Pitfalls of government intrusion on science
As unbelievable as it sounds, there hasn’t always been a National Science Foundation, Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Health, Environmental Protection Agency or a slew of other government agencies whose purpose is to support the sciences.
(Since this column is for the lay audience, I should point out that the word “slew,” in this context, is a technical, scientific term derived from the Gaelic “Slough” which means “a large multitude.” This should not be confused with the use of the term as a verb describing a dangerous, uncontrollable sliding motion, or a noun with the alternate meaning of sloppy, muddy ground, despite the seeming applicable definition of the latter.)
In fact, much of our foundational knowledge of the sciences was pursued and discovered by men with little or no government support. Often scientific discovery was the result of singular curiosity. (Although curious, I personally haven’t discovered any foundational science, but I never had government support either. I guess this makes me about a third of a scientist. I do appreciate CMU because they tolerated my research as long as I didn’t get in the way.)
Anyway, the unfunded approach usually led to accurate information because ensuing argument and verification between scientists led to better and more accurate understanding. Historically, much scientific discovery has also been driven by commercial interests as well. I have received funds from business for research. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s probably more lucrative to fund research than to do it. Once again, though, failure of theories or ideas causes financial loss, and losing money generates accuracy and honesty.
Today a lot of research is funded by the government. However, government involvement in scientific research carries a certain risk. That risk is exemplified in a dense but remarkable book written by Zhores A. Medvedev and published in 1969. The book is entitled “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko.” I don’t actually recommend the book, as it is dull and convoluted with what many would think is irrelevant Russian political events under Stalin. I suppose the fact that I actually read the book says something about my dullness and convolutedness.
The book is pertinent to our modern world because T.D. Lysenko, through politically influenced science that supported communist ideology, set Russian genetic research back by a century. In fact, Russian genetic research and agriculture have never caught up with the West. In the process, his fraudulent theories also caused the death of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Russians from famine. (I, on the other hand, have never really harmed humanity through my research. I suppose the jury is still out about the value of this column to science.)
When the government is allowed to determine what is scientifically true, there is often no discussion, no alternative point of view, little verification by independent experimentation, and no economic failure that would help verify accuracy and reliability might be delayed. As a reviewer of the Lysenko book observed, “When fear born of tyranny stalks the land, men become corrupted and perverted along with their science and society. Whether it be the CIA, the Mafia, BOSS, the SS, the NKVD or any other instrument of coercion, once its growing power puts it beyond the reach of John Citizen and the Commonweal, the lamps of freedom go out and darkness descends.” (G.A. Clayton)
I like this quote because it makes it sound like science is really important to freedom. That sounds a lot more inspirational than just being curious or making money. In reality, I am not entirely sure that science is important to freedom, but I am very sure that freedom is essential to science.
When alternate points of view, discussion, or testing against the actual world are discouraged by regulations, withholding funding, or political-style informational campaigns, science suffers. There is a whole slew of government agencies involved in science today. A slew is probably too many.