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Hypocrite of the year: Anti-science George Will bemoans decline of U.S. science

By Joe Romm on January 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

"Hypocrite of the year: Anti-science George Will bemoans decline of U.S. science"

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Leading science denier now writes “the nation depends on nourishing [scientists] and the institutions that sustain them.”

One of leading right wing attackers of climate science and clean energy is now shedding crocodile tears over the decline of US science and engineering.  George Will — a ‘thought-leader’ for a movement that indiscriminately opposes essentially all increases in federal spending and that wants to put climate scientist on trial — has a Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post titled, “Rev the scientific engine.”

Will attacks science for a living (see “the Washington Post lets George Will reassert all his climate falsehoods plus some new ones” and links below).  But now he urges his fellow deniers, who now control of the US House of Representatives, to read up on the key role science plays in sustaining the economic vitality of the nation — and the crucial role government plays in advancing science:

One is William Rosen’s book “The Most Powerful Idea in the World,” a study of the culture of invention. Another is the National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited,” an addendum to a 2005 report on declining support for science and engineering research.

Such research is what canals and roads once were — a prerequisite for long-term economic vitality.

Uhh, yeah.  Rosen’s book about the development of the steam engine explains that “the innovative culture that blossomed in the 18th-century Britain” depended critically not just on individual innovators, but also on government support, including “a sort of seventeenth-century equivalent of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.”  The NAS report explicitly endorses the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which supports next-generation clean energy technology development, much as the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy that I once ran does.

But the right-wing, led by its anti-science and anti-technology pundits like Will, have long worked to hobble clean energy R&D. Reagan cut the renewable energy R&D budget 85% after he took office (see “Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan“).  Thanks to conservative opposition to clean energy from Reagan to the Gingrich Congress to Cheney/Bush, the U.S. share of the PV market has plummeted.  By 2008, America had under 6% (!) of the world market (see AllBusiness’s “United States is a bit player in global solar industry“).   Finally, right wingers blocked the comprehensive climate and clean energy jobs legislation that was our best chance of generating the kind of funding needed to compete with China’s staggering investment in energy R&D.

It is beyond disingenuous for Will to trumpet the benefits of science and engineering research, when he has done as much as anyone else to undermine the national consensus that once existed for such research.

The first Republican president revered Henry Clay, whose “American System” stressed spending on such “internal improvements.” Today, the prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas.

Deborah Wince-Smith of the Council on Competitiveness says: “Talent will be the oil of the 21st century.” And the talent that matters most is the cream of the elite. The late Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod said, “Ninety-nine percent of the discoveries are made by 1 percent of the scientists.

“With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them.

Seriously.  For the record, the Council on Competitiveness supports the kind of aggressive federal effort on technology development and deployment conservatives have long opposed — including raising the price of fossil fuels to “include the costs that are not currently reflected in their prices such as the impact of oil imports were not security and trade deficit and the impact of carbon emissions on the climate.”  Someone like Will has no business quoting the CoC.

And it may be the most laughable statement ever published in the Washington Post for Will to say we need to “defend” scientists, when he has probably done more than anybody writing for the Post to attack them.  We know the Washington Post doesn’t fact-check their opinion pieces (see The day DC journalism died: Washington Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column and Will the Washington Post ever fact check a George Will column?).

But does anybody working for the paper actually read his columns at all?  If they did, they might have pointed out to him that just four months ago, he published one of his typical extended anti-scientist screeds — see “George Will embraces Walter Russell Mead’s risible anti-science revisionism” — which included this smear on scientific experts:

Over time, Mead says, “experts lost their mystique”"¦.

“An increasingly skeptical public started to notice that ‘experts’ weren’t angels descending immaculately from heaven bearing infallible revelations from God. They were fallible human beings with mortgages to pay and funds to raise. They disagreed with one another and they colluded with their friends and supporters like everyone else.”

And expertise was annoyingly changeable. Experts said margarine was the healthy alternative to butter “” until they said its trans fats made it harmful.

Yes, because health science research grew more sophisticated over time, we should abandon climate science.  Because scientists have mortgages, we should abandon decades of research into the impact of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions.

