Re: The Struggle for Liberty in Today's Academy

Date: Wed Nov 07 2001 - 10:03:04 MST

Daniel forwards Tibor Machan:
> Yet it is rarely suggested that all the government funding of research and
> scholarship may well have a corrupting affect on these endeavors. Recently,
> several philosophers--among them most notably Peter Singer--refused to even
> attend conferences on environmental issues sponsored by Shell Oil
> Corporation on the expressed ground that doing so would contribute to the
> corruption of the disciplines being considered at the conference. Yet
> thousands of scholars every year take part in government-funded NEH and
> similarly government-sponsored seminars, and thousands more take money from
> government to help them write their books and do their research. I have yet
> to hear the same complaint from the folks so concerned about
> industry-sponsored work about government-funded work.
> Yet surely the state, given its far greater power and lack of competition,
> is a more serious threat to scholarly and scientific objectivity and
> nonpartisanship than are private firms that must always be careful that the
> work of other, competing firms will attract great respect and
> trustworthiness and, thus, profits.

I think the difference is that private industrial research generally
makes no claim of objectivity. As an institution, business has as its
avowed purpose profit-making. Research is openly stated to be intended
to increase profits. While it is true that overly biased research can
be counter-productive to this goal, still there is a presumption in
general that research is there to benefit the company that funds it.

No such claims or goals exist with government-sponsored research.
Government research is explicitly designed with the purpose of objective
advancement of the truth. There is no open understanding or intention
that government research exist to further the goals of the government,
as there is with business.

Although I do think that in practice there is a bias, at least in some
politically-oriented research, I think that Machan somewhat misstates
the nature of the bias in government funding by comparing it to business.
This analogy would suggest that political researchers would be influenced
to support current government policies. Today they would be expected
to promote Republican economic policies and support the war effort.

But in fact this is not the sort of bias we see. Academics generally
are liberals, much more so than Republicans, and in most cases even
more so than mainstream Democratic governments. The academy is the
most left-leaning of major American institutions, retaining considerable
numbers of socialists and quasi-communists even as these ideologies have
failed in the real world. Academics generally do not work to support
government policies. The people who fund research have no expectation
that the work will advance the causes of whatever government is still
in power. The situation is quite different from much industrial research.

What we do see, as Machan's examples show, is a more familiar form
of bias: self-interest. Academics generally support policies which
will benefit the academy. They are leftist supporters of even bigger
governments, a policy which would funnel even more funds into academic
research. They object to Machan's libertarianism, not because it is in
opposition to the policies of the funders, for their own research is as
well; but because, if put into effect, it would cut off their own funding.

Unfortunately, self-interest is the primal human emotion and there is
no funding mechanism which will eliminate this effect. If we did have
private funding of research, eventually researchers would take on an
ideological bias in favor of that method which would be just as bad as
the present system. If we went to some of the more radical proposals
such as Robin's Idea Futures, bias would be present as well.

Undoubtedly Machan has been hurt by the bias present in those who dole out
funds for political research, which is unfortunate. But I think he needs
to narrow his criticism and focus on the actual cause of the problem.
That will expose how fundamental the trouble is and how hard it is going
to be to fix.


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