Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Did government funding help keep Flint’s water unsafe?

Jerry Stratton, February 4, 2016

Among the people excluded from blame for not discovering that various government agencies were hiding Flint’s water problem are reporters. And for good reason: reporters don’t generally have access to the labs that could have told them the water was bad.

But there are a lot of people who do have access to labs, who regularly monitor health problems, who genuinely care about people’s health, and who understand the statistics necessary to know when a problem is a problem. This is a group of people well-versed in monitoring water supplies, public health issues, and who have often in the past shown light on government-caused health problems in developing countries.

That would be universities, colleges, and even private organizations with a public health focus. They have the tools and the expertise and the track record to find and publicize exactly these problems. But they also have one other thing in common: they rely heavily on funding from some of the very agencies at fault in Flint. Their jobs depend on favor from the government bureaucrats they’d be criticizing.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who tried to get the word out last fall, doesn’t blame them for keeping quiet:

The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill—pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index—and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.

If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government.

At least this time it didn’t take thirty years for the news to get out. There are two obvious ways to fix the immediate problem in Flint. One is to privatize water delivery; if government agencies aren’t managing water delivery, both those government agencies and other watchdogs have no government-caused incentive to hide or ignore water problems.

The other, of course, is to vastly reduce the amount of government funding that goes to holding back scientific progress.

Edwards also said something else that struck me:

We are not skeptical enough about each other’s results. What’s the upside in that? You’re going to make enemies. People might start questioning your results. And that’s going to start slowing down our publication assembly line. Everyone’s invested in just cranking out more crap papers.

So when you start asking questions about people, and you approach them as a scientist, if you feel like you’re talking to an adult and they give you a rational response and are willing to share data and discuss an issue rationally, I’m out of there. I go home.

But when you reach out to them, as I did with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they do not return your phone calls, they do not share data, they do not respond to FOIA [open-records requests]…

Not being skeptical of results from other researchers, not sharing data? This is the same problem we have in other areas where government-funded research is the norm. This is the same as the sad state of research and reporting on climate change.

If I were to name what I think are the two most dangerous trends in modern science, the first would be the tendency to throw out the scientific method (trying to prove your theory false) in favor of cargo cult science (trying to prove your theory true). The second would be the government funding capture that locks off promising avenues of progress due to researchers trying to please funding bureaucrats instead of mother nature.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. <- Government vs. science
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