The Politicization of Science

Henry Farrell and most commenters at Crooked Timber take exception to David Bernstein's and Juan non-Volokh's suggestions that it's no surprise that science becomes politicized when it is funded by politics. The approach to take for making the comparison is not to look at either state-funding of science or private-sector funding of science in isolation, but as Henry says, to compare the two:

This proposal rests on an implicit claim that is, to put it kindly, contestable: that scientific research on politically topical issues is liable to be less politicized when it?s funded by the private sector.

Henry concludes that "Bernstein and non-Volokh have their argument cut out for them" citing Tech Central Station, the Council on Tobacco Research, and junkscience.com for support.

Admittedly, I am not familiar with either the CTR or junkscience.com, and all I know with regards to TCS and science from regular reading is that they take a skeptical stance toward global warming. Regardless, the purpose of this post is not to defend any of the above as unbiased organizations.

The issue raised comes back to the economics of incentives. I completely agree that private organizations and individuals have biases and interests. They are often driven by personal gain and profit rather than a search for the 'truth'. Their ends are subjective and are not necessarily congruent with the ends of others. I agree.

However, does any of this change when these organizations or individuals enter into the political arena? Are they magically transformed into unbiased, unselfish, disinterested servants on a quest for the objective truth? I submit they are essentially the same people with the same biases and incentives either working in the private sector or the public sector.

So if the people do not change, what actually is the difference between private funding of science versus public funding of science? Which one is likely to be more politicized?

The key difference is in the method of funding. Private funding of science is raised through voluntary means. Sometimes a venture capital firm provides funding for a new idea. Sometimes a company uses accumulated savings to fund research on the belief that the risk is worth the potential payoff. Other times, donations are used to fund science in the private sector. If an individual does not wish to participate in a type of research he finds distasteful, pointless, or inefficient, he does not have to contribute. There is no fixed lump sum by which science must be funded; different parties can contribute to different causes. Those research areas which are not worth studying, as deemed by those involved and by those who fund the research, can wither away. Resources can be diverted to more promising areas. Although the individuals involved may be biased and self-interested, the financial risk of the research done is internalized to those involved.

In contrast, public funding is done via coercive means. If an individual does not wish to contribute, he has no choice. There is a fixed amount of dollars to be distributed to government-approved research areas. Those doing the distributing can still be corrupted. Self-interested individuals can use politics and pay-offs to fund their biases. In no way does the public sector remove any sort of bias from the research. It is not a magical purifier of souls.

Rather, the same self-interested individuals have more power at their disposal in the public sector, because they do not have to rely on voluntary funding. As Bernstein and non-Volokh say, it is no surprise that when science is funded by politics, it becomes...politicized.

Left-liberals often see libertarians' agitation for separation of [fill in the blank] and state as a belief in the purity of private organizations. On the contrary, it usually stems from distrust of combining those private organizations with political power.

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Jonathan Wilde: However,

Jonathan Wilde: However, does any of this change when these organizations or individuals enter into the political arena? Are they magically transformed into unbiased, unselfish, disinterested servants on a quest for the objective truth? I submit they are essentially the same people with the same biases and incentives either working in the private sector or the public sector.

I agree.

Jonathan Wilde: So if the people do not change, what actually is the difference between private funding of science versus public funding of science? Which one is likely to be more politicized?

It would appear that each type is equally Subjective.

Jonathan Wilde: In contrast, public funding is done via coercive means.

How so? Unless you are asserting that the Individuals being taxed are prohibited from freely emigrating to another territory?

Jonathan Wilde: If an individual does not wish to contribute, he has no choice.

Why is it that you don?t consider moving to a new territory as a ?choice??

Jonathan Wilde: There is a fixed amount of dollars to be distributed to government-approved research areas. Those doing the distributing can still be corrupted. Self-interested individuals can use politics and pay-offs to fund their biases.

Not if they want to be re-elected.

Jonathan Wilde: In no way does the public sector remove any sort of bias from the research. It is not a magical purifier of souls.

I agree. Public and Private ?science? can be equally biased.

But the real difference is that Public science is science undertaken (ideally/theoretically) for the benefit of Society (like national defense) whereas Privately funded science is undertaken for the benefit of the Individual.

Jonathan Wilde: Rather, the same self-interested individuals have more power at their disposal in the public sector, because they do not have to rely on voluntary funding.

Being as that we live under a Democracy, how do you figure that? Public research has to get the approval of the Public, or a duly elected representative of the Public who is answerable to the Public for his actions (for the funding he approves).

A political representative who approves science research which is against the will of the society that he represents will be held accountable for his actions by the society that put him in power.

Jonathan Wilde: As Bernstein and non-Volokh say, it is no surprise that when science is funded by politics, it becomes...politicized.

It?s ALL politicized. I thought you had already acknowledged that?

All funding is politicized.

All funding is politicized. The reason to oppose domination of funding by a single payer is that only a single political bias is represented. Apolitical funding isn't an attribute of any single stream, it is the net result of diverse streams. It isn't just corporations that fund and perform research, private labs and universities do so as well. The science community is international and published results from all over the world benefit the advance of knowledge.

