Thursday, March 28, 2013

Games People Play. With Universities And Science.

This piece talks about influence and how it might be purchased with money.  In this case the influence is ideological and attempts to change what a university does:

At Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, every student who majors in economics and finance gets a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged…FGCU now has a core group of a half dozen economists whose research supports the ideas of free-market capitalism, still an unpopular subject in most faculty lounges. They teach this material to more than 250 economics and finance students (one class is titled “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism”), organize lectures by leading thinkers, publish their research in well-respected journals and hold influential positions in groups that promote free markets.
The ideological transformation of FGCU economics began in 2009, when Allison, a famous devotee of Ayn Rand’s who was then the president of banking giant BB&T, donated $600,000 to FGCU to create the endowed “BB&T Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise.” Allison now runs the libertarian Cato Institute, a position he gained with the support of Charles and David Koch after some controversy.
The Kochs also supported Allison’s efforts at FGCU, a largely local school with about 11,000 undergradutes. A ThinkProgress review of Charles G. Koch Foundation donations from 2008-2011 found $87,000 in donations to Florida Gulf Coast University. According to an internal BB&T professorship report, the Koch money “provide[s] operational seed funding for the yearly activities and the local BB&T Charitable Foundation sponsors our premier annual event — The BB&T Free Enterprise Lecture Series.” The internal report also included metrics on the program’s operations such as “Atlas Shrugged Distribution — Number of students reached: approximately 120.”
Strange as it may seem that private ideological organizations can support academic departments, it’s not uncommon. A massive Koch donation to Florida State University’s economics program generated significant controversy in 2011 when it came to light that the donation was accompanied by de facto Koch control over some hiring decisions and the ability to review the scholarship generated. As of February 2013, 129 colleges and universities around the country were receiving Koch Family Foundations support.

The influence of corporations on universities is growing in other countries, too.  The excuse is mostly about the need to manufacture better workers for the firms but an obvious side-effect of such influence (bought with money) is that it cannot but affect some of the things which are taught, such as the question whether the role of universities is to manufacture better workers for the firms.

I wasn't born yesterday (as goddesses measure time) so I'm well aware that universities were never the austere ivory towers of myth but places where bias and power struggles also grew, where, as some have said, the battles were so fierce because the rewards were so tiny.  And us wimminfolk were for a long time excluded from those ivory towers altogether.

At the same time, there's not much point in the concept of a university if we forget the importance of critical thought.  Pushing for only one side of the issue and using a money shovel to do that does not increase the students' ability to think critically.  Handing out the books of Ayn Rand would be OK if the books of Karl Marx, say, were also handed out.

Well, somewhat OK.  It would be better to match Marx with an economist who held extreme free-market values, such as Friedrich Hayek.

These ideological pressures remind me of religions more than of the way one is supposed to do science or social science, or the way one is supposed to teach it. 

And that's what connects some of this with my frequent critiques of evolutionary psychology of a certain kind.  It's not the existence of very one-sided articles that is the wider problem; it's the difficulty of finding enough good critical pieces, because the field of evolutionary psychology, perhaps due to its immaturity, seems not to include much work that would be critical of the basic theories themselves.  That means that the critics come from outside and can be discounted on that basis.

The incentives for others to critique a neighboring field in academia are fairly low.  Thus, the more isolated a field becomes and the taller its walls against the rest of the academia, the higher the danger that what determines whether an article gets published might depend more on it conforming to the basic dogma than on how well the research in it has been carried out. 

I think I see this problem most clearly in evolutionary psychology where cross-fertilization from other fields seems rare.  But it can be a problem more generally.  For instance, economists entering the field of genetics have recently been criticized for not having learned the basic problems with genetic data samples but attempt to reinvent the wheel (and ending up with a rather bumpy and misshapen one), and that comes from working within the particular ivory walls of your discipline.

What ties these two topics (other than that I was thinking of both, in my usual lazy way) is probably in the incentives participants in the academia are given.  If you wish to thrive in your chosen career certain moves are a no-no or very poorly rewarded.  Someone sitting in the Chair of Free Markets is not going to support research into the problems of markets, just as someone whose whole research depends on a certain view of  evolution is not going to suddenly start writing papers critical of that view. 

These are issues we need to be aware of, in other words.