The Problem with Science

by Kevin D. Williamson
Is scientists.

To repurpose Willi Schlamm, the problem with science is scientists. In the current issue of National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke has a pitiless essay on the cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson and “America’s nerd problem,” and in the prior issue I touched on a similar subject, the meme-ification of science for political purposes, in “Nobody @#$%&*! Loves Science.” The common theme is prestige: Science enjoys enormous public esteem, which it has earned for itself, and it is inevitable that political types seek to bask in that prestige themselves, or to dress their policy preferences in white lab coats. Thus the MSNBC humble-braggadocio about being “nerds” — Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chris Hayes being fellow nerds in the same sense that Buzz Aldrin and those monkeys were fellow astronauts.

The problem is that scientific prestige accompanies scientists well outside their fields of expertise. That’s true when they wander into other scientific fields — as I noted in my essay, Carl Sagan authored scientific illiteracies based on long-discredited ideas in the course of arguing for abortion — but the problem is most acute when it comes to the matter of politics. A relatively recent and intensely annoying example of this comes from my alma mater, the University of Texas, which is proud to employ the physicist Steven Weinberg, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1979. Professor Weinberg is not short of opinions — evangelizing for causes ranging from atheism to Zionism — and is unsurprisingly interested in the question of government funding for scientific research, a subject he explores in his compact essay “The Crisis in Big Science,” recently republished in The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2013. (Yes, I am a little behind on my reading; I also have 54,000 unread e-mails.) Professor Weinberg’s essay is remarkably simple-minded, though it is admirably modest: Offering a potted history of the Standard Model, he mentions the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces but not the fact that he is one of the men who did that.

I do not get the impression that Professor Weinberg is the grasping sort, but it is worth noting that the man arguing that we need to spend more money not only on science but on most everything government does — he endorses a general increase in tax rates and an equally general expansion of the state — is a 1 percenter among public dependents. More than that: He was, as of 2012, the ninth most highly paid professor in these United States, annually taking home the equivalent of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s salary plus Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto’s salary. His wife is paid an additional quarter-million a year as a tenured professor at the University of Texas law school (the reputation of which is in dramatic decline of late). Some years ago, an administrator at the University of Texas described Professor Weinberg’s professional responsibilities to me in approximately these words: “He has a Nobel prize; he does what he wants.” The Weinberg household is a very significant net recipient of tax dollars. That being written, he seems to be a very productive man, and UT has spent a great deal more money on much less admirable investments: Mack Brown, who led the Longhorns to mediocrity on the gridiron, was paid approximately ten times what Professor Weinberg is.

Before I go on, I should note that my objection to Professor Weinberg’s essay is the stupidity and crudeness of its argument; I largely agree with his position about funding ambitious science. In fact, it is because I agree with his position on Big Science that the rest of his essay vexes me. His good point is wrapped in a wrongheaded and poisonous generality; it’s like serving an ice-cream sundae in a bowl shaped like Andrew Cuomo’s face.

Just as Austin spends on far less worthy endeavors than physicists, Washington spends on far less worthy projects than the fundamental infrastructure necessary to their work, such as particle accelerators and space-based telescopes. These are large projects, fiscally and physically — Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider at CERN spills over into France — sometimes beyond the carrying capacity of anything short of a national government or a consortium of them. It was in fact the frustrating fight over the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) that first brought me into contact with Professor Weinberg; he was an energetic advocate for the project, and I was writing about it for my college newspaper. The SSC was a project dear to UT’s heart, as it was under the direction of a member of its physics department, Roy Schwitters, and was to be built in Texas. Professor Weinberg relates a very Washingtonian story about the debacle, in which he is advised that before the site selection, the SSC had 100 supporters in the Senate, but after the site selection it could expect to have two. That is approximately what happened. The project, begun under Republican governor Bill Clements and President Ronald Reagan, was torpedoed by Ann Richards and House Democrats, with a largely uninterested Bill Clinton attempting to intervene on the project’s behalf at the last minute, and then signing its death warrant a few months later. The site in Waxahachie, with its 15 miles of tunnel, is a monument to how politics works.

Professor Weinberg understands the defects of the political system when it comes to the management of substantial scientific projects, but he proposing expanding the scope of that defective system — not only in regard to politics, but categorically. He offers us no reason to believe that we should expect different results from doing precisely the same thing — the very definition of insanity misattributed to Albert Einstein. (The actual source seems to have been a Narcotics Anonymous book, but scientists enjoy more prestige than do recovering drug addicts, which is why Steven Weinberg’s public-policy thoughts get published and those of your equally well-informed Uncle Roscoe do not.) As he notes, one of the reasons that projects such as the SSC end up exceeding their cost estimates is that Congress slow-walks appropriations to them, dragging out the process and adding to time-related expenses, which in construction can be substantial. Rather than a general increase in that kind of activity, what is called for in the matter of science funding is precisely the opposite: Ambitious projects should be funded, if they are to be funded, fully, with a one-time vote, parking the money with the National Science Foundation or another institution rather than drip-dropping them through annual appropriations. These are big projects, but not particularly big projects by Washington standards: The Large Hadron Collider cost less than $7 billion to build, and the SSC was budgeted for around $2 billion, compared to nearly $800 billion a year for Social Security. We spend $30 billion a year on farm subsidies, and Big Science is a better investment than Big Elmer — Archer Daniels Midland can pay its own bills.