Will’s hypocrisy is beyond belief.  It is Will’s fellow conservatives, with his help and encouragement, who have famously been engaging in a War on Science, as my friend and fellow blogger Chris Mooney put it.

The result, as DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Policy, David Sandalow recently put it:

I think skepticism about science puts the United States at competitive disadvantages. Other countries are marching forward in the 21st century, to deploy new technologies. That creates wealth.

And let’s not forget which political movement opposes teaching evolution in school.  The National Center for Science Education notes about creationism that students who accept this material as scientifically valid are unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level.”

And yet Will bemoans:

U.S. undergraduate institutions award 16 percent of their degrees in the natural sciences or engineering; South Korea and China award 38 percent and 47 percent, respectively. America ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

America has been consuming its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of gross domestic product, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent. On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness. Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health-care costs every nine weeks.

A conservative whining that state support for public universities has declined?  I apologize for not putting the head-vise warning on this head-exploding post.

Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions – corporations’ research entities and research universities. Research, including in the biological sciences, that yields epoch-making advances requires time horizons that often are impossible for businesses, with their inescapable attention to quarterly results.

An iconic conservative understood this. Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry as an Oxford undergraduate, said:

“Although basic science can have colossal economic rewards, they are totally unpredictable. And therefore the rewards cannot be judged by immediate results. Nevertheless, the value of [Michael] Faraday’s work today must be higher than the capitalization of all shares on the stock exchange.”

That, of course, is precisely why the Chinese are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on clean energy research and development.

Again, Will makes the progressive case for aggressive spending on R&D.  Too bad none of his fellow conservatives understand any of this.  Will ends:

Richard Levin, economist and Yale’s president, asks: Would Japan’s growth have lagged since 1990 “if Microsoft, Netscape, Apple and Google had been Japanese companies”? Japan’s failure has been a failure to innovate. As “Gathering Storm” says: Making the government lean by cutting the most defensible – because most productive – federal spending is akin to making an overweight aircraft flight-worthy by removing an engine.

For the record, DARPA grants led to the first computer time-sharing system, the first local area computer network, the idea of the personal computer, as well as the menu-and icon-driven software used in the first Apple Macintosh. As the Harvard Business School case study on DARPA explains:

[DARPA] supplied grants and, later, the venture capital, to fund development of artificial intelligence and parallel processing computers. In fact, in the late 1960s, it designated four research institutions — Stanford, Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT — as academic centers for the study of computers and computing; using agency seed money, DARPA virtually single-handedly created the United States’ position of world leadership in computer sciences.  (The four DARPA-funded centers would train, directly or indirectly, nearly every computer sciences expert in the nation.)

That is precisely the kind of aggressive, across-the-board effort we need to match the Chinese and restore US leadership in clean energy — leadership that conservatives like Will have done so much to kill.

It takes a staggering amount of hypocrisy for Will to publish this piece.

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24 Responses to Hypocrite of the year: Anti-science George Will bemoans decline of U.S. science

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Will comes under the category of people whose words cannot be trusted, ever. When it comes to specifics, Will’s support will go toward improvements in weapons technology, oil and gas drilling improvements, pharmaceuticals, and so on. He and his friends will draw the line at research supporting the global warming “hoax”.

    To the extent that he likes university research, Will’s model will be Stanford and Berkeley, whose souls have been poisoned by energy research funding coming from Exxon and BP. Big surprise: no clean energy breakthroughs from either one lately. Instead, these advances are coming from more nimble universities like Caltech.

  2. fj3 says:

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  3. Mike says:

    I think people should print out George Will’s column, mail it to George Will and suggest that he read it.

  4. I. Snarlalot Thiesdaise says:

    No doubt in Will’s mind, good science is the science that confirms his prejudices. Can’t have too much of that apparently–science in the service of reality as generated by the omniscient will of the righteous oligarchs.

    Their relentless arrogance is depressing.

