Take Your Soma and Wash It Down With a Can of Koch

By Graham Peterson

Elizabeth Popp Berman has a very fair treatment of the Koch Brothers issue over at Orgtheory.  She notes, correctly, that it’s not a Koch issue — it’s a funding academic research issue.  Lefties enthusiastically fund academic research too (notwithstanding that promoting the legalization of drugs and children’s research hospitals — Koch line items — are not righty issues).

Berman suggests that one solution is to Just Say No to any money that’s not public money.  The only obstacle to this solution is practical: public money is drying up.

But no.  The major obstacle to that solution is that public money is not non-partisan.  There is no non-partisan funding, and there is no non-partisan science.  It’s that simple.

Now, there is no such thing as the perfectly honest person either, yet honesty is worth working towards.  This is essentially why anti-positivists, anti-rationalists, et al. crowd has mostly lost the war over What Science Is.  “Value free science isn’t totally possible in the limit?  Shrug.  It’s still worth trying.”  So people continue to believe that being objective, dispassionate, positive, and moreover non-partisan, is how one conveys scholarly and scientific ethos.

To me and others who lean right, that seems like a transparent farce.  The density of left fiscal and social liberals in the academy belies the idea that being non-partisan, objective, positive, and dispassionate is possible at the institutional level, even if within the institution everyone demands vigorous objectivity of themselves at the individual level.

We are trying, indeed our damnedest, to be nonpartisan.  And failing, spectacularly.

I believe that there are mutually compatible incentives on both the supply and demand side of the market for academic research that have created the bias.  Regardless its dispassionate pretenses, the academic crew on balance carries forward the critical social projects of the left.  And regardless its dispassionate pretenses, the National Science Foundation and State Senates carry forward projects that reproduces its mission to intervene into people’s lives.  This is no great conspiracy; it’s a simple matter of compatible institutional incentives.

Fair play.  That’s fine as long as there is sufficient competition among ideas.  That’s not free market gospel talking: that’s Aristotle talking.  Those opposed side with Plato, who was a totalitarian asshole who believed that only those who know what is right should decide what is right and enforce what is right.

We do not get competition of ideas in academics when minority conservative voices get painted as fundamentalist and dogmatist by a liberal majority.  The most illiberal idea that exists in intellectual communities currently is the idea that one has the right to shout down and ignore those who one doesn’t agree with, as long as on can justify that behavior by claiming that one’s opponents are intellectually illiberal.  Or like a (surely dispassionate) professor replied to my innocuous research question recently: “stop trying to be a yellow journalist for capitalism inc.”

There is no such thing as a disinterested dollar, just like there are no such things as disinterested words, because both are merely containers, media that communicate human values.  Academics cannot work without dollars and words, and should stop pretending to.  We should take dollars and words from as many sources as possible.  That is the duty of liberal inquiry.


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