Epistemic Landscapes and the Division of Cognitive Labor

Philosophy of Science 76 (2):225-252 (2009)
Abstract
Because of its complexity, contemporary scientific research is almost always tackled by groups of scientists, each of which works in a different part of a given research domain. We believe that understanding scientific progress thus requires understanding this division of cognitive labor. To this end, we present a novel agent-based model of scientific research in which scientists divide their labor to explore an unknown epistemic landscape. Scientists aim to climb uphill in this landscape, where elevation represents the significance of the results discovered by employing a research approach. We consider three different search strategies scientists can adopt for exploring the landscape. In the first, scientists work alone and do not let the discoveries of the community as a whole influence their actions. This is compared with two social research strategies, which we call the follower and maverick strategies. Followers are biased towards what others have already discovered, and we find that pure populations of these scientists do less well than scientists acting independently. However, pure populations of mavericks, who try to avoid research approaches that have already been taken, vastly outperform both of the other strategies. Finally, we show that in mixed populations, mavericks stimulate followers to greater levels of epistemic production, making polymorphic populations of mavericks and followers ideal in many research domains.
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