Thursday, May 22, 2014

Funding and the Corruption of Science


NOTE: These four essays were reproduced from my now defunct blog Random notes, as they are referenced in my upcoming post on elective government and monarchy.

Originally this as going to be a much different essay. The thought which originally inspired me came while I was reading some writing from the 18th century. Reading the way in which arguments were presented then, it struck me that we have lost all concept of humility. And that was my original intent, to argue that, thanks to our immature culture -- about which I seem to complain a lot lately ("Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion") -- we have forgotten how to humbly present positions, how to challenge another's position without making it a personal conflict, or how to confess that one's own ideas may be wrong. Instead, like little children, we now respect those who shout the loudest, make the most outrageous claims, and present the biggest spectacle of self-confidence and bluster. All while completely ignoring the fact that anyone can adopt such a posture, and that posture has no bearing on the truth of an argument. (However, bluster does tend to make it harder to debate reasonably, as it tends to make arguments degenerate into shouting matches.)

While I was thinking about this idea, deciding how to write an essay based upon it, I, as usual, began ti run through my mind the arguments likely to be raised against it. And the first that came to mind was the "Ann Coulter/Rush Limbaugh argument" as I termed it. and that argument was that I was mistaking pop culture, the shallow popularized political positions, and the beliefs of the common man for the arguments of the intellectuals. Instead of making a fair comparison, I was comparing the top minds and most rarefied intellectual circles of the 18th and 19th centuries with the rough and tumble of our pop culture and partisan political press.

And that argument does have some validity, enough that you are now reading this post and not one on the death of humility. 

But that does not mean that I accept the argument entirely. It is true there is more restraint in the academic world, but in recent decades even the academic world, especially in literary areas, has been taken over by loud hucksters rather than scholars. And, even more significantly, some areas, while not noisy and boisterous, have been taken over by those who have the intent to stop open and honest debate.

And that is the thought that led me to this post.

I was thinking as I considered this topic, of the University of East Anglia emails, and the way in which those scientists acted to keep certain topics from even coming up in debate, the way they made sure only their own positions would be given a hearing, not only keeping the scope of acceptable positions limited, but also preventing anyone from presenting a viable challenge to their ideas.

As I considered it, I came to realize that in many ways, what happened there was the logical outcome of government financing.

Think about it, and you will see the truth.

Government financing is, as I argued elsewhere, based upon being either well connected, or holding positions within what is seen popularly as the mainstream of science. Ideas too far outside the mainstream, unpopular ideas, ideas which stir up public controversy, ideas with troubling political implications and other politically difficult concepts are difficult ideas to hold for those seeking funding. Worse still is an idea which was publicly refuted quite clearly. Those whose research is based on such failed theories are likely to find their funding vanish quickly as well.

On the other hand, thanks to the way the government selects funding recipients, those already receiving funding form something of an "establishment" able to exert undue influence on the selection process, holding much sway over the universities which employ them due to the money they bring, and otherwise exerting more than normal influence.

And that is what I see in East Anglia. The proponents of AGW are in the mainstream, they can receive as much funding as they wish. But, they also have something to fear. Any reasonable refutation of AGW is likely to receive positive public attention, and several such refutations may turn the tide of funding, pushing politicians, always alert to public sentiment, and bureaucrats, always currying political favor to gain power and funds, to cut AGW funding and support the opposition.

However, since they are "the establishment", controlling peer review ( "The Failure of Peer Review", "Publish Or Perish") and funding, they can do one thing, cut off all those who challenge them. If the other side is never heard, or only heard in the form of its weakest proponents, they have nothing to fear. And so, they could use their political clout to keep the other side from having a hearing and ensuring there is but one position given funds or serious review. They can make sure money, journal articles, professorships and the rest are limited to positions they find acceptable.

Now, I am sure some will ask "why do we need to blame this on the government? With private funds, wouldn't the same happen?" 

Not so. First, private research tends to be driven by results. Companies fund studies, first and foremost, to find applications. If your theory is invalid, and can produce no results, it doesn't matter if you shut out the opposition, your lack of results will do you in.

However, private funds also go to pure research, through universities and other charitable and intellectual groups receiving private funds. But, unlike government funding, such money comes from a number of sources, including tuition from a host of private individuals, and so does not have a single perspective. The government has but one perspective, and so it can control everything, making only one viewpoint acceptable. No individual has that sort of wealth or control, and so if the government were not involved, there would be more diversity of necessity. Yes, at specific universities, individuals may have the sort of control the establishment now has, but at others, they would have none, and diversity of opinions would mean contrary research would be available. 

More significant, in a private system, if one or a handful of universities enforced an orthodoxy, if other schools challenged it successfully, it would make those universities look bad and generally reduce the funds going to them, a well as the students wishing to study there. However, with the government, with orthodoxy forced universally, there is no challenge, and no alternatives. As a result, bad ideas can maintain dominance, even when wrong, simply because the scope of government power, and the lack of room for any opposition, prevents the truth from being heard.

Which is one more reason I argue that government funding is not, as some claim, necessary for research, but instead tends to make it harder to find the truth. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism",  "Government Intervention and the Purpose of Government", "The State Versus Universities", "When Help Hurts", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Education And Testing") By making a single orthodoxy in control of funds, it is harder to refute errors, harder to challenge accepted beliefs, and otherwise difficult to engage in the productive destruction which is essential to the advancement of knowledge. And so, if you truly value truth, the first thing you must do is ask that the government stop funding research, art and any other pursuit of knowledge.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/05/24.


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