Funding these projects is a responsibility that must fall to the United States, Professor Weinberg argues, because “Europe has worse financial problems than the United States, and the European Union Commission is now considering the removal of large science projects from the EU budget.” But he never considers the fact that Europe’s economic woes are in part a product of the very policies — higher taxes, bigger government — he demands. Europe is just a little ahead of the curve. In the closing of this same essay, he demands “restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income,” not in the service of more “special pleading for one or another particular public good,” but for a larger public sector across the board: SEC enforcers, police, firemen — and somebody inform the UTPCPD that he used the horribly gender-specific “firemen” rather than “firefighters” — higher pay for teachers, the works. He never gives any reason for expecting that to produce better results. The problem with the SEC, for example, is not manpower or regulatory empowerment; it’s that the SEC is the safety school of financial careers, and it is staffed by people who are not as smart or as driven as the people who are working to subvert them, or at least to get around them.

On the subject of teachers, he writes that we ought to spend more in order to “make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates.” But in fact, study after study after study has shown that public-sector workers in general — and teachers specifically — are paid far above market wages. Considering total compensation — wages, benefits, pension, etc. — public-school teachers earn a premium of 52 percent over similarly skilled workers in the private sector. And though I doubt that Professor Weinberg makes it over to the Sanchez Building very often, if he did he might notice that it is full of dimwits: Colleges of education are consistently filled with students having the worst SAT or ACT scores of any department — including journalism, for Pete’s sake.

He’s also a bit of a rogue in the lying-with-numbers department, writing: “In the past decade, the National Science Foundation has seen the fraction of grant proposals that it can fund drop from 33 percent to 23 percent.” But the NSF budget in 2014 is about 35 percent more than it was in 2004 — so what happened over the past decade? There are many possible explanations for Professor Weinberg’s figure: The number of applications may have gone up, the size of grants may have gone up, etc. But what did not happen was a reduction in the NDF’s budget, and it is intellectually dishonest to imply otherwise.

And more generally: Why should we judge the NSF’s value by the number of projects it funds? Perhaps it would be better if it funded fewer but better projects — the agency’s $7.6 billion budget could build a Large Hadron Collider every year. Considering what the NSF does spend money on — e.g., ridiculous “citizen technology forums” in which scientifically illiterate Americans are gathered so that their views on subjects they know nothing about can be properly assessed — fewer but better might be the right model. Spotlight-loving congressmen like to point out ridiculous-sounding NSF studies such as “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia,” and everybody loves a good goose-penis joke, but the real point is that that kind of small-ball work is precisely the sort of thing that you don’t need the nation-state corporately involved in. Even a modest university can afford its own waterfowl-genital research, and if you want to know what ignorant people think about science, you can stroll down to the local college of education, where you can find people who are ignorant about any subject you might care to identify.

But in Professor Weinberg’s world, this doesn’t matter: We can afford categorical expansion of the public sector because “dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts.” I should note that he does preface that with “I am not an economist.” In fact, it’s not known that “government spending” categorically stimulates the economy at all; it seems to matter rather a lot what government spends the money on, what sorts of institutions it acts through, economic conditions exogenous to policy, etc. Likewise, he argues that astronomy, like physics, “faces tasks beyond the resources of individuals,” but at the same time argues that the only valuable science associated with the International Space Station could have been done more easily and less expensively with an unmanned satellite — precisely the sort of thing that private firms now do. Most Big Science projects do not have obvious or immediate commercial applications, but then those applications are not always predictable: The World Wide Web was invented at CERN to help its scientists communicate with their colleagues around the world. (And it turned out that that technology was great for porn, gambling, and cat pictures, too.) A bigger public sector — especially one funded by higher taxes on investment — bleeds resources out of potentially productive sources of commercial funding for scientific research. There are a great many examples of the fruitful interaction of public and commercial development. Unless you have an ideological aversion to profit-oriented research, then you want to fire both barrels.

Alternatives to the historical model are of no obvious interest to Professor Weinberg. Reform of the NSF and other institutions? Not on his radar: Just turn on the money hose, because it also apparently has never occurred to him to reconsider entrusting the very institutions that made the wrong choices with the Super Collider and the International Space Station and so much more with more resources to make more decisions based on the same flawed decision-making processes and subject to the same perverse political incentives.

How smart do you have to be to argue for something that dumb?

It is striking that a mind that has helped to unveil both the largest and tiniest phenomena is capable of producing this catalogue of simpleminded banalities on the relatively trivial subject of public policy. Professor Weinberg’s limited point about Big Science is a good one; his generalizing it into a brief for a categorically larger welfare state and public sector is the sort of thing that should embarrass an intellectual of his standing. And that this appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing should embarrass us all, if this is the best we can do.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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