Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Republic of Science or Empire of Ideology?


The Washington Post has a long story by Jim Tankersley about Charles' Koch's attempt to influence the economics profession with massive donations of money to large numbers of universities. Here are some excerpts:
Koch’s donations have fueled the expansion of a branch of economic research that aligns closely with his personal beliefs of how markets work best: with strong personal freedom and limited government intervention. 
They have seeded research centers, professors and graduate students devoted to the study of free enterprise, who often provide the intellectual foundation for legislation seeking to reduce regulations and taxes... 
From 2012 through 2014 alone, his charitable arm, the Charles Koch Foundation, donated $64 million to university programs. A tax filing from 2013 lists more than 250 schools, departments or programs that received grants from the foundation, in amounts that ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $10 million at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Recipients include obscure liberal arts colleges, flagship state universities and members of the Ivy League.

Some donations flow to research hubs within an institution, such as Mercatus at George Mason and the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland, which ground their research in the belief that economic freedom — and less government intervention — is the key to increased prosperity. Some support faculty positions at schools such as Clemson University and Florida State University, which have long specialized in that same sort of research...
Koch no longer personally reviews those applications — his foundation staff does...Koch, though, has articulated a set of principles to determine who gets his money. He has prized researchers whose values, as he calls them, are rooted in an economic philosophy that aligns with his— the belief that economic and personal freedoms produce the fastest advancements in human well-being.
The Post's article is titled "Inside Charles Koch’s $200 million quest for a 'Republic of Science'". This is a reference to a 1962 article by Michael Polanyi called "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory". In that article - which Koch cites as a big influence on his efforts - Polanyi says that research dollars should flow to the scientists whose work is supported by the scientific consensus. Tankersley drily notes:
[Koch's donation effort] raises the question of whether Koch has become, for university researchers, the sort of distorting force that Polanyi warns against.
Why yes. 

Koch is making a sustained, multi-hundred-million dollar effort to push the academic economics profession toward a libertarian ideology. This is a "Republic of Science" to the same degree that North Korea is a "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".

One way to see this is as a defensive reaction against the interventionist turn in economic thinking. On many issues, academic economists are now less pro-free-market than the general public. And the most famous public-facing economists now tend to be left-leaning rather than right-leaning - Hayek and Friedman have given way to Piketty and Krugman. So the Koch donation campaign might be an attempt by libertarians to stem the tide.

Another way is to see it as a defensive reaction against the overall leftward turn of academia. Many social science disciplines - anthropology, urban studies, social psychology, and probably sociology - seem to have been captured by leftist ideology to a greater degree than econ was ever captured by libertarianism, even in the 70s and 80s. Koch might be using his hundreds of millions to try to preserve econ as a bulwark against this leftist capture of social science.

A final interpretation is that Koch is just doing what Koch always does - steadily pushing libertarian thought on the world by whatever means seem most expeditious.

Whatever it is, though, I don't like it. Unlike Koch, and unlike many of the lefty social science types I've been having debates with recently, I don't believe that social science is an inherently ideological enterprise. And I think it sets back our understanding of the world when people try to flood any portion of academia with researchers whom they think will promote a certain set of conclusions.

I don't have much more to say than that, so here's one of my favorite Feynman quotes:
Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the people of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant as we are. If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.
A real "Republic of Science" would focus on an open-minded search for truth, not the enshrinement of one pre-decided dogma.


Updates

I also thought this passage from Tankersley's article was interesting:
None of the largest recipients of Koch dollars appear on a list of the most influential academic economic departments in the United States, as calculated by the research arm of the Federal ­Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Only one professor who works at one of Koch’s most-supported centers cracks a similar list that calculates the top 5 percent of influential economists in the research community 
Koch-funded researchers make a larger impact in the public arena. They frequently testify before Republican-led committees in Congress. Their work often guides lawmakers, particularly conservatives, at the state level in drafting legislation, and they have provided the foundations for judicial opinions that affect the economy on issues such as whether the government should intervene to stop large companies from merging.
It's possible that the Koch doesn't want to influence economic science itself, as much as he wants to sculpt its public-facing component. The end result could be two econ professions - a dispassionate, truth-seeking one occupying the upper levels of the ivory tower, at MIT and Princeton and Stanford, doing hard math things and careful honest data work that slowly trickles out through traditional media channels...and a second econ profession in the lower-ranked schools, doing a slightly fancier version of the kind of political advocacy now done by conservative think tanks. The former would have the best brains and the best understanding of the real world, but the latter would have much more policy influence and impact on the wider intellectual world. This is different from the wholesale yoking of science to ideology that I was envisioning, but it also doesn't seem like a pleasant vision of the future.

