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Opposing state science funding does not mean you are thick

It is tempting to imagine that a cause is so important to Mankind, so essential, that only a total idiot could object to coercing one’s fellows into paying for said cause. And when it comes to science funding, even the most seemingly rational people fall prey to the notion that only wicked, selfish people, or religious nutters, could object to this funding. Take a recent article by Steven Mirsky, who writes for Scientific American:

“You’re not supposed to kick a guy when he’s down. Of course, in reality, when he’s down is the perfect time to kick him. He’s closer to your feet, for one thing. But the particular kicking I have in mind should be thought of as tough love. These kicks at the freshly defeated McCain-Palin ticket, as I write in early November, are an attempt to knock some sense back into the group of my fellow Americans who seem determined to ignore or even denigrate valuable scientific research because it’s something outside the realm of Joe the Plumber’s daily activities.”

Ah yes, Joe the Plumber, the man who achieved prominence by asking The Community Organiser about the latter’s plans to seize wealth from productive folk and “spread it around”. What Mr Mirsky goes on to do is mock the comments of the McCain/Palin team who had mocked examples of high tax funding of various projects they think were silly or wasteful. Mr Mirsky gets very shirty about this, regarding the projects as obviously beneficial, and only an old fart like McCain and his crazy VP running mate could disagree.

The rest of the article lays out examples of how certain projects that Mr Mirsky thinks are useful were mocked by the GOP, and by extension, other know-nothings more concerned about protecting their wallets. But Mr Mirsky misses a rather large point. Which is that even if a science project is valuable, the question of value is meaningless unless one asks: of value to whom and in the eyes of whom? What Mr Mirsky want to do is to sustitute his judgement of what is right to spend money on for that of others spending their own money. No doubt he fears that without tax funding, financial support for science will dry up – a very dubious assumption, to put it mildly.

Timothy Sandefur – who is on a roll at the moment – has a collection of essays taking on the argument that science funding has to be, or should be, done at the expense of taxpayers. I urge regulars here who are interested to read all of Tim’s pieces. They are the most comprehensive demolition job on such arguments that I have read for some time.

The trouble with people who do not think much in terms of principles, but who just take a sort of techno-managerialist view of public affairs, is that they cannot see why the great unwashed should object to paying for biotech research, or space flight, etc. And as I mentioned the other day, with the world of the arts, it is the same. It is just assumed by some folk that because a painting by Titian or Andy Warhol is marvellous, that the taxpayer should consider his duty to pay for it. The danger in such cases is when the expenditures are relatively small compared to the total size of public spending: the temptation is to shrug one’s shoulders and wonder why making a fuss is necessary. Well, if we cannot take an axe to the supposedly more “benign” aspects of public spending, it will never be possible to make the broader philosophical case for reducing the state significantly.

As a side observation, the sneering, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone of Mr Mirsky puts me in mind of Thomas Sowell’s recent superb attack on that sort of mindset, in his book, The Vision of The Anointed.

17 comments to Opposing state science funding does not mean you are thick

  • Ham

    Free-market principles aside for a moment, it’s hard not to adopt a sneering tone when dealing with this infamous comment, regardless of your position:

    “Some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense, and sometimes, these dollars, they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

    I kid you not!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ham, quite. I am not sure that McCain/Palin/whoever have a principled objection on the grounds that I talk about. It is depressing that hardly any politicians today think in principles whatever.

    But Mirsky is too quick to assume that opposition to state funding means opposition to science, which is why I am grazing his knuckles on this. He ignores the role of private business, of non-profit research done by foundations, etc. Not to mention things like prizes (the Ansari X-Prize, etc).

  • Johnathan, you should correct “no-nothings” to “know-nothings” – unless there’s a joke I’m missing.

  • While I agree in principle with JP I tend to think the problem is getting there from here. Also of all the parts of the state to rollback it’s hardly a priority due to it’s small cost and undoubted utility.

    With one set of exceptions – the aburdly politicised faux charities and the like. They are damaging. As is the related (and similarly small) funding of the arts.

  • Thank you so much for the link and the kind words!

  • Kevin B

    Excellent piece Timothy, and thanks Johnathan.

    My particular bete noir is the government using my money to pay an ‘independant’ research group to come up with ‘research’ which justifies them doing what they were planning to do anyway.

