A correspondent asked me an interesting and difficult question about the sponsorship of science. I’ve been talking a bit lately about the allosaur affair at the Creation “Museum”, which can be summarized this way:
Now the tricky part. What’s the difference in principle between that statement and this next one?
That’s a good question, and it brought me up short. The problem with these sorts of questions is that it’s really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations — I like the Smithsonian, I don’t like the Creation “Museum”, so it’s a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question. Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?
I’m off the hook in one regard: I’m on record complaining about Koch’s contribution to an earlier exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. His donation was used to describe the role of climate change in human evolution, making the case that it is a good thing, because we wouldn’t be here without the pressures of shifting climate. It was a subtle emphasis, but it’s still an example of the pressure of millions of dollars being used to gently bend the science in a particular direction.
But it’s only a gentle distortion. Otherwise, Koch seems to have had virtually no influence on the scientific opinions of the Smithsonian. Check them out; the Smithsonian explains the history of climate change, it sponsors Bill Nye explaining climate change, Smithsonian scientists are studying climate change, they have articles explaining how climate change is already affecting people’s lives, and they provide lesson plans for educating about climate change. It’s safe to say that we know on what side of this issue the Smithsonian stands, and it’s on the opposite side of Koch.
It’s a tricky thing, this business of funding science. Ideally, it would be done on merit only, by an independent source, like the NSF or NIH (or, as independent as they possibly can be), with no restrictions on how the money is used — a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it’s spent. We know that’s an ideal — government funding agencies are subject to fads, too, and politicians are constantly trying to tinker, with earmarks and prohibitions — but it’s as good as we’ve got. If private donors are involved, the same rules apply: they should give because they value the science, which is a search for the truth, and not because they intend to meddle to get the answers they want. In that sense, the Smithsonian did OK…although there are troubling signs that maybe they accepted some recommendations for Koch.
By the same argument, though, there’s nothing wrong with Peroutka handing over a precious fossil to the Creation “Museum”. It’s stupid and a waste of a good specimen, `but otherwise, philanthropists do get to decide what to do with their own money, and Answers in Genesis can accept it in good conscience.
However, there is another issue. The Smithsonian is committed to doing good science, so they continue to loudly and strongly argue for the scientific consensus, that global climate change is a serious problem, and they do so despite the fact that an extremely wealthy donor disagrees completely with them. I imagine that if a donor tried to insist that his money comes with strings attached and must be used to propagandize for counterfactual claims, the institution would have enough integrity to flatly refuse.
I’d expect the same from the Creation “Museum”. They’ve got a neo-Confederate racist sugar daddy: do they have enough integrity to repudiate his views, even at the expense of antagonizing him? The evidence so far says no. There is a difference between accepting a free donation, and being bought. I’d like to see Ken Ham come clean on his views on the Confederacy, the continued legacy of discrimination and racism, and how much of Peroutka’s paid shill he is. If they are in agreement, that’s fine — just own it, and let us know what kind of people run Answers in Genesis.
Not that we don’t already know they are a gang of loons, but there are quite a few other issues where we could possibly agree…or more likely, disagree.