Many Koch money recipients have pushed back on Twitter, saying that unions and left-leaning think tanks also fund university research too. Of course, that does worry me too - maybe it's time for a general code of ethics for econ funding. But it worries me a lot more if A) the funding becomes the main source of funding for whole departments, B) it's hundreds of millions of dollars from one single source, C) it's explicitly ideological, and D) it seeks to make hiring decisions along ideological lines instead of simply funding research by existing profs.

There's lots of dirty stuff out there in econ, but the Koch effort just seems so huge and so unapologetically ideological that it's worth singling out. Quantity, as one of Koch's favorite authors once said, has a quality all its own.

A commenter talks about the situation at Western Carolina University. I've mainly been thinking about the science and policy-advocacy aspects of this issue, but education seems important as well.

36 comments:

  1. To be fair, I guess that balances out Soros with INET?

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    1. Not yet. INET doesn't try to staff universities. But if Koch keeps up this stuff, maybe it should start.

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    2. I don't see the same uproar when outfits like the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundations follow their own ideological agendas, mostly guided by their left wing ideas. All Institutions have some ideological bias.

      I would say that to think all research is carried out free of any ideology is to posit a wortwhile goal, but that it sometimes is unachievable, even in the natural sciences.

      Researchers are human beings. They are motivated by reason an logic to pursue the truth. But at the same time they must have passion and stamina to work for years in areas that might not provide results in their lifetime. It takes a lot of passion to do that.

      And scientists are not immune to reject theories or studies that go against their thinking or their work. You mentioned Galileo in a previous post. It is a fact that Galileo's most ardent opponents were astronomers like him who felt threatened by the implication his results had on the taditional geocentrist system.

      Even today, a lot of research is motivated by politics: climate change is one of them. One has to wonder if the constant apocalyptic pronouncements by some cientists do not hide the purpose of getting or keeping grant moneys for their research.

      The commitment should be not to demand ideology-free research. But rather research that is peer-reviewed and can be replicated.

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    3. Anonymous11:17 PM

      And who balances out the liberals AND the libertarians?

      No one is funding the German Historical School or the distributists.

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    4. Honestly the idea that a foundation named after Rockefeller or Ford would be promoting explicitly liberal ideas, especially in the same way the Kochs are theirs, hits the smell test hard enough that I think it should be elaborated on.

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    5. The putatively 'liberal' foundations do not fund faculty positions or (as far as I know) research institutes or undergrad majors (e.g., the sort of weirdly libertarian takes on PPE) at Universities. They fund research projects. In short there is an institutional/pedagogical thrust to the Koch agenda that is largely unmatched by Soros/SSRC/NSF/Rockefeller/Russell Sage/Ford/Carnegie.

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    6. Anonymous2:40 PM

      Nobody has to wonder if apocalyptic pronouncements of climate change are to protect grant money. The theory is based on the measurable and measured properties of atmospheric gases and the measurable and measured properties of radiation. Unless you think scientists have been lying about those properties for centuries just waiting to cash in on the future climate change gravy train, the idea that it's just a grab for grant money is ludicrous.

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    7. Yeah for real. Nick Hanauer needs to throw his money into something like Post Keyensian economics. Bill Gates show throw money into Institutionalism or New Developmentalism, etc.

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    8. As a graduate student, I worked on a project funded by the Ford Foundation. We had no particular political leanings driven by this foundation - at least that I could tell.

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  2. Hands waiting to be bitten.

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  3. Where do I sign up? Free markets in everything! Give me money!

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  4. "It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations."

    Sign me up.

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  5. Stanford? The place with the Hoover Institution Austrians?

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  6. "It's possible that the Koch doesn't want to influence economic science itself, as much as he wants to sculpt its public-facing component."

    This is the real lynchpin here. The Kochs don't care about academic citations. They want to preserve the public-facing 101ism that aligns with their economic worldview. As long as pop economics give their worldview the appearance of objectivity, they're happy. This is why Piketty is a real threat; Piketty threatens this appearance in a way not seen in decades.

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    1. For example, another billionaire, John Menard, encourage all of his Menards employees to take a Koch-sponsored "civics" course just before the 2012 elections. The course emphasized the Koch libertarian view of economics.
      http://alternetnews.tumblr.com/post/34705507396/major-retailer-urges-workers-to-take-civics

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    2. Zathras, this seems right.

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  7. Noah,

    The govt employs 53% of Economists.

    Why are you not grateful to get at least SOME Econos not sucking on govt teat to feed their family even though the private sector pays ALL of the taxes to feed their families?

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    1. Warstler, when is your "Uber for government" app coming out? Maybe you should be working on getting the bugs out of the code instead of having econ debates! ;-)

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    2. Does that include public universities? Or just the Fed / Government agencies?