  5. Crank says:

    For the record, DARPA grants led to the first computer time-sharing system, the first local area computer network, the idea of the personal computer, as well as the menu-and icon-driven software used in the first Apple Macintosh. As the Harvard Business School case study on DARPA explains

    Probably worth mentioning, you know, the Internet (which grew out of DARPANET)…

  6. Another George becomes his own caricature.

  7. Peter M says:

    I guess Will wants the nation to ‘nourish’ scientists from his narrow subjective views. The preservation of a corrupt corporatist system- that disavows ‘real science’. What a buffoon.

  8. Wes Rolley says:

    I begin to wonder if even George Will reads George Will columns before they go out.

  9. Richard Brenne says:

    Where there’s a Will there’s a Way-Beyond-Bad-And-Beneath-Contempt columnist. The one person I know of who’s actually read a George Will column is Joe, to so completely critique it and out-argue him 100,000 times over.

    Somehow Will’s empty glibness and ability to channel Ted Koppel’s haircut has given him a career he in no way deserves.

    I love Richard’s, Mike’s and especially Mike Roddy’s comments, which say more in 100 words than Will says in 10,000, usually about the intricacies of something as important as the balk rule in baseball (Has Will now written more than a dozen books on this topic alone?).

    I also love how the comments section of BP is the world’s finest meritocracy, where good writing with good evidence beats bad writing (remember the point of writing is communication, not flowery ego-pronouncements in a vain attempt to impress) and empty rhetoric like Will’s.

    If Will ever had the courage to try to make one of his anti-science points in the comments here, we’d ream him another bow-tie.

  10. dhogaza says:

    “Probably worth mentioning, you know, the Internet (which grew out of DARPANET)…”

    Yeah, but then he’d have to give Al Gore credit for having helped push it out into the world at a time when very few people saw the potential for it …

  11. Colorado Bob says:

    Total’s proposed tar sands operation in Madagascar is potentially the dirtiest mining operation its kind in the world, in a region where the local people have few options but to live next to it. If, as some charge, Total helped bring down a democratically elected government in order to install a regime that would favour their tar sands project, it’s likely that international campaigns against Total and their social and environmental record could well expand.

    http://www.mediacoop.ca/story/devastation-madagascar/5524

  12. Green Caboose says:

    Will is the guy who cited the bogus “study” claiming to show the Hummer is more environmental than the Prius.

    Let’s understand this: Will neither understands nor values science. The purpose of this column had nothing to do with promoting science. The purpose of the column was to reinforce the conservative meme “how awful things are under liberal government”.

    Facts don’t matter. Just like it doesn’t matter that the GOP held the California governorship for 23 of the 28 years after Jerry Brown left office — corresponding to that state’s decline in almost everything — it doesn’t matter that GOP actions over the past 3 decades have devalued and underinvested in all sciences except those that are directly related to making an immediate profit for the Fortune 100. What matters is that he can use it to reinforce the meme that liberals are the problem.

    Remember, his target audience isn’t scientists or potential scientists. His target audience are those too dumb to be scientists.

  13. Michael Tucker says:

    I think it is safe to say that George Will has a tremendous amount of hypocrisy to share with the rest of us, as do many Republican pundits and representatives, and it is a little early in the year to name the winner.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    The next time one comes across a denier who whips out his protractor to prove that CO2 is too small by weight to effect the atmosphere, remind them if this is true, viruses are far too small by weight to make one sick.

  15. I would write something, but it is really too ad hominem and bound to be snipped.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mr Will, of course, is in favour of science when it provides weapons to bomb remote villagers to perdition, or surveillance systems to help keep the rabble in line, or wage the inevitable war with China. He likes science that keeps profits ticking over or that provides the mathematical models for financial derivatives. They might be ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’, but the ruling elite, Mr Will’s owners, after all, have profited massively from them and sent the bill to the rest of humanity. That’s rather the model with climate change, too, is it not? The global ruling elite makes lots of money (what type of person is still striving, still finagling, when they control a billion, or even a million?)from fossil fuels and the bill, this time incalculable, perhaps infinite,is presented to our children and grandchildren. Will is a creature of his time-I could name thirty at least in Murdoch’s Australian apparatus alone, all cut from the same cloth, and to the same pattern. The fact that they totally dominate the media, and that the voices of reason are now almost completely absent, tells you all you need to know of the totalitarian impulses of the Right.

