Jeff Flake Will Decide What Is and Isn’t Science, Thank You Very Much May 15, 2012

Jeff Flake Will Decide What Is and Isn’t Science, Thank You Very Much

Nearly missed by the Beltway media, a tiny little amendment was brought to the House floor on May 9th by Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Here’s what the gentleman suggested should be law:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation.

I’m sorry, what? (I should say, this is about the most readable thing you’re likely to find in the Congressional Record; it’s like trying to read appendices from the Lord of the Rings while on Ambien.) The gist here is that Rep. Flake has a problem with public funding of political science research — and that’s not to mean “science with a political edge” (like climate change), but good old, liberal arts PoliSci. He personally considers it a waste of money and so proposed an amendment that would end its pursuit at the National Science Foundation.

You may already be sensing why this is bad. He’s not simply saying, “I will punish the NSF by reducing its funding,” but rather, “I deem this area of research to be pointless, and I forbid you to engage in it.”

The invaluable Ezra Klein sends up flares about the implications of legislation like this (emphasis mine):

… the NSF runs a widely respected peer-review program that decides what science to fund. If Flake wanted to reduce the funding available to the NSF in total, that would be one thing (and, to be fair to Flake, he has proposed that in the past). But what he’s doing here is telling the NSF what is and isn’t acceptable science to fund. That’s not how scientific decisions are supposed to work. And the effect could be chilling.

Jeff Flake, thinkin' 'bout science.

As they often do, Flake dressed up his opposition with paeans to fiscal responsibility and disdain for Ivy League universities. But the heart of the matter is that Flake — a person with no scientific expertise whatsoever — is inserting himself into a debate about what areas of inquiry are and are not worth pursuing, based on his own politics and notions of governance, all of which are irrelevant.

This actually gives him too much credit — he’s not inserting himself into a debate in order to engage in said debate. He’s entered the debate hall, knocked over the podiums, and declared himself the winner.

This is not an argument over the merits of a particular study’s findings, it’s a declaration that the entire field is worthless. And based on his own words on the floor of the House, it doesn’t sound like his understanding of political science is terribly sophisticated, as he trots out the old anti-spending canard, mining the NSF’s budget for things that can be phrased derisively:

So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do… I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.

$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.

These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?

Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to what a certain former vice-presidential candidate once lamented about the study of fruit flies? I mean, how does he know society won’t benefit from this work? If anything, though, it’s worse, because it’s not about cutting off some silly-sounding earmark. It’s about upending a peer-review process in order to squelch an entire field of study. Imagine, if you will, that Rep. Flake decided that he felt that geology was a silly waste of time, since we know pretty much everything we need to know about rocks and stuff. This is what we’re talking about.

Flake’s amendment passed on Thursday.

Science needs to be done for its own sake. Areas of inquiry need to be pursued vigorously and utterly free of short-term, uninformed political interference. If we’re going to have a National Science Foundation, we need to let it do science. If Flake is setting a precedent, we’ll have only a small handful of preferred subjects that can be investigated. And when even those few subjects have a Sword of Damocles dangling over them in the shape of a GOP House Member, its hard to see how answers conveniently follow the dictates of the politicians, right along with the questions.

Oh, and Flake is running for Senate this year. Just so you know.

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  • It’s like the old Christian comeback “You can’t prove the universe wasn’t created by God”. Nonsense, we just haven’t advanced far enough scientifically to disprove it. Doesn’t mean we can’t, just means we haven’t been able to yet. So we keep marching forward in science, medicine and such. And sadly, the Ice Capades. But I do think somewhere in that ever expanding universe of ours, there’s an answer to everything. Sans understanding women.

  • At the risk of an ad hominem attack (or maybe it’s ad nominem) Flake by name, flake by nature

  • gski

    I don’t see that this sort of micro management is anything new or unexpected.  Congress has been telling NASA (a jobs program) what to do for 50 years then there are stem cell research limits, requirements that NIH research CAM, the list goes on.

    Tell me what I’m missing.

  • Talynknight

    Not to mention this genius has a Masters in Political Science.

    So I guess he thinks his degree is completely useless.

  • He’s got a point though – Social Science is a different field to Science, and it makes sense to have different funding streams and for policy makers to be able to decide which to prioritise.

    That’s not to say that it’s a good idea to defund Social Science, but it’s fair to say that it shouldn’t be blindly lumped in with natural sciences.

  • Billcren

    Another Arizonidiot. What’s in the water in the desert?