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    3. It's not just that they're employed by BB. It's that virtually all research is conducted with the goal of being "policy relevant". Why else is an economist relevant but if to provide justification for the planner? That's the basic blue-print underlying most applied theory. We don't need thousands schmucks telling us to "do nothing".

      It's telling how far things have gone when you have an issue with a paltry $200 million (compared to the many billions coming from the public sector). And yes, money coming from the gov't *is* going to be self-promoting - that's just human nature.

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  8. As if Piketty is objective? He puts a bunch of data together and then throws HIS prescription onto it, which isn't backed by any data.

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    1. Piketty presented no data? Me thinks you have not read his work.

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    2. @ProGrowthLiberal: Me thinks you have trouble with reading comprehension. Piketty presents a lot of data, but then throws his own ideas onto the data which are backed by nothing but his ideas and opinions. It's one thing to present a lot of data, it's something else to present data and then present your own answer to "fix the problem" despite your answer not being grounded in any data.

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  9. Should we get all of the Koch money out of the arts as well?

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  10. The problem Noah mentions can go both ways. Joseph Stiglitz is no doubt a towering figure in economics. His prestige is unquestionable. But he has also supported the economic policies of Venezuela for example, without noticing that the country's macroeconomic management left much to be desired even before the fall in oil prices.

    We can also make the question of what authority should be given to the pronouncements of ivory tower economists that especialize in very narrow fields, when they make opinions on matters outside their purview. And it is much the case that ivory tower economists are people not much interested in policy matters, because there is not much new theory to develop there. No publicaton will be guaranteed in the most presitgiuos journals if you make case studies of applied theory.

    The reality is that both camps will exist and will endure. And particular economists will dabble in both. Economics, due to their policy implications, cannot be circunscribed nust to academia.

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  11. Anonymous8:16 AM

    What about the hundreds (thousands?) of university chairs that are funded by private endowments from wealthy individuals? Isn't this pervasive in the US? Would it not be expected that the values of these benefactors find their way into the prejudices of the incumbents that inhabit these university chairs?

    Henry

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  12. Anonymous8:51 AM

    No problem. Our society will naturally pick the ideas with the most merit. If we are wrong someone will push eventually push back. More money for universites will never be a problem, I guess we should just hope the rich keep buying yachts.

    If I ran a mid level university, I would accept the money in a second unless I thought it could hurt in another area.

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  13. I've been writing about the Koch attempt to essentially buy the econ department at Western Carolina University. This is a school that doesn't even have an econ major yet the Kochs want to fund something called the Center for Free Enterprise.
    Basically this comes down to the fact that a couple of faculty members who are products of Mercatus and GMU have actively sought Koch support. One need only look at the syllabi of these professors to see that they are heavily invested in promoting Koch sponsored institutions like Mercatus, and MRU. Citations in their papers tend to be circular or focused heavily on institutions like the Tax Foundation that receive heavy financial support from the Kochs and the anonymous political arm Donors Trust.
    I have no problem with the idea of teaching Friedman, Hayek, and even Von Mises but add a little balance and context and by all means demonstrate by data or at least example how the predictions of some of these sources mark to market.
    Edward Lopez, the prospective director of the Koch sponsored CFE, gives lots of speeches for Koch and Art Pope (North Carolina's baby Koch) sponsored astro-turf groups - really hard at times to tell who he works for and whether he's an academic doing scholarship or an academic or an advocate selling a particular political brand. In a passage from his book "Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers" Lopez offers and earlier version of the attack on Keynes's sexuality that caused such a stir when Nial ferguson raised the issue. Lopez writes: “He even took both sides in love, not terribly unusual among intellectuals of his circles in that day. As a young scholar Keynes had male lovers, including the writer and critic Lytton Strachey. But, like Pareto, he later married a Russian woman, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova.”
    I’m not sure what Dr. Lopez hoped to accomplish with this observation, but for the life of me I can’t understand what Keynes’s sexual preferences or Russian wife tell us about his economic thinking.
    At many institutions that have accepted Koch grants a condition has been approval of hires. Even when that's not the case the hires come from a tight group mostly with GMU and Mercatus backgrounds.
    The Smoky Mountain News has done a good job of covering the situation at Western Carolina.

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  14. Nathanael1:44 PM

    John M Olin was deliberately doing this first.
    Richard Mellon Scaife deliberately did this second.
    They were both very succesful.
    Of course Charles Koch is using the same playbook.

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  15. Economics: A cargo cult science from the very beginning
    Comment on Noah Smith on ‘Republic of Science or Empire of Ideology?’

    You complain about the influence of Koch money on economics and conclude: “The end result could be two econ professions — a dispassionate, truth-seeking one occupying the upper levels of the ivory tower, at MIT and Princeton and Stanford, doing hard math things and careful honest data work that slowly trickles out through traditional media channels...and a second econ profession in the lower-ranked schools, doing a slightly fancier version of the kind of political advocacy now done by conservative think tanks.”