  17. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    It could be that George isn’t a hypocrite at all though. Perhaps he finally understands where he’s gone wrong and he’s attempting to redress his mistakes by pushing the sciences and education. At any time now he’ll publicly apologize for his previous posts…..

    …any time….

    …soon…

  18. Tom Lenz says:

    Interesting. Over the holidays I made the point to my brother-in-law that we were ceding the future of green and alternative development to China by denying it for ourselves….crickets. It didn’t take but when somebody like Will speaks he listens. It may not be much but if Will’s column helps me breakthrough the wall and convert one ardent zombie then maybe others can do the same with it. Hold nose tightly while endorsing Will however. The stench can be overpowering.

  19. Steve says:

    In the strange bedfellows category, George Will recently joined the Board of Trustees at Princeton University.

  20. David B. Benson says:

    He didn’t just have an epiphany?

  21. Comments #1 and #16 are pointing in the real direction that Will (or his puppet masters) wants congressional spending to go. Note what Will wrote:

    “Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions – corporations’ research entities and research universities.”

    The third sentence in the above quote is the KEY sentence in Will’s article.

    This whole article is just another setup job to try to grease the way for more giveaways to corporations and to prevent spending cuts for anything related to defense research or related to the special interests of the plutocrats and what they want to do with our tax dollars, while other research, deserving research, is defunded.

    Honestly, did you think that we could expect anything else from this mob?

  22. mikkel says:

    Ditto 21. Our society has become extremely anti-scientific to the point that now most people confuse “science” with technological gizmos.

    I am a strong supporter of Federal research in theory, but in practice I am finding that both university and government research institutions have become de facto corporate R&D environments. Then when you do make a breakthrough you are told to secure the IP through tech transfer and create a start up company to commercialize it. Of course investors won’t give you any money to do that when you can just get the start up grants through Federal grants like SBIR. But you can’t get an SBIR grant unless you can show them that you have corporations (preferably the big multinationals) ready to swoop in and buy you out the second you show the idea works.

    So then if you manage to get an SBIR and you show promise, the VCs step in to give you money to make it sellable over two-three years by getting it to a state that it can go directly to market. Once you do that you’ll be pressured heavily to sell to the highest bidder, who always seems to do a great job buying it and then running it through marketing and the various division VPs, who then tear apart everything you created and redo it from scratch but in a more shoddy fashion and it dies. Except when it doesn’t and becomes a huge hit, which of course the company gives tons of press releases about *their* great innovation that the CEO thought of in his sleep because he was sleeping in a $500k bed that he bought with his latest tax cuts. And most likely they’ll use your invention to give to lobby groups attacking the government for being worthless.

    Meanwhile, you as the researcher will have had to make the choice to work for the corporation and make lots of money but have no emotional health or go back and start the process all over again and fight for funding constantly.

    Based on my rather large sample this is not much of an exaggeration. By contrast my Chinese, Indian and European colleagues [especially the former two] report going back and finding that they are held in relatively high regard, given quite a lot of security and if they can prove themselves, have some policy input. Obviously there is still that business side, but they say they can actually be scientists and have that mindset contribute to the general wellbeing of the society as a solid pillar. A far cry from the business development professional that advised me on the whole startup process that said that US corporations had become entirely about “exploiting brilliant and well educated people that don’t have any idea what they are worth.”

    Real scientific skepticism would be derided as far leftist for people like Will.

  23. A face in the clouds says:

    Yall are just making fun of me. George Will isn’t still alive.

  24. Dan Lufkin says:

    Take a look at Eric Cantor’s Web site. He’s the GOP Whip in the House of Representatives. There’s a part of the site devoted to letting the public review National Science Foundation projects and nominate some for elimination. This Congress is going to make the damage done by the Golden Fleece nonsense look trivial. One of the GOP freshmen is already denouncing research on fruit flies. Oh, wait, Sarah Palin already did that.

    Truly is it said, “When the tough get going, the going gets tough.”