  • Peter White

    Yet another ignoramus who wants to tell scientists what to study. I had the same argument with my fundie sister. She never understood that scientists study things we don’t know or understand so we can learn about them. There are no predetermined outcomes and no way to know if the research is immediately useful or not. No single bit of knowledge has ever helped humanity but if you put a few pieces together you can cure disease or make the world a better place.

  • Carla

    It just seems painfully convenient that the research they’re defunding is the research that stands to show them what they’re doing wrong. I see this less as “defund science!” and more as “defund those nasty people who want to prove that we’re not actually doing our jobs very well!” I think that makes it even more insidious; they’re using their funding power to silence criticism. This is a very ominous sign, methinks. 

  • It’s not blindly lumped together. The NSF has one division that handles most of the social sciences SBES (psych gets it’s own section I think). Each of the natural sciences also has their own division. Unless you are arguing that all of the social sciences should be dropped from funding by the NSF. In which case you don’t give an argument as to why this should be the case and where the social sciences should look to for funding? Unless you study military, education, or health there aren’t many other non-corporate sponsors for social science research. 

  • MacGruuuubeeeeerrr!

    Sorry, he looks like Will Forte. That is all.

  • Michael

    My thought was similar, that he’s afraid political science will produce better politicians than him and he’ll be out of a job.

  • Fsq

    Ah yes, dear sweet Arizona….home of ignorance, intolerance, stupidity and joe Arpaio…..what a wonderful state they have… wonderful in fact, that it should never ever be shared with the rest of the world. Seriously. Seal that fucking place off at the borders and let them rot.

    And Patrick Moynihan said it best – you have the right to your own opinions, you do not have the right to your own facts.

    Penn Jilette posited a great example of this. We can place a male puppy in the center of the room, and we can all vote on the puppy’s sex. Even if 99 percent of us vote it is a female, the fact remains it is still a male puppy. Voter majority does not equal fact.

  • Bob Becker

    That’s not a trivial argument. But it’s also NOT the argument Flake made.

  • Xeon2000

    Well, research will just keep moving to countries that support it more than the United States. It’s nothing new. The next big discoveries in science won’t take place in this country. The white bred Christian idiots can stay and flounder as they dig themselves into a new Dark Age.

  • never before has a name like “Jeff Flake” been so fitting for someone who looks like that.

  • Every example of “waste” that he gave, all put together, does not reach the amount of money we blow in an hour in that money pit called Afghanistan.
    $200,000? They blow that every DAY on K-street taking these assholes to lunch!

  • BenofSoCal

    I think the last name pretty much says it all.

  • Mike Brownstein

    If you think this is just social science, just think what other parts of the NSF could be cut if someone didnt like it…

  • This is nothing new. Congress is increasingly meddling in science. What should be largely independent expert agencies are now being directly controlled: the EPA is ordered to not consider CO2 a pollutant,  the NIH is told what kind of research projects they can fund, Fish and Wildlife gets ordered to delist endangered species, and many other examples of politicians who know nothing about science manipulating it for political ends.

  • Sue Blue

    Shit – when did Arizona become the nation’s insane asylum?  Were they running out of room in Texas?  This is yet another of the mindless idiots who think that their political standing or job title give them blanket authority and knowledge on every subject – like a mechanical engineer pontificating on whether evolution is true and should be taught in schools.  I’m with Carla and Michael – I think this doofus is afraid of being “shown up” by people who really do know what they’re talking about.  

  • Xeon2000

    Is it just me or does he have that distinctive glazed-eyed, happy drug, brainwashed, oblivious, 24/7 smile, creepy, cultish stepford face that I’ve began to see with others like him.

    Is it weird if I think he’s a serial killer?

  • Emma

    My two cents: my mother’s a poli sci professor, and she has a lot of problems with people who try to frame it as a science like biology or physics. I can’t remember her exact reasoning, but it was something along the lines of “politics does not lend itself to rigorous scientific analysis nearly so easily as things like biology or chemistry, and political scientists’ attempts to scientifically analyze politics have been extremely problematic so far.” 

    Of course, my mom has a lot more ground to make her claims than Flake does (being an actual political scientist and all). Moreover, she isn’t trying to say that poli sci is completely unworthy of study, just that political scientists shouldn’t get delusions of grandeur about how reliable and scientific their models are (IIRC, her criticisms of poli sci have a lot of parallels with various criticisms of economics).

  • Another right wing attack on reality.

  • smazie

    “This is not an argument over the merits of a particular study’s findings, it’s a declaration that the entire field is worthless.”

