Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Brave Pointer-Outer of the Ridiculous

Tim Harford’s thoughts on science funding (I strongly recommend his Slate article 'Positive Black Swans') reminded me of this blog post at Neurotribes by Steve Silberman, in which he shows how the office of U.S. Senator Tom Coburn blatantly misrepresented serious research as frivolous.

Coburn's public persona is of an opponent of wasteful government spending and pork-barrel projects, and the context was an attempt to expose $3 billion in mismanagement at the National Science Foundation.

Three of the most egregious sounding items in Coburn’s report are described as a study in which a “scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans,” an effort to design robots capable of folding laundry, and an outbreak of “jello (sic) wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station.” The Senator and his team of fiscal watchdogs helpfully included a grotesque snapshot of the Jell-O incident, which looks like it was cut and pasted from some other Congressional report on the menace of online pornography.

Silberman also blasts similar statements by John McCain and Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. He fears that this political show might greatly harm the careers of scientists who are doing worthwhile work that will benefit people of all political colors.

Highlights of the 2008 version of the same partisan show included John McCain and Sarah Palin — then running for the highest offices in the land — fulminating about earmarks for “fruit fly research in Paris, France,” with Palin throwing in a plucky “I kid you not!” to express her taxpayer’s righteous indignation.

Never mind that thousands of world-changing breakthroughs in health and basic science have resulted from studying Drosophila, and that the specific research Palin was ridiculing was focused on proteins in the brain called neurexins that may play a role in neural dysfunction in autism.

Although I fully approve of Silberman exposing the antics of politicians who stage this 'outrage' without regard to negative real-world consequences, I’m not convinced when he tries to set this farce within a larger ‘The Republican Party is hostile to science because they’re afraid of dissenting sources of information!’ narrative.

To be honest, I think it’s a lot simpler than that.

Coburn and other politicians who misrepresent legitimate science as a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars are taking advantage of a very human trait. We like to point and laugh at the ridiculous outsider.

When members of a group we don’t identify with, like scientists, use taxpayer dollars to put shrimp on treadmills, we laugh at them, agree with Senator Coburn that this is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, and then pat ourselves on the back that we've found a little bit of spending we can cut. Maybe we have a firmer sense that Tom Coburn is a wise and just leader of men who deserves our support and votes.

We don’t bother to find out why they put shrimp on treadmills. Not because we’re Americans, and not because science is this weird thing we don’t understand, but because we’re humans and that’s just the way we roll. How many ridiculous things do you see or hear about on the Internet every day? How often do you bother to find out the real story? Probably not very often.

And as for Coburn, he’s found something that looks ridiculous that he can mock to serve his own political ends. What’s the downside from his perspective? A bunch of scientists he knows nothing about might have their funding cut? Hah.

I should point out that this basic human instinct - 'hey, look at the ridiculous person!' - is one that's shared by all groups of people, not just Americans and certainly not just Republicans. Politicians everywhere do this when they appeal directly to the people, because it's effective at getting people to rally around them. Commentators do it too, and so do bloggers, and I guess I'm doing it right now with respect to Senator Coburn. Except I'm pretty sure Coburn deserves it.

Anyway, back to the main point. Even if I disagree with Silberman about the dark scope and majesty of Coburn's motivations, I agree that this is a problem. In his article, Harford argues that we ideally ought to be funding both sane and promising avenues of research, and far riskier, more off-the-wall ideas that seem like long shots -- 'lottery tickets', he calls them. If a Senator Coburn can make even sane research look dumb so that he can get other people to point and laugh along with him, how are the lottery tickets ever going to stand a chance?

(Now, I could see someone reasonably arguing that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be funding lottery tickets in the first place. Letting private money fund them is not implausible: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is an example Harford uses as an organization that does fund the lottery tickets, to great effect.)

I see this as an example of why humanity shouldn’t have so many of its eggs in one basket when it comes to scientific research. The United States leads the world in scientific research, not because we are so much brighter than other nationalities but because we’ve got the infrastructure and the universities to attract smart people from around the world. It’s dangerous to put the work these smart people do in the path of narrow-minded politicians.

(That said, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a uniquely American anti-intellectualism at work here. Tom Coburns can appear in any country.)

I’d like to see scientific research internationalized to the point that a politician looking for a quick boost doesn't have the influence to do any real damage.

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