Tag Archives: free market

Why Scientists Should Not March on Washington

Scientists in Canada, supported by scientists around the world and global science journals, protested attempts to cut science funding and censor scientists from speaking out under Canada's Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, who was defeated in 2015. Above, scientists from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, take part in a nation-wide protest in September, 2013.  © Deborah Jones 2013

Scientists in Canada, supported by scientists around the world and global science journals, protested attempts to cut science funding and censor scientists from speaking out under Canada’s Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, who was defeated in 2015. Above, scientists from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, take part in a nation-wide protest in September, 2013. © Deborah Jones 2013

ANDREA SALTELLI 
March, 2017

The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues. The Conversation

But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.

From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.

Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?

So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.

Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.

Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.

The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.

But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?

Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.

Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.

There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi: “It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.”

Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.

Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.

To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.

It is doubtful that Polanyi would have upheld the present dystopic neo-liberal paradigm as a worthy inspiration for scientific discovery.

Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.

That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.

I’ve seen no serious attempt to rebalance this unequal context.

A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.

Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?

Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.

One illustration of Millgram’s fears is the P-test imbroglio, in which a statistical methodology essential to the conduit of science was misused and abused for decades. How could a well-run Republic let this happen?

The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved intowhat Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.

A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.

Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echos of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.

What we see instead is denial toward science’s real problems. Take for instance the scourge of predatory publishers, who charge authors hefty fees to publish papers with little or no peer review. The lone librarian who fought this battle has now been silenced, to no noticeable reaction from the scientific community.

Trump is not science’s main problem today – science is.

Creative Commons

Andrea Saltelli has worked on physical chemistry, environmental sciences, applied statistics, impact assessment and science for policy. His main disciplinary focus is on sensitivity analysis of model output, a discipline where statistical tools are used to interpret the output from mathematical or computational models, and on sensitivity auditing, an extension of sensitivity analysis to the entire evidence-generating process in a policy context. At present he is in at the European Centre for Governance in Complexity, a joint undertaking of the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) – University of Bergen (UIB), and of the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA) -Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB). The ECGC is located in the UAB campus in Barcelona. His latest works include Science on the Verge, a book on the crisis of science, a series of article of criticism of the Ecological Footprint  He is an Adjunct Professor, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, University of Bergen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Also tagged , , , , , |

Globalization: elite British golfers rue sale to Chinese investors

A practice green is seen next to the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

A practice green is seen next to the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Estelle Shirbon
January, 2016

Former club captain Michael Fleming poses by a portrait of Winston Churchill inside the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Former club captain Michael Fleming poses by a portrait of Winston Churchill inside the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – London has been cosying up to Beijing in recent years in the hope of attracting Chinese investment, but in one leafy corner of England the love-in has turned to acrimony.

Long-time members of Wentworth, a hallowed golf club in the affluent county of Surrey just west of London, accuse the new Chinese owners of using an eye-watering fee hike to get rid of them and turn the club into a preserve of the global ultra-rich.

The dispute has caused diplomatic ripples, with interventions from Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who represents the local area in parliament, and from the Chinese embassy in London.

At issue is a plan by Beijing-based property and investment firm Reignwood Group, which bought Wentworth in 2014, that would require members to pay 100,000 pounds to remain part of the club and double maximum annual fees to 16,000 pounds.

“My own personal feeling is that they don’t want us,” said Michael Fleming, a local dental surgeon and Wentworth member for 28 years who has just ended a term as club captain. As for many members, the club has been central to his family’s social life.

The club says it plans to invest an initial 20 million pounds to improve facilities, with 10 million being spent in the next two years, as it pursues its vision to make Wentworth “the world’s premier private golf and country club”.

“We are absolutely clear on the important role the club plays within the community and we know that it has generated multiple friendships over the years. We very much want this to continue,” it told Reuters in an emailed response to questions.

Home to three 18-hole courses and to a striking crenellated clubhouse, Wentworth is famed throughout the golfing world for an old association with the Ryder Cup and as the venue for the annual BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour.

It has about 4,500 members, mostly wealthy locals with a smattering of British TV celebrities and professional sportspeople like former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen.

