Monday, September 17, 2007

Money, Science & Politics in Madison

The dead tree media has very little credibility with me anymore. The newspapers, and their electronic incarnations, are still a handy guide to the activity of the day but not a serious source of reasoned thought. The Wisconsin State Journal, in particular, eludes my attention so I didn’t realize editorial page editor Scott Milfred writes the opinion piece below last Saturday, until I find it on The Wheeler Report tonight.

Bashing Bucky backfires: Conservatives have long accused college professors of turning young minds into liberal mush. But a much more real and direct threat to the right wing are the professors' wallets. University employees are giving far more money to political campaigns than a decade ago. They’re actually giving more than the oil industry and drugmakers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations. Almost all of the campaign cash is from individual university employees. And almost all of it is going to Democrats.

I find two things disturbing in the facts outlined in the story. First, that tax paid individuals are using those funds to secure more tax revenues for themselves. Actually, it is normal for individuals to put their own self interest first. The uncoerced interplay of self interest is how the greater good emerges from free people. Coerced money being used to purse more powers of coercion, however, is a legitimate concern.

The second disturbing aspect is that while the Average Joe in the private sector is struggling to make ends meet, our public employees apparently have ample disposable income to play the political shares market.

Editor Milfred tosses in the stereotypes the academics have encouraged themselves to believe about the small government, free market, independent responsible individual, primacy of the private sector - school of thought. Take science for example.

Nationally, the surge in Democratic dollars from academia is largely attributed to President Bush and his perceived hostility toward science. Bush is part of a narrow band of social conservatives who are fiercely opposed to stem-cell research that uses discarded embryos from fertility clinics. Bush also began his presidency belittling if not manipulating evidence of global warming.

Around a year ago the Wisconsin State Journal interviews Dr. James Thompson who in his own words discusses how embryonic stem cells are unlikely to have any near term therapeutic benefits. It is completely wrong to imply opposition to tax funded embryonic stem cell research (which Bush approved) means opposition to stem cell research. Work on adult stems cells is uncontroversial, near term promising and taking place in hundreds of labs with a wealth of private sector money behind it.

As for “belittling” global warming theory, well yes, but the correct word is skepticism. The entire solar system is showing evidence of being in a period of increased solar radiation. This is a long way from any observational evidence of a dangerous man made alteration of the planet’s variable thermal dynamics.

The political right in America is not anti-science but we are against bad science. We are vehemently against tentative and often inaccurate results being represented as consistent independently verified results to the public. Living in the Ivory Tower with the petty politics and group think inherent in all small groups can distort good judgment. Knowledge is often deep, detailed and extremely thin, and not to be confused with wisdom.