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Rank pull

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted June 28, 2010

In a sense, an old ideal died a few weeks ago. The Obama Administration ordered a six-month drilling moratorium, now struck down, purportedly supported by seven experts brought in to offer advice on the oil spill. As we now know, none of those experts recommended a six-month moratorium. It was tacked on by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after the seven had signed off on the report.

There's two ways to interpret this peremptoriness. One is to point to it as an execrable example of politicization of science. The other, more cynical but perhaps more accurate, is to see it as political figures pulling rank. The government is paying more of the piper's bill, and is increasingly calling the tune.

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Thanks to Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy Of The People many scientists are skittish about getting entangled with boosters. Essentially, Dr. Stockmann gets crucified for sticking to an unpopular truth. The theme is the irrationality of the mob when confronted with a distressing truth, and the need for the man who keeps his head to stand firm despite the temptation to bend with his fellow man. It goes well with Kipling' poem "If." To more literal-minded folks, Ibsen's play is a warning about getting entangled with "business:" boosters, to be more accurate. Those people see Dr. Stockmann as being crushed by a bunch of panicky Babbitts.

What Interior Secretary Salazar did is consistent with the methods of the stereotypical booster, even though he and his crowd are not of that type. The second type, not dealt with by Ibsen directly, is the alarmist. Alarmists don't make promises of wealth in order to manipulate people; their stock in trade is manipulation through fear. Despite being on opposite sides, the booster and alarmist are of the same coin. By their peremptoriness shall ye know them.

Statics And Dynamics

There's an old ideal which advocates scientists be put on the government payroll so as to free them from the pressures of boosters. The government, it held, is disinterested in the result. So, a government-financed scientist should be free to pursue scientific inquiry without feeling any pressure to adjust priorities to more technological concerns or to fudge figures in a certain direction.

Like most ideals plausible to the bookworm, this one came of age in the nineteenth century. Back then, there weren't many scientists. There weren't that many taxes either, but the expense seemed piddling compared to (say) financing the military in European countries. It was sold, like social security was, using a static analysis.

Enter dynamics – in this case, the opening of the university to talent regardless of background. The merit system has worked in calling forth a lot more talent than the earlier system called forth – not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of motivation. Granted that the current professorial system selects for researchers who could be uncharitably pegged as résumé padders, and the publish-or-perish ethos means that little time is devoted to hard problems of high theory, but the system as it is encourages down-to-earth empiricism. It produces no Einsteins, but it has produced a manifold increase in knowledge expanders. On the one hand, the conundrums of cosmology and quantum physics pile up with no elegant solution to the questions raised. On the other hand, hundreds of exoplanets have been found in a much shorter timeframe than had been needed for Neptune. Part of it is the accumulation of knowledge and technique – intellectual capital – but part of the acceleration is the result of a lot more scientists in the field. Both can be ascribed to the extensions of the merit system.  

But, with acceleration of progress comes acceleration of costs. Once the costs grow large, economic normalcy returns. We're back to the olden days when the only scientists free to study as (s)he pleases, without constraints of use or deadline, is a person with inherited wealth or independent income. Although the old-style boosters are not setting the terms, others are.

In fact, the alarmists have gotten the drop on the boosters. Alarmism has triumphed because an alarmist is a kind of critic. Given today's standards, criticism is easier than discovery. Consider the fate of President Nixon's "War On Cancer," whose goal was to find a cure for cancer by 1980. Except for the get-go, no headlines resulted from it.

On the other hand, lots of headlines have been generated with a "War on (Suspected) Carcinogens." Column inches and footage are the currency of politics, and political figures tend to reward those who supply them with headlines. Credible alarmism allows politicians, and other political figures, to cast themselves as rescuers; career-centered government-financed scientists know it. In the world of the alarmist, the scientist who allays fears is a killjoy.

Further skewing the incentives is a double standard with respect to building and banning. A builder cannot count a null result as a success – but a banner can do so. If no wealth results, a booster has to concede that his efforts have gone awry. If no harm results, an alarmist can credit his alarmism for saving everyone. This double standard is the reason why the stereotypical medicine man will always be with us. Thanks to that difference, the oracles' racket has survived the oracles. As long as our value-scales are tilted towards loss aversion when in uncertainty, it will always be so.

The attraction between politics and alarmism should be evident. As is often the case in politics, and business ridden by corporate politics, earlier successes are used to portray the auditor as the bad guy. In the booster's world, said auditor is portrayed as an envious wretch or as obstructionist. In the alarmists' world, said auditor is portrayed as a callous monster. Again, both sides of the same coin…one in which unpalatable truths are cast as threats. To the extent that the scientists has to act like an auditor is the extent to which (s)he suffers the corresponding malignment.  

In the broader sense, the new boss is the same as the old boss – even though the alarmist pushes in a different direction than the booster. It's not just a preference for Adam Smith ties versus Malthusian disaster thrills.

By their peremptoriness shall ye know them. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.






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