Adventures in Ethics and Science

Michael Berube is a noted danger to the youth of America (and has the votes to prove it). He is also, it turns out, blogging about ethical issues in the practice of science.

Which, last time I checked with the Central Committee of Academic Mind-Control, was my turf. I trust that Comrade Berube will reflect upon this, and on the cult of personality that seems to be growing around him, during the weekend self-criticism session.

Interloper or not, he does have some useful observations about the right relationship between the people’s scientists and the people’s government.

Berube’s observations are in response to Dean Esmay’s approving support of President George W. Bush’s “bold questioning of scientific authority”. Esmay says:

[B]ecause so much science these days is funded by the U.S. government (i.e. the taxpayers) it is outright obscene to suggest that scientists shouldn’t answer to our elected leaders. You do not have a right to demand billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers, then slap a label on your chest and say, “We are scientists! You are not allowed to question us! Just give us your money and accept whatever we tell you!”

Berube responds:

Well said, my boy! Those stuffed-shirt scientists think they know so much, and just like the media elite, they never stop to ask what real people think. And no one understands their barbaric jargon anyway! Just look at the contempt with which they treat ordinary folks who want their tax dollars to fund the Noonan Institute for Empathic Communication with Magic Dolphins, or the Very Scientific Discovery Institute for the Discovery that Adam and Eve Rode Dinosaurs to Church, or, indeed, the Esmay Center for Speculating that AIDS is Caused by Toxic, Rapidly-Reproducing Crystalline Organisms From Outer Space.

While everyone who has already been corrupted by Berube or a dangerous professor like him nods knowingly at this analysis, I figured I should take Esmay’s declamation and break it down for the as-yet uncorrupted:

  • Scientists get a lot of their funding from government funding agencies (like NIH and NSF).
  • Government funding agencies use public funds (tax dollars) to fund the science — NIH and NSF don’t have bake sales to support that science.
  • So, scientists working with federal funds are working for the government.
  • Elected officials are also working for the government.
  • Unlike those scientists working for the government, the people voted for the elected officials.
  • So, the elected officials, as the people’s representatives, can call those scientists working for the government on the carpet. Not only can they check to see that the people’s money has been spent to do the agreed upon science, they can demand the results of said science.
  • It is not enough that the scientists working for the people share their results with the public that paid for this research (and its elected officials). These results must satisfy the people (customers) who paid for them.
  • Thus, if elected representatives of the people indicate to the scientists whose work is paid for with public money that their scientific results are not to the people’s liking, those scientists have an obligation to take account of the answer the people would like to hear, and to rejigger their results accordingly.
  • Of course, this means that for the scientists to proclaim, “These are the results! It does not matter that it’s not what you wanted to hear — this is the reality of things!” is for the scientists to misuse the people’s money and to disregard the people’s ultimate authority.

To boil it down to a flash card: The people are paying you for the answer the people want to hear.

I trust now that we’re all clear on how things stand.

Comments

  1. #1 IAMB
    February 25, 2006

    Crystalline organisms from outer space?!!

    Damn, I thought AIDS was caused by God as punishment for sexual transgressions…

  2. #2 coturnix
    February 25, 2006

    But this post is not what I want to hear – I want my tax-money back!

  3. #3 Orac
    February 25, 2006

    But your tax money didn’t pay for this post, unfortunately.

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride (Janet)
    February 25, 2006

    If you’d like to sponsor a post, I’d be happy to adjust the conclusions at which I arrive accordingly …

  5. #5 coturnix
    February 25, 2006

    But I want everything for free!

  6. #6 IAMB
    February 25, 2006

    But Orac, since her employer is a state university there’s a possibility that some minute portion of our tax money did end up in her paycheck (which enables her to have the computer and internet connection required for blogging)… assuming her institution gets federal grant money at all, so technically coturnix has a point. If not, some reader from California needs to be a little more “on the ball” in determining which conclusions are suitable for print (might have to go to committee or general ballot on that) ;-D

  7. #7 lambda
    February 25, 2006

    So do you disagree with the idea that “our elected officials have not just a right, but a duty to be skeptical on our behalf when dealing with the people whose livelihood depends on our good graces”? I keep reading all this sarcastic commentary on essentially that point and can’t find anything that makes sense.

  8. #8 Mike the Mad Biologist
    February 25, 2006

    I think Esmay’s logic should also be used for prosecuting corrupt and incompetent Republican officials.

  9. #9 Dr. Free-Ride (Janet)
    February 25, 2006

    So do you disagree with the idea that “our elected officials have not just a right, but a duty to be skeptical on our behalf when dealing with the people whose livelihood depends on our good graces”?

    I’d be thrilled if our elected officials were skeptical on our behalf — but tapping Michael Crichton as your go-to guy on global warming isn’t “skepticism”. It’s shopping for the imminent person (a novelist, by the way, NOT a climate scientist) who gives you the answer you want to hear so you can go ahead with the policies you liked in the first place.

    It seems to me a reasoned objection to the findings of scientists ought to take a more sophisticated (and evidence-based) form than “‘Fraid not.”

  10. #10 lambda
    February 25, 2006

    “I’d be thrilled if our elected officials were skeptical on our behalf” Good. Perhaps you, and Berube should have mentioned your objection to Crichton specifically then, and not boiled Esmay’s points into a flashcard having little to do with Crichton and Bush. To someone coming in from the outside it sounds like Berube’s response, and yours, disagrees with Esmay’s commentary on the publics ability to direct research when they are the ones paying for it.

  11. #11 Michael Berube
    February 25, 2006

    Hi lambda! Where, pray tell, did the public get the ability to direct that research? Just asking. Because I’d really like to fund a permanent orbital observatory with my taxes, and I’d like to know just how specific I can get when I start telling our astronomers what to look for and why.

  12. #12 Unlearned Hand
    February 25, 2006

    Y’know, there was a hell of a hypo in the UT student paper this week discussing Howard Zinn’s appearance on campus. “‘The United States is behaving like all the empirical powers have in the past,’ Zinn said.” It strikes me that this is exactly the point – the current state of the government is about as anti-empirical as you can get.

    What in the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s name do politicians know about the validity of a scientist’s methodology or results?

  13. #13 lambda
    February 26, 2006

    Hi Michael! In the U.S.A. we have a number of legislative bodies, a common federal one we call congress. It is made up of elected representatives of the people, or “public” and is empowered by them to direct the government in this country, within the bounds of the constitution. It so happens that these days that includes how tax money is spent. So for instance congress may decide that the public is best served by more research in Empathic Dolphins. If you really believe we need an orbital observatory that is looking for something specific I believe you can write your elected representative and make your case there. There are also bodies created by the legislature for the purpose of reviewing suggestions like yours and dolling out my money… Being in academia I am guessing you have their addresses somewhere near at hand. Good luck!

  14. #14 Uncle Fishy
    February 26, 2006

    Do you know what get’s me? It’s when Duke wins the NCAA rather than, say, UCLA. My tax dollars are paying for that trophy, after all. And no one goes to Duke except kids from Jersey.

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