Henry and his fellow travelers, as ever, are unable to think in terms of large scale, diverse, and dynamic systems. It's a lack of mental tools and failure of scholarship coupled with paleo-ideology, but also a cultivated ignorance, an ignorance too politically useful to abandon though it makes them ridiculous in the eyes of thoughtful observers.

Back40: Henry and his fellow

Back40: Henry and his fellow travelers, as ever, are unable to think in terms of large scale, diverse, and dynamic systems.

The key term here is ?SYSTEM?. (i.e. that which ?Governs? action)

Back40: It's a lack of mental tools and failure of scholarship coupled with paleo-ideology, but also a cultivated ignorance, an ignorance too politically useful to abandon though it makes them ridiculous in the eyes of thoughtful observers.

Notice how this one believes an ad hominem attack substitutes for an actual logical argument. I wonder how many ?thoughtful observers? will be so easily deceived?

It is systems, plural, and

It is systems, plural, and it has nothing to do with governance. Systems are not governed, cannot be governed. It seems the fact that you don't recognize arguments is also a failure in scholarship.

"... it's no surprise that

"... it's no surprise that science becomes politicized when it is funded by politics."

Rand put it thus: "'Government science' is a contradiction in terms."

'Government science' is a

'Government science' is a contradiction in terms.

Nonsense. There have been numerous, terrific advances over the past century or so due to state funding of science. One may argue that the outcome is less good than a perfect free market would achieve - something of which I'm not so sure - but no one can argue that the state's universities, protected corporations, and massive R&D investment haven't produced tremendous gains in the sum of human knowledge.

ObTopic: What drives scientists isn't pleasing their funders so much - most scientists would take a check from Satan - what drives them is accolade, acceptance, and immortality among their peers. This isn't to say that some scientists aren't hired guns; it's just that it isn't the primary motivation for most scientists.

- Josh

Back40: It is systems,

Back40: It is systems, plural

Irrelevant. Systems are systems whether there are one or many.

Back40: ? and it has nothing to do with governance.

Obviously you are confused as to the precise definition of the term ?System?.

Back40: Systems are not governed, cannot be governed.

A ?System? is the thing which does the Governing/. The ?System? is what controls the action.

Back40: It seems the fact that you don't recognize arguments is also a failure in scholarship.

Your magical ?free will? powers, are useless against me Boy.

Serpent, why do you put so

Serpent, why do you put so much stock in public accountability? It doesn't work. Just look at how many people will vote for Bush because of the war, while holding their noses over his protectionism and runaway spending. Funding of science is ultimately an issue too small to generate meaningful feedback from the electorate, if they even knew it was an issue in the first place.

I also don't understand why you deny that the government has power. If they wanted to, agents of the federal government could throw me in jail and seize everything I own without evidence and without judicial review. All of this with impunity. I cannot, nor could any other private individual. This is the meaning of power, and accountability to voters has no relevance to it. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. The government can decide, by fiat, to take our money and fund any research they wish. We cannot. This is the difference.

Noah Yetter: Serpent, why do

Noah Yetter: Serpent, why do you put so much stock in public accountability?

If you are asking why I trust the majority more than I trust the Individual it is because the Individual can to benefit by oppressing the Majority, while the Majority merely seeks to avoid oppession.

Noah Yetter: It doesn't work.

I disagree.

But if you are suggesting Anarchy as a superior alternative then perhaps you can cite some of the many examples of successful anarchist societies past and present as evidence your viewpoint is actually viable in reality.

Noah Yetter: Just look at how many people will vote for Bush because of the war?

Ahhh, I see, so just because an Individual supports Bush or the War in Iraq that ?proves? the majority cannot be trusted?

Noah Yetter: I also don't understand why you deny that the government has power.

Government has ?Power? in the same way that a Gun has ?Power?, which is to say None without a consciousness to wield it.

Noah Yetter: If they wanted to, agents of the federal government could throw me in jail and seize everything I own without evidence and without judicial review. All of this with impunity.

Guess what my friend, if there was no Government me or anyone else who wanted to could throw You in jail and seize everything You own without evidence and without judicial review. All of this with impunity.

The only thing holding us in check would be the other Individuals in the Society we lived under.

Noah Yetter: I cannot, nor could any other private individual.

Are you claiming you are being prevented from holding public office, or some other position of power and authority by the other individuals living in your region?

Noah Yetter: This is the meaning of power, and accountability to voters has no relevance to it. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. The government can decide, by fiat, to take our money and fund any research they wish. We cannot. This is the difference.

How do you reconcile the fact that you live under Democracy where public officials are held accountable to/by the voters with the notion that voters do not hold public officials accountable?

Are you saying no one in this country actually votes (we re being misled), or are you suggesting that the voting public is just too stupid to vote for who (and what) you?d like them to vote for?

Josh, I'd agree that Rand

Josh,

I'd agree that Rand vastly overstated the case, but she isn't entirely wrong either. The farther you get from the "hard" sciences, the worse the politicalization becomes. Statistics comes to mind: who believes *any* government-sponsored statistical study?. And even the hard sciences have their standouts, that fellow Lysenko, for example.