Men drink in the Burma Bar at the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Men drink in the Burma Bar at the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

 

“LIKE A MORGUE”

Fleming said he expected about 90 percent of members to leave the club if Reignwood’s changes come into force as planned in April 2017, and a significant number had already left.

One member of 18 years, who did not wish to give his name because he did not want public attention, said Wentworth was already exclusive by most people’s standards and he could not fathom what Reignwood were trying to achieve.

“If they do have this exclusive membership, the club is going to be like a morgue. There will be nobody there. One of the essential elements of a decent club is it has a certain amount of buzz about it,” he said.

In December, Fleming delivered a petition signed by over 500 Wentworth members to the Chinese embassy in London.

In a response seen by Reuters, embassy official Jin Xu wrote that Reignwood had “established itself as a responsible investor in the UK”, concluding that “the group has assured me that their plans for Wentworth Club will serve the long-term interest of its members and local community”.

But Hammond, writing in his capacity as the area’s member of parliament, described Reignwood’s plans as “very disappointing” in a letter to a club member.

Hammond has met twice with disgruntled Wentworth members and once with representatives of Reignwood to discuss the dispute.

“It is clear to me that a solution needs to be found … which preserves the great history of the club, delivers important new investment and retains the club’s position as a great UK sporting institution,” Hammond has said in a statement.

A barman stands behind the bar of the Cocktail Bar in the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

A barman stands behind the bar of the Cocktail Bar in the clubhouse of the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Britain, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

THE GREAT BRITISH SELL-OFF

In China itself, golf is frowned upon as a symbol of Western values by the ruling Communist Party. In October, the party banned its 88 million members from golf club membership.

This has fuelled theories among the Wentworth community about what could lie behind Reignwood’s plans for their club, with some speculating that it would become a place for party cadres to enjoy a discreet round of golf during their travels.

Though confined to a small and well-heeled community, the conflict at Wentworth feeds into a wider debate in Britain over perceptions that prime assets are being sold off to foreigners who may not always have local interests at heart.

Concerns range from absentee Asian landlords snapping up London properties while residents face a housing shortage, to a perceived loss of national prestige and control as foreign firms take over storied British brands.

China is at the heart of the debate, with government critics voicing concerns over a plan to build a nuclear power station reliant on French technical expertise and Chinese money.

A Chinese firm owns the London Taxi Company, maker of the capital’s distinctive black cabs, and during a pomp-laden visit to London by President Xi Jinping in October it emerged that a Chinese retailer would take over world-famous toy store Hamleys.

At Wentworth, the dispute over what Reignwood euphemistically calls “the new membership structure” has fuelled strong anti-Chinese sentiment.

“Is this what the British people are to expect when the Chinese ‘invest’ in our country? We need to be more alert,” wrote a club member in one of dozens of similar comments handed over to the embassy at the same time as the petition.

The club said it was “extremely disappointed by any inference that members have been treated badly, which in turn is impacting on China’s image and image of Chinese investors in the UK”.

Copyright Reuters 2015

(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsy)

Related reading:

Class war returns, this time as a global issue, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs column

Many mature democracies, previously characterised by the broad social harmony that defines equitable societies, are being sucked into a new world order. We are entering a world in which most wealth, and with it political power, is in the firm grasp of a tiny minority of people who have acquired their status either by luck, imagination, skill, or — in far too many cases — feral instincts. This is a shift in the structure of human society with very real and unappetizing implications … read more.

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions survives on an honour system. Try one story at no charge; chip in at least $.27 apiece for more. If you value no-spam, no-ads, non-partisan, evidence-based, independent journalism, help us continue. Journalism is not “free.” Details.  

Posted in Also tagged , , , |

Free Range: Thou Shalt Not Kill

The world might want to pay close attention to the new leader of the Catholic church, I suggest in my latest Free Range column.

With his first mission statement, Pope Francis is taking his flock to war – against capitalism as it’s constructed in the 21st Century.

My column, The Pope and capitalism: “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” is here.*

*Log in to read Facts and Opinions commentary, available to subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

 

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope Also tagged , , , , |