Truth, self-seeking and science

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Newspaper articles recently criticized corporate funding of a few journalists. Monsanto gave money to the Hudson Institute to support a biotech book written by Michael Fumento; Phillip Morris apparently supported Steven Milloy, the author of “Junk Science.” ExxonMobil contributes to think tanks that question the global-warming scare.

The underlying idea is that corporate money is tainted because any research it funds will be self-interested: motivated not by the search for truth but concern for profits.

Complex issues of disclosure are involved in some of these journalism cases — questions I shall not examine. Of greater interest is the implied argument that research funded by the government is pure and disinterested. That needs scrutiny.

Government agencies have their own interest, entangled with their mission. In particular they seek to expand, or at least sustain, their share of the budget. Often, selection of the facts they present is dominated by that interest.

The idea that government agencies are self-interested was most famously disseminated by President Eisenhower, shortly before he left office. He warned that the “military industrial complex” might one day enjoy a “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” Because the media and the academy have long regarded the military with suspicion, “military-industrial complex” soon became Ike’s best known utterance, and everyone heeded his warning.

Less well known is that the same speech included a more general warning about the growing reach of a supposedly disinterested government. With the rise of the technological revolution, he said, a steadily increasing share of scientific research was being “conducted for, by, or at the direction of the federal government.” He added:

“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….

“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.”

This latter warning received almost no attention, although it was on target, as indeed was Ike’s caveat about the military-industrial complex. Military and intelligence agencies do have an incentive to magnify threats. CIA estimates of the Soviet Union’s gross national product in the Cold War were greatly exaggerated, perhaps by a factor of 10. And in scientific fields today, the “nation’s scholars” are indeed “dominated” by grant-giving agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and many others.

Government agencies have good reason to promote crises and present themselves as cures. Just as the CIA inflated the Soviet Union, so the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control inflated the “deadly virus” that transmits flu (between chickens). One day, perhaps, reporters will learn to treat flu scares as self-serving events organized by public health agencies in a world where infectious disease is on the wane; the “medical-pharmaceutical complex” at work.

But when President Bush went to the National Institutes of Health last November and asked for $7 billion to prepare for this new “danger to our homeland,” there was no whiff of media skepticism. Glowing editorials crowned news stories. Most of the money would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, and perhaps that was the appeal.

Where science is involved, the problem of self-interested research by government agencies is acute, because people are inclined to assume science is apolitical by nature. In practice, however, it is not difficult for scientists to find what they look for and to persuade the public their findings are not just true but scary. Their white coats, microscopes and test tubes give them a measure of immunity from media scrutiny.

Today, the scariest scenarios involve global warming, and the research emanates from government agencies. A leading scaremonger is James Hansen, who is employed by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, next door to Columbia University in New York City. The institute “works cooperatively” with local universities on a broad study of “global change,” involving interdisciplinary modeling.

Notoriously, such studies become so complex and parameter-ridden that researchers on a mission can get out of their computers almost any answer they want.

Mr. Hansen, who has the ear of the media, had no hesitation in calling Steven Milloy a “hack.” I would not call Mr. Hansen a hack, but he is on a mission, and has been for years. I am sure he believes, all too fervently, everything he says about the global warming crisis. Nonetheless, his models and scenarios should be re-examined by scientists, preferably not at “local universities,” not on the government payroll, and without any budgetary interest in discerning a global crisis.

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