    The fault in your argument is that it suggests that what goes on in the upper level of the ivory tower is science. It is not. Economics has never risen above the level of a proto-science. This is the core problem. Compared to this, the fact that part of the scientific garbage produced by economists has been sponsored by millionaires and billionaires is a minor point.

    First of all, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between political and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics scientific standards are observed.

    Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and nothing else. The history of political economics, on the other hand, can be summarized as the perpetual violation of well-defined scientific standards.

    The fact of the matter is that theoretical economics has from the very beginning been captured by the agenda pushers of political economics. Smith and Mill fought for Liberalism, Ricardo, Marx and Keynes were agenda pushers, so were Hayek and Friedman, and so are Krugman and Varoufakis. Not one of the political economists and agenda pushers from Smith onward will in the final assessment be accepted as scientist.

    Political economists of all stripes are characterized by four common traits:
    (i) They are mainly occupied with sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science, history, law/institutions, evolution theory, social philosophy, etcetera. That is, they miss the essentials of economics proper.*
    (ii) They use theoretical economics as a means/support for their agenda. By this, they abuse science unknowingly or knowingly.
    (iii) As far as they have tried to underpin their agenda theoretically it can be rigorously demonstrated in each case that their approaches lack formal and material consistency.**
    (iv) They have no idea about how the actual economy works.***

    It is not decisive what the political agenda is: ALL of political economics is cargo cult science (Feynman’s term). Political economics has not produced anything of real scientific value since Adam Smith. After more than 200 years of dilettantism and failure there is no place for the political economists of Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, and Austrianism among the sciences.****

    The rules of conduct of the scientific community demand that the actual state of economics is at all times unambiguously communicated to the general public. This implies, as the VERY FIRST step, that the word sciences is deleted from the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    * See ‘Economists’ three-layered scientific incompetence’
    http://axecorg.blogspot.de/2016/02/economists-three-layered-scientific.html
    ** See ‘On economists’ stupidity’
    http://axecorg.blogspot.de/2016/02/on-economists-stupidity.html
    *** See ‘How the intelligent non-economist can refute every economist hands down’
    http://axecorg.blogspot.de/2015/12/how-intelligent-non-economist-can.html
    **** For more about Political Economics see cross-references
    http://axecorg.blogspot.de/2015/11/political-economics-cross-references.html

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  16. "Whatever it is, though, I don't like it."

    I guess it depends what criteria you are using. The ideas promoted by Koch will either survive in the marketplace of ideas, or not. DSGE models did not survive in the marketplace of ideas.

    The solution to speech and research you don't like is more research that attempts to debunk those ideas. The problem with the introduction of psychology and behavioral finance into economics is that it provides a solid foundation for confirmation bias, not a foundation for science. "People are not rational" is too often code for "Those people think differently than me and I don't understand it." Macroeconomist in general vastly overstate how much we know about the world. Far too often, social science cannot be replicated.

    Regardless of Koch's financing or not, economics needs to focus on replicatable research. Randomized controlled trials.

    No one suffers from a healthy debate. Money might be able to buy a bunch of PhD's who can make a very persuasive case. That is a feature, not a bug. Hopefully people will step up to the challenge.

    I think that the problem with academic economists (of all stripes, "fresh" and "salt" water) is that they are far too wed to their own ideas and not sufficiently wed to the process of research.

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  17. This distinction between the disinterested, careful researchers and paid policy stooges assumes, at its bottom, the effort-precision heuristic: better effort/careful research yields better optimal rules. However, this does not obtain in many Econ fields, and especially in macro. Simple biased rules perform better across various environments.
    That's the real advantage of the naive libertarianism: parsimony.
    Bias is worth it if it gives us variance reduction.

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  18. This distinction between the disinterested, careful researchers and paid policy stooges assumes, at its bottom, the effort-precision heuristic: better effort/careful research yields better optimal rules. However, this does not obtain in many Econ fields, and especially in macro. Simple biased rules perform better across various environments.
    That's the real advantage of the naive libertarianism: parsimony.
    Bias is worth it if it gives us variance reduction.

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  19. "Many social science disciplines - anthropology, urban studies, social psychology, and probably sociology - seem to have been captured by leftist ideology to a greater degree than econ was ever captured by libertarianism, even in the 70s and 80s."

    I totally disagree with Koch. He is trying to improve things from the inside.

    His money would be better spent ridiculing higher education and encouraging people to avoid it.


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  20. Currently the net value of social science academic output in America is actually negative. That is, most social science research right now is devoted to denying things that are clearly true, a kind of apologetics for the empirically false parts of leftist theology.

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