    Exactly!  This is the point that many aggrieved political scientists have missed when they defend themselves against Flake’s attack by meekly pointing out that particular research projects have “clear benefits.”  It’s a sad display of “we’re relevant, dammit!”  The better tack is to argue for the value of humanities and social science scholarship writ large, as I claim in a post at Big Think today: 

  • Dez Crawford

    Grasshopper, this is the secret to understanding women.  Listen to monologues and answer questions honestly. without feeling that you must be a problem solver  — when your wife/girlfirend vents to you about emotion, do not attempt to provide solutions.  She is not asking for a solution.  She is asking for camaraderie.  Say, “That sounds terrible.  I understand why you are upset.”  And give her a hug.  Usually when your wife/girlfriend is going on about something, she simply wants to get it off her chest, or hear affirmation that her being upset, sullen, etc. is justified. Most women are raised to feel timid about asserting our feelings.  All you have to do is acknowledge that it is GOOD to assert feelings.  And if your wife /girlfriend asks you “What’s wrong?” because you are silent and impassive, and maybe you are thinking about that troublesome computer program at work, and you really have been sitting there for the past two hours puzzling out how to fix it, don’t say “nothing’s wrong.”  Say “I know this may sound silly  to obsess on, but I have been sitting here trying to figure out why the inventory program at work keeps locking up, and wondering how I could fix it.”  “LIsten and answer honestly” will not fix AL problems between men and women, but it will fix many.  Listen without feeling pressured to offer a solution.  Answer “What are you thinking about,” or “what’s wrong” honestly, even if your answer is “football.”   Never say “nothing.”  You will be much happpier!

  • Dez Crawford

    Another one who skated through college on fraternity connections, Dady’s alumni buddies, and good dental work.  How stupid  can you get!

  • Tinker

    A little background:
    A few years ago The Flake was involved in a questionable legislation here in AZ. A bill was passed that gave an extremely sizable credit to anyone buying a hybrid. It was so sizable that it made the hybrid cheaper than a regular gas vehicle. The definition of a hybrid was so broad that most of the vehicles sold under this scheme were SUVs with a 5 gallon propane tank under them. And they were not even required to use the 5 gallon tank. When predictably the program began to run out of money after only a couple of months they rescinded it, but not before Flake and his co-conspirators got theirs. I actually met The Flake a couple of years after that when I was driving a tow truck. He needed for me to tow his hybrid SUV to the shop because if he drove it there himself it would go over the mileage and be out of warranty.This is the ‘science’ that The Flake believes in; the science of money. Of course, do we expect anything else from any of our politicians?

  • anonymousguy

    Hahahaha, its funny you say that. I have a BS in polisci, and thats exactly the conclusion I came to that its worthless. I can see wanting to separate the science from the social science, makes sense, especially if one wants to avoid politicization of science.

  • amycas

     When I’m upset about a problem, I am looking for solutions. I may be voicing my emotions as well, but I am still looking for solutions. I really hope that comment was tongue-in-cheek.

  • Science doesn’t need anything. It certainly doesn’t need to be do for its own sake. Science _should_ be done for a reason, not because a scientist wants a job

  •  Sometimes I want answers, sometimes I want comfort, sometimes I need both.

  • Jill B

    Um, why was the NSF funding social science research in the first place?  And how is political science even *science* in any sense of the word?  I would think the atheist community would *support* only funding true science–that which is subject to the rigor of quantifiable and repeatable empirical evidence.

    It doesn’t make sense to expect that every field of study be massively funded by the government, especially when our country is broke. 

    I recommend this article of an opposing viewpoint (written by a Physics PhD student):

  • I agree with you perfectly Carla, but, I personally think what you just said would be a thousand times more effective, if you hadden’t ended it with “methinks”. I hope you dont take offense, I just would like for the people I agree with to make the best arguments, nothing ad hominem. 

  • It’s ad hominem. lol funny i just saw this after googling the word for my comment up there ^^

  • Wanna hear a joke? Google: “Tennessee Creationism” They’ve recently decided that the science classroom shouldn’t have a set curriculum, and thus, are now allowing the individual teachers complete “freedom” to decide what is “right” in any field of science, (the legislation mentions, The solar system, Global warming, and Evolution, as examples.) to teach their kids… given it’s in the bible belt take a guess what will be the most “popular science” taught in there classrooms?  Kinda reminds me of the “triangle theory” argument.

  • Lol, “Popular Science”

  • Sandersokie

    Hi Carla , do you know anything about his involvement in the propane/conversions to cars here in Arizona.I heard it was a mess and cant find anything about it online.. Thanks

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