Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bouncing Against the Mold

Warren and I have a mutual interest in the economics and politics of science. Robert Higgs at the Independent Institute addressed such a topic last week, with a particular emphasis on global warming.

It's a lovely reminder that nothing forged by men is sacred. Every human institution, including peer reviews and scientific journals, are subject to politics over facts. Indeed, the great paradox that Higgs alludes to is that even though most people have a great deal of faith in the scientific process (with good reason), it is far more subject to distortion than other institutions. I hate quoting at length but his writing is just too good:
Science is an odd undertaking: everybody strives to make the next breakthrough, yet when someone does, he is often greeted as if he were carrying the ebola virus. Too many people have too much invested in the reigning ideas; for those people an acknowledgment of their own idea’s bankruptcy is tantamount to an admission that they have wasted their lives...Research worlds, in their upper reaches, are pretty small. Leading researchers know all the major players and what everybody else is doing...The whole setup is tremendously incestuous; the interconnections are numerous, tight, and close.
Higgs wrote also of what the alliance between politicians and scientists (the former hands out grants and the latter raises faux concern to make it easier to get earmarks) as well as emphasizing that scientists should know their place (saying X, Y, and Z will happen is one thing, making normative statements on importance and urgency is another). What he did not emphasize, however, is the role of the media, which is the great megaphone for all these concern. When it's cheap to scare people and those holding the microphones want you to scare people, people get scared a lot and with little justification. And with no one capable of silencing the hysteria getting a fair say, is it any wonder why so much of the population is scared all the time?

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