which a discovery is shown to hold, but this represents a significant departure from the priority rule.

The talk is based on joint work with Kevin Zollman (Carnegie Mellon University).

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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