Climategate and the Scientific Elite

Climategate and the Scientific Elite

May 26, 2010
Originally published in The National Review Online

The news that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who popularized the idea of a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism, has been struck off the register of general practitioners in the United Kingdom testifies to the fact that, in many scientific fields, objectivity still reigns. Britain’s General Medical Council found that Wakefield had used unethical and dishonest research methods and that when his conclusions became common knowledge, the result was that far more children were exposed to the risk of those diseases than would have been the case otherwise. Unfortunately, in other areas, some scientists have been getting away with blatant disregard for the scientific method.

The most prominent example, “Climategate,” highlights how dangerous the politicization of science can be. The public reaction to Climategate should motivate politicians to curb such abuses in the future. Yet it was politicians who facilitated this politicization of science in the first place.

The economic historians Terence Kealey (The Economic Laws of Scientific Research) and Joel Mokyr (The Gifts of Athena) help us understand just how science progresses. Their central insight involves the recursive nature of the scientific process. In Mokyr’s terms, propositional knowledge (what politicians term “basic” science) can inform prescriptive knowledge (“applied” science). However, the reverse happens just as often.

This understanding contradicts the linear model of scientific research, which became prevalent in America in the 1940s and ’50s, following the model of the great scientist Vannevar Bush. Under this model, we must invest in propositional knowledge as a public good, because that’s where our prescriptive knowledge comes from. Yet even as Bush’s model was taking hold, President Eisenhower warned against it. In his farewell address, just after the famous remarks about the military-industrial complex, he said:

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.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

What Ike warned about has now come to pass. The scientific elite, with the help of its allies in Congress, increasingly dictates public policy and thereby secures the continued flow of research funding. Time and again, scientists have told me how they have to tie their work to global warming in order to obtain funding, and time and again — bar a few brave souls, who are immediately tagged as “deniers” — they tell me it would be career suicide to speak out openly about this.

Moreover, by consciously reinforcing the link between politics and science, the scientific elite is diminishing the role of private innovation, where prescriptive knowledge informed by market demand drives propositional knowledge. Thus, they are driving the market out of the marketplace of ideas.

For that reason, we must challenge the linear model of science. One way to do this is to break the link between political patronage and scientific funding. For example, we could fund basic science by awarding prizes for excellent research results instead of grants before the event. With their patronage powers curtailed, politicians might become less interested in scientific funding, allowing private money to fill the void.

That’s the good news about Climategate. It starkly revealed to the public how many global-warming scientists speak and act like politicians. To those scientists, the message trumped the science. Few members of the public have accepted the findings of the inquiries exonerating the scientists; most dismiss them as whitewashes. This is to the good, for it reinforces awareness of the scientific elite President Eisenhower warned about.

If politicians realize that the public regards them as corrupting science rather than encouraging it, they might become less inclined to continue funding the scientific-political complex. Then scientists would be free to deal with the Andrew Wakefields among them as needed, rather than worry about their funding.