Monday, August 09, 2010
The characteristic that sets the government apart from all other social institutions is its ability to legally wield force against private citizens. This is the retaliatory force of self-defense delegated by individuals to the government and is properly used by the government only to protect their rights. Today, there is massive confusion about the nature of individual rights and the proper purpose of government, which results in the government failing to do many things that it should and undertaking many things it should not. Either of these would be bad enough, but we have both situations and we suffer further from their unintended effects.
As an example of all of these ills, take academic research. Our government constantly violates our property rights by taxation (and by other methods of mass theft, such as the creation of fiat currency to raid our savings) -- rather than protecting those rights. Our government is in the business of running a massive, bureaucratized educational system -- a task which is well beyond its proper scope. Finally, our government ends up creating orthodoxies in many academic fields as just one unfortunate result of the first two failures.
How? In a mixed economy, the government holds vast amounts of loot to dole out to academic researchers (and can threaten to take even more). This taking and distribution the government must attempt to justify to the various other pressure groups to whom such a distribution will be seen as a threat, either in the form of less in the government trough or more from their own pockets. Since there is no way for government officials to understand every area of research well enough to allocate such funds to the best researchers, they must rely on the word of those with the best reputations in their fields. This plainly sets up a cadre of people in each field as arbiters of funding allocation and this is a disaster, regardless of the merit of their work, for it incentivizes more work within their established theories, discourages work that challenges it, and isolates the dissident worker even more than he otherwise would be from his peers.
And, when the answer to a specialized question improperly comes to bear on some proposed government policy, as with the question of whether there is global warming due to human activity, the problem grows even worse! To cut to the chase, the question of whether the government should regulate an activity that causes no immediate danger to others is one of political philosophy. Certainly, the government should prevent us from performing activities that harm others, but whether we are all going to die or suffer any time soon is not the focus of the debate over the political agenda associated with the theory of man-made global warming. That debate is (improperly) centered on how the government will confiscate our property and control our use of what it does not take, with the worst-case, possible answer to a controversial scientific question being used to justify as much such confiscation and control as possible.
Among the results of such massive confusion have been (1) laymen arguing themselves blue in the face about the answer to a question they are not really qualified to answer (although they are certainly entitled to form an opinion one way or the other), when this isn't really the issue at stake anyway; and (2) certain scientists and their political allies using an alleged "consensus" on the same scientific question, as a rhetorical battering ram against anyone who opposed such vast (and illegitimate) government power.
With this milieu of confusion as our backdrop, enter Brendan O'Neill of Spiked, who discusses a peculiar version of the Argument from Authority. Much of this will sound familiar to any target of the global warming "consensus," but the form and versatility of the argument he outlines might take anyone not forewarned by surprise.
According to O'Neill, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of The Spirit Level, a book which argues that societies that are "equal" "do better" than "unequal" ones:
... have imposed an extraordinary condition on future debate about their book. Because much of the criticism of The Spirit Level has consisted of "unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes" (in their view), "all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed journals", they decree.First, on reading Pickett and Wilkinson's "decree," linked above, I recalled how the confusion of the AGW debate would often could cause laymen against AGW (the political agenda) to look askance (not completely without justification) at results that supported AGW (the scientific hypothesis). In that light, I can understand why Pickett and Wilkinson, as people who, arguendo, have unearthed some unsettling statistical relationships, would tire of answering ill-founded objections to their economic or statistical analyses and could legitimately decide to pick their battles. At the same time, the facts remain that (1) their arguments probably will be used to justify statism, given the intellectual confusion of our day; and (2) part or all of what they argue may be wrong, but beyond many laymen to refute. I have not read this book, but it could well be that Pickett and Wilkinson themselves are leftists and are indeed using this book for that very purpose. One way or the other, O'Neill does raise a good point: Laymen are entitled to their own opinions, and in fields dominated by state-entrenched orthodoxies, they might be better off ignoring those orthodoxies. (That said, we would all be better off insisting on a following a proper philosophical hierarchy in debates about political philosophy.)
Wow. In one fell swoop they have painted any criticism of their book that appears in non-peer-reviewed journals as somehow illegitimate. They snootily say that "none of [the] critiques are peer-reviewed" and announce that from now on they'll only engage in discussions that "take place in peer-reviewed journals". So any peep of a critique that appears in a newspaper, a book published by a publishing house that doesn't do peer review, a non-academic magazine, an online magazine, a blog or a radio show -- never mind those criticisms aired in sweaty seminar rooms, bars or on park benches -- is unworthy because it hasn't been stamped with that modern-day mark of decency, that indicator of seriousness, that licence which proves you're a Person Worth Listening To: the two magic words "Peer Reviewed." [minor format edits]
But that brings me to my second point: Laymen might be better off ignoring certain schools of thought as state-entrenched orthodoxies, but it does not follow that every predominant school of thought or methodology is necessarily such an orthodoxy, or that objectivity has become extinct in every academic field. Suppose, buried among Pickett and Wilkinson's statistics are data about crime rates and poverty that, properly interpreted, actually illustrate some great evil of the redistributionist state. Wouldn't peer review supporting such a point actually make it better-established and thus more useful to advocates of capitalism? Might such an analysis be beyond the training or knowledge of most laymen, and thus unavailable to us? There is a great danger in populist, anti-academic rhetoric, such as O'Neill's term "gatekeepers," that a fallacy equally dangerous to laymen as blind trust in "experts" -- blanket condemnation of "gatekeepers" -- can arise. That, too, is to be avoided and to be shot down by whomever can detect it whenever it arises.
And thus we see one of the great tragic, unintended consequences of government funding of academic research. The job of the intellectual whose specialty is in an area requiring special knowledge not usually available to laymen has become much harder. Peer review, which is properly a check for objectivity, has been compromised and its value (when properly performed) increasingly forgotten. Maverick academics of all stripes are more likely to treated as charlatans by established academics and as heroes by laymen in certain areas, when objective peer review could separate the former from the latter more reliably and more quickly.
Conversely, the layman is left more on his own than ever before.
Today: Note: There appear to be Blogger problems. My comments get posted, then disappear. Once the problem is fixed, my comment(s) should appear here and, if necessary, I will remove repeated postings of my comments.
8-10-10: The comment problem seems to be a new, but poorly-implemented anti-spam filter that deletes comments with hyperlinks or even URLs within them. I hope this is just a bug and not a new "feature" as I find having links within comments useful, but only time will tell.