Thursday, October 08, 2020

Patronage and the Sciences

When we talk about bias in the sciences, we often contrast the hard and soft sciences, with education research being at one extreme and math or physics at the other. While it is true that ideological bias is much stronger in the social sciences, there is another factor that bends research: who pays for it. Even in the soft sciences this is enormous, though it is obscured by the fact that the people controlling the purse strings largely share broad political agreement. Yet it is not pats on the back that people work for as much as a paycheck, and even within this framework there are schools of thought or approaches to a field that are not obviously political. Noam Chomsky was brutal toward those who did not accept his overall framing of Transformational/Universal Grammar, but it was not related to his politics. Both groups tended to be pretty liberal. His attitude toward opposition was the same in politics and linguistics, but that only meant he was always that way. 

I am told – please correct me James – that there was a time when String Theory ate up a disproportionate share of physics research, and folks with different theories had to scramble. Nothing of cultural or political bias in that that I can see, but it was still there. You can call baseball statisticians conservatives because they relied on hard data instead of feelings or call them liberals because they were the new kids in the 1980s pushing the traditionalists aside, but either way there was opposition and fighting over funding. 

Research is sometimes discredited because of who has paid for it. That is partly fair. It certainly helps to know who has footed the bill for bringing in a speaker, or whose house this cocktail party is at. Suspicion is fair. But it is not invalidation. People who fund research may hope for a certain result. They may even be deceitful by suppressing some results while highlighting others. But funding research occurs because people want to get the word out on something they are pretty sure is true, and they try to hire the people with the best credibility to do it. The researchers may be irreproachable. 

It reminds me of patronage in the arts in previous centuries. Artists were hired to paint the portrait of a nobleman or merchant, with a pretty clear understanding they were supposed to make them look good.

The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, by Jan van Eyk, c. 1434. It's a great painting anyway, isn't it?

I didn't put this out with any specific research, art, or advocacy in mind that I want to rescue from being rejected out of hand. Neither Exxon nor Monsanto nor the Iranian government has paid me anything to remind you of this fact.


Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

"there is another factor that bends research: who pays for it." One example from my world of environmental research. Mercury in the environment, especially its accumulation in biota such as sport fish, was a big research topic in the late 1960s and through the 70s. Lots of grant funds available. But when the dioxin issue hit the scene (or the fan) and was a political hot button (there's dioxin in your coffee filters!), funds were diverted to that research, leaving mercury researcher (among others) with no funding. Then the pendulum swung back again in another decade or so. No politics in science, eh?

DirtyJobsGuy said...

In the 50’s basic science at a minimum had to be physics or agricultural biology oriented (or at least have a peripheral aspect). But the money and opportunities for research were so plentiful that you could do about anything. In the great society era of LBJ, social science were trendy and money was tight so the mechanism of the NIH and NSF as gatekeepers appeared. The institutionalizing of grants and the grants process codified the patronage system. When bioscience took off, the pharma opportunities allowed researchers with an entrepreneurial bent bypass the system. The current lyshenkoism is disturbing however as now research must meet a philosophical or political aim. Time to pull out my old Ayn Rand books

Sam L. said...

WELL!!!! I should HOPE NOT!!!!!