Big Science

A standard way to make institutions sound insidious is to tack “Big” in front of a general category, as in Big Business, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and so on. This is a violation of the Third Rule of Discourse that might be acceptable under the corollary if it didn’t carry pejorative connotations. The point of the nomenclature is to differentiate these institutions as being large and fiscally powerful, and thus able to sway politics and public policy to a much greater degree than private citizens, even large numbers of them put together. It’s usually a bit of left-wing rhetoric, but the right wing gets in on it occasionally with terms like Big Unions (Big Government is not an example of this, being a different concept).

One of the latter terms is Big Science. It got trotted out in the tagline to Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled:  “Big science has expelled smart new ideas from the classroom…What they forgot is that every generation has its Rebel!”  I’ll pause here to clarify definitions, because the term “Big Science” gets used in two ways. The first is the phenomenon of large-scale, expensive scientific research, usually funded by governments. The Large Hadron Collider is an example. I’m not talking about this usage. Rather, I’m talking about the less common usage referring to science as a large, roughly homogeneous, politically powerful entity, comparable to the oil lobby and such. The term is fairly rare, but the concept (that scientists are influencing politics to their own ends, much as businesses do, and/or that the scientific community dogmatically defends its own theories and silences opposition) is rather more common.  It’s also utter nonsense.

To claim there’s a research science lobby is to overlook the direction of cash flow.  Businesses can lobby the government because they’re paying into it: generally through their taxes and specifically through their donations.  Science, however, gets money from the government in the form of grants.  Given the dwindling number of grants, the government has far more leverage over research scientists than vice versa.

The idea of a conspiracy within science to promote certain ideas and squelch others is also flawed.  Given the way science is structured, it’s unlikely to ever cling to a false theory for any reason once it becomes untenable, because science is a field that values both truth and new ideas.

The best way to get famous as a scientist is to prove a novel new theory.  The scientific community is unlikely to cling to an old idea once a newer idea is shown to be true, because every individual scientist stands to profit greatly by being the one to discover (or rather, demonstrate and verify) the truth.  The more novel the idea, the more corollary research there is to be had around it, so other scientists have a vested interest in embracing the new theory so that they can get a piece of the research pie.  They also don’t want to go chasing after nothing, though, so careful work is done to make sure the theory is really true, leading to a long delay as new knowledge becomes widely-accepted enough to appear in peer-reviewed journals, then general science magazines like Scientific American, then popular science magazines like New Scientist, and finally textbooks.

You might think that this would lead to the scientific community agreeing to make stuff up (like, say, global warming) so that they could ask for a bunch of money to study it.  But this doesn’t happen either, because the second-best way to get famous in science is to disprove a widely-believed theory.  The scientist who disproved global warming unequivocally would probably have a Nobel prize coming, as well as money coming out of his or her ears from the oil lobby.

This is basically game theory working in reverse.  In case you’re not familiar with it, game theory deals with a two-player scenario where each person has two options, leading to four possible outcomes that are better or worse for each player.  For instance, say that Cold War Russia and the US both want to nuke each other.  The possible outcomes, ranked from best to worst from the US perspective:  Best, the US nukes Russia but Russia doesn’t nuke the US; second best, neither country nukes the other; third best, both countries nuke each other; worst, Russia nukes the US but the US doesn’t nuke Russia.  The idea is that, if both parties act to obtain their respective best scenarios, they end up with a scenario that is bad for everyone.

In science, the opposite is true.  If each scientist acts strictly for his or her own benefit by proving a new theory or disproving an old one, the scientific collective benefits.  If someone fudges data or falsifies results, other scientists benefit by exposing this–and so does science as a whole.  And all this doesn’t even take ethics into account.  Most scientists place a high value on truth.  They entered the sciences to learn more about the world.  Most of them would not falsify data for any amount of reward.

The left wing needs to drop the “Big” label. Simply referring to “the coal lobby” or “private health insurance providers” is sufficient and less loaded. However, the right needs to drop the term “Big Science” altogether.  It’s a meaningless term and bespeaks a lack of knowledge about how science works.


Squelch.  Squelch.  Squelch.


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One response to “Big Science

  1. Pingback: Experts: The Aftermath « Chimaera

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