Proxmire Strikes from the Grave



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The late (and unlamented, at least by the scientific community) William Proxmire was a US Senator from Wisconsin, who made a name for himself as an uncompromising fighter against wasteful government spending. Except when it was directed to the dairy industry.


(source: pd lankovsky)

Proxmire is best known for his Golden Fleece Award, given to those who wasted public money in particularly egregious ways. Most often he directed his ire against scientists (possibly because science has no serious political forces standing behind it). I have already referred to this award in a previous blog; see also this link for a particularly good explanation why Golden Fleece Awards were just anti-science demagoguery.

Well, it looks like we are in for another round of cheap shots fired at the National Science Foundation (NSF). A week ago House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called to eliminate federal funding for social science. They have now launched the YouCut Citizen Review of Government that “will identify wasteful spending that should be cut and begin to hold agencies accountable for how they are spending your money.”

And what is the first agency that will be scrutinized? You guessed it, that black hole of government waste, the NSF.

Here’s Congressman Adrian Smith making the pitch for YouCut:


Would you buy a refrigerator from this guy?

I learned about this new and bold initiative from the Atlantic’s article, Former Political Scientist to Congress: Please Defund Political Science.

The author Greg Ferenstein writes,

The National Science Foundation spent $200,000 on a study of why congressmen make “vague” statements. That money could have gone towards life-saving cancer research. The same could have been done with the $750,000 spent studying the “sacred values” involved in cultural conflict and the $50,000 devoted to the study of how congressmen bargain over legislation.

This sort of research is what compels politicians to propose cutting the roughly $11 million in NSF cash that funds Political Science research. The latest to do so is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who made his plea during a major speech on Tuesday. …

“There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people … should be a priority. We can and must do better,” Cantor said Tuesday. “Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”

I agree. After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to leave a Ph.D. program in political science. Nor am I alone.

Actually, I am not sure that Ferenstein qualifies as an (even “former”) political scientist, since he hasn’t finished his Ph.D. But no matter, what makes his article particularly hilarious is that his best example, or at least the one involving the most money, is “the $750,000 spent studying the ‘sacred values’ involved in cultural conflict”. This is the study led by the anthropologist Scott Atran (full disclosure: Scott and I are involved in the same large study led by Harvey Whitehouse). To appreciate the monumental irony of Ferenstein using Atran’s study as an example of “the lack of real-world impact,” just read this review in Guardian of his recent book.

Far from being an ivory tower scientist, Scott has spent years doing such things as interviewing terrorists, religious fanatics, and their family members. He has been invited to give briefings at the White House and to various Congressional committees. If you scroll down below Ferenstein’s article to the comments, you will eventually reach his reply. However, what he is too modest to say is that this $750,000 study has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives, perhaps more. What he does is just the kind of bridge between fundamental and applied social science that we aim to do at the Evolution Institute, and this is precisely something that the Federal Government should fund.


Scott Atran at the Miller Center Forum

And policy makers should learn to use the results of this research. Right now they seem incapable of learning even from their own previous experience. About a year ago I ran a workshop on Failed States and Nation Building that brought together social and evolutionary scientists together with policy professionals, and one recurrent theme that people on the policy side raised repeatedly was that every time a new administration comes, they start from the blank page, and repeat the same mistakes, over and over again.

Later in his article, Ferenstein relates the following anecdote:

During a dinner my university threw for a distinguished Harvard professor who also served as a United Nations consultant, I asked our guest if she ever witnessed any actual impact of political-science research. She literally laughed out loud, and regaled the now-perturbed table of academics about her experience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had apparently ignored all the academic experts during his country’s transition to democracy and, instead, decided on the structure of government in a tent with his peers.

That’s right. And the result was a corrupt, despotic (last elections were a sad joke), pathetic, ineffective regime that barely controls the capital and is hated by 99 percent of Afghans.


Hamid Karzai (AP) source

I am not saying that social scientists have all the answers. Far from it. But that is why it is even more important to support fundamental research. Because if we do not understand the very forces that hold societies together, how can we strengthen them in any particular situation?

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Joe Manning

Bravo Peter!

Peter Turchin

Thanks, Joe!

James Waddington

Yes, and thank you too for reminding me of Atran’s Talking to the Enemy; I read the review in the Guardian, a must-read book, I forgot to make a note, now I’ve made the note.
As to politicians and demagoguery, it’s the same problem Dawkins has with religion. As a scientist, he ought to be observing religion with fascinated objectivity, as an evolving form. And we know in biological life we don’t evaluate birds of paradise above sewer rats as somehow evolutionarily more successful, just because the former are prettier and the latter vectors of harmful diseases. In cultural evolution should we maintain the same objectivity? The whole point about demagoguery is that as well as destructive, it is simple and simplistic, and thus has tremendous reproductive, or rather reiterative potential. So of course does science, but only by preserving its own environment in an energetic control system. The environment for demagoguery is thousands if not millions of years old, and as stable as the hominid family. The weakness of demagoguery is that it is non-predictive, as well parasitical and destructive of the environment which supports it, which is why the best demagogues often come to the worst ends, piano wire, bunkers and so on.
And of course we should attack the Proxmires of this world. That is a part of preserving and expanding the environment of science.

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