TGIF: Beware the Government-“Science” Complex

by | Sep 24, 2021

TGIF: Beware the Government-“Science” Complex

by | Sep 24, 2021


The government-“science” complex ostensibly promotes the search for facts about our world, but it actually promotes and enforces orthodoxy, protects resulting paradigms, and manufactures apparent consensuses that are questioned only at one’s reputational peril. That’s why I put the word science in quotation marks. I could have called it pseudoscience or junk science.

In contrast to real science, “science” is little more than the broadcast of evidence-free alarms that politicians and bureaucrats, advised by anointed government-financed “scientists,” use to justify political action and expansion of government intrusion into our lives. The price is liberty.

The procedure starts with a politically amenable conclusion and then moves to a search for confirmation, regardless of whatever violations of good science and statistical analysis are required. Those who voice doubts about any of this, despite their credentials and previous standing, will be subjected to attacks, even on their character. The official slogan of establishment “science” might as well be, “Orthodoxy first! Protect the paradigm!”

Someone of note saw this coming. In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower gave his televised farewell address, which has become famous for its warning “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower went on to say, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

It makes one want to cheer! Far less known, but equally important in his eyes, was Eisenhower’s warning against the government’s centralization of scientific research, which became a real concern after World War II and with the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As he put it:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government….

Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity….

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

This is truly remarkable, not to mention prescient. But I don’t know if Eisenhower was quite right. Has public policy become a captive of a scientific-technological elite? Or is it the other way around? It’s probably a combination of both. But we can readily understand how politicians and government grant-managers would naturally be attracted to research that supports their wish for more, not less, power. Some scientists, who after all are human beings too, would then be tempted to cater to this demand, which can create its own supply. If the government shows no interest in financing research that proclaims X, Y, or Z is not a problem justifying a political solution, wouldn’t you expect the number of researchers inclined that way to dwindle?

For decades scientists (and their universities) have prospered through government cash by spreading fear, either real but exaggerated or invented. This has gone far beyond research on weapons and other narrow wartime missions. Three prominent examples since World War II are the fear of dietary animal fat and cholesterol, the fear of carbon dioxide (which all life depends on), and the fear of other people, specifically, of catching COVID-19 from them. (This isn’t to says that pre-vaccine COVID-19 was not a serious danger to identifiably vulnerable people, only that it has been exaggerated beyond all reason.)

The point here is that this would have been far less likely, maybe even impossible, if scientific research funding were not concentrated in the government’s hands, largely through universities, which are hooked on taxpayer money.

Many people believe that the taxpayers must bear the biggest burden of scientific research because no one else has an interest in doing so. This is in essence a public-goods (or externality) argument for government finance. According to this argument, if the cost of doing something would fall mostly on the doer, but the benefits would fall mostly on others and charging free-riders would be unfeasible, then no doer would have a business interest in the project. That is said to be a market failure because everyone would miss out on a benefit. Thus most economists have thought that the government with its exclusive power to tax had to come to the rescue for the good of society.

But that theory, like the theories used to justify the fears mentioned above, doesn’t mirror the historical record. The insistence that basic research won’t be done by private firms sounds like the fictional scientist who insisted that the bumblebee was aerodynamically incapable of flying: he needed only to look out the window. It turns out that private investment in research has been profitable (when the government stayed out).

Writers such as Terence Kealey, Patrick Michaels, and Matt Ridley have shown in recent books that the countries that led the way in the Industrial Revolution were precisely those–Great Britain and the United States–that had almost no government support for basic scientific research until rather late in the game. In other words, private business people found the required research profitable and changed the world. Kealey and Michaels show, moreover, that postwar U.S. government spending on basic science and R&D has not increased economic growth over the previous period. Those writers also point out that revolutionary inventions by nonscientists have sometimes preceded–and even stimulated interest in–basic scientific research, the steam engine being a case in point. Moreover, the assertion that competitors will merely copy other firms’ products–that is, free-ride on others’ research–is more myth than fact because, among other reasons, much knowledge is tacit and not freely attainable through reverse engineering. (That certainly blunts the utilitarian case for patents.)

On the other hand, government finance crowds out private finance and shifts research efforts from the profit-motivated private sector to largely government-supported nonprofit universities. There are only so many really good scientists to go around. The resulting propagation of orthodoxy almost resembles the medieval guilds.

Government centralization may seem like a good idea, but it is not. The profit motive in a free market is good for society, as Adam Smith demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations. It wasn’t competition and decentralization that gave us pernicious peer review in academic publication, hiring, and promotion–a practice properly maligned as “pal review.” (Real peer review should begin after publication.) If you need evidence of such antiscience misbehavior, refresh your memory of the “Climategate” scandals.

(On all of this, see Kealey and Michaels’s Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy. Ridley demonstrates the benefits of decentralized competition and cooperation in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity EvolvesThe Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge; and most recently, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom.)

We shouldn’t be surprised that decentralization, intellectual competition, and–above all–freedom from government restriction foster human well-being. The harm from coerced, that is, from government-fostered, monopoly, is well-known. The harm is just as bad in the production of knowledge as it is in the production of goods. And it’s a triple whammy for the taxpayers: they get robbed; they get regimented; and they get fear-mongering junk science for their trouble.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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