    Science isn’t just physics, chemistry and biology these days. The social sciences are the worst candidates for goverments spending my money as they generally come up with new and better ways for the government to interfere in my life.

    Some small caveats.

    If I were king, I’d like to keep some semi-housetrained geniuses about the place in the hope that they might come up with something really off the wall. I promise I wouldn’t pressure them too much to produce the things that I wanted. (“Where’s my flying car! You promised me a laser pistol twenty years ago!”)

    I also wonder if you could find a Houston waitress who, when she heard the news that the Higgs boson had been disscovered, would say, “Cool! We’ve bagged that mother at last!”

    The $30 bucks or whatever that she’d contributed would make her feel part of the we that found it. (We may never know, as shortly after the discovery, we may all disappear into the black hole it generated.)

  • Paul Marks

    How are nonleftists supposed to take anything this sort of scientist says seriously, when the political bias is so obvious?

    And I do not just mean the self serving “we need more taxpayers money – it is for the public good” stuff – I mean the “objective” “scientific” statements on everything else as well.

    For example, what sort of “researcher” just takes a knee jerk anti Palin position – without actually checking to see whether the stories were true?

    And, no surprise, the stories were false.

    “But neither McCain or Palin were had been to top universities or shown evidence of serious academic ablilty”.

    So the government witchdoctor (sorry “scientist”) would support a Republican who did have clear principles and had shown such academic abilty.

    Someone like Governor Mark Stanford?

    Of course not.

    It is not just class hatred of people who work for a living, like “Joe the Plumber, as opposed to living off government grants like modern “Scientifc American” types.

    It is also hated of ANYONE who opposes taking money (by force) from the taxpayers and giving it to people like the writer.

    Someone could have a nobel price in any of the natural sciences – and, if their politics did not fit, they would still be hated and moved against.

  • Paul Marks

    The depressing thing is that the United States used to be known for the charitable funding of pure research.

    These days scientists think that such things are “beneath” them.

    Taking money given voluntarily is evil “charity”.

    But it is O.K. to steal money from people with the threat of violence – extortion.

  • The problem is the government have moved in on the other forms of funding. They have done that for reasons Kevin B has said but it also means that’s about the only major funding source for the real stuff.

    Relax Kevin B. The blackhole isn’t going to happen. Well apart from in the treasury but that has nothing to do with science.

  • Steve R

    Mirskys apologies about kicking Palin-McCain when they are down is just a strawman to distract from the fact there are no politicians of any stripe who knows anything about science.
    However it is increasingly apparent that there are plenty of scientists who know about politics and want to play in that arena. Whether it is because modern science has become moribund and dull or the more likely reason that creating a government funded gravy train for subjects that tick the science box and are easily understood by politicians is tempting, I don’t know why exactly. But they are playing politics.
    If you had a choice of putative easily understood science subjects to drive this gravy train you could have the ID creationist model or the Global Warming catastrophism model, both equally pseudo in their science worthiness in my mind (accepting AGW doesn’t mean you have to accept fear mongering catastrophe).
    The fact that Al Gore, whilst virtually making it up as he goes along in his revivalist style emotional presentations, still gets standing ovations from scientists, should be more of a worrying indicator rather than considering the prattling of the no-hoper/never had-a-chance McCain Palin crowd. That is what Mirsky is distracting us from.

  • knirirr

    These days scientists think that such things [accepting charitable donations] are “beneath” them.

    Not where I work – we even take Bill Gates’ money.

  • Actually, there is one politician I know of who has some understanding of science … Ron Paul is a doctor. He also opposes “science at gunpoint”. Just a quibble.

  • Alice

    President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, 1961

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.


    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”

  • Wow, Alice. I found the whole speech and bookmarked it – thanks.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Actually, there is one politician I know of who has some understanding of science … Ron Paul is a doctor. He also opposes “science at gunpoint”. Just a quibble


    I’d hope that there are more than just Ron Paul!

  • Paul Marks

    knirir – good for you!

    And I am not just saying that because the more money Bill Gates gives to scientific research the less money he has to fund the collectivist side in votes in Washington State.

  • Paul Marks

    knirir – good for you!

    And I am not just saying that because the more money Bill Gates gives to scientific research the less money he has to fund the collectivist side in votes in Washington State.