Vannevar Bush’s seductive lie

At The New Atlantis, Dan Sarewitz has published an interesting article, “Saving Science.” While there’s plenty to discuss regarding his major theme, that scientists “must come out of the lab into the real world,” here I’d like to deal with a couple of claims Sarewitz makes regarding Vannevar Bush. Sarewitz opens his article with a quote from Vannevar Bush:

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Sarewitz characterizes this statement as a “bald-faced but beautiful lie.” Certainly he doesn’t mean “lie” in the sense that Vannevar Bush knew the truth and chose to write a report to the President to deceive him and the American public. I am sure such things have been done (say, by climate scientists), but it’s difficult to see that this is what Bush was up to. Perhaps Sarewitz means “lie” in the Seth Godin sense of “any story a consumer believes.” In this sense, Bush’s statement is a lie simply because it engages a world view and invites belief. Perhaps.

But it appears that Sarewitz actually means that Bush was wrong and tells his “lie” as a “seductive manipulation.” The suggestion remains that Bush knew better but simply wanted to get lots of government money for university research, so he makes up a story about science, and there we are–political expediency instead of the truth that Sarewitz must know in order to determine that Bush was lying. But perhaps Sarewitz is just making up something about Bush, to create his own seductive manipulation, no matter the situation with the progress of science.

I don’t see in Sarewitz’s account of Bush what I’ve found in reading Bush. Perhaps Sarewitiz lies (in the Seth Godin sense) as happily as does Bush (in the Seth Godin sense), but the issue that matters is which sort of story, were we to act on it, would do the most to advance both science and technology–or, to get at why we have technology, advance social well-being, create opportunities for jobs, and live reasonably enjoyable lives pursuing happiness, fantasy baseball, digital watches, and the like. My thought is that–perhaps–the best story is no story at all, that talk about science gets in the way, especially if we think that science is a thing.

Sarewitz argues that our modern glories of technology did not come from the “free play of free intellects” but from technology paving the way for science and making scientists solve problems for the Department of Defense:

Science has been important for technological development, of course. Scientists have discovered and probed phenomena that turned out to have enormously broad technological applications. But the miracles of modernity in the above list came not from “the free play of free intellects,” but from the leashing of scientific creativity to the technological needs of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

But this account creates a false dichotomy that’s not in the writings of Bush that I’ve read. Bush distinguishes science from its practical application. For Bush, these are different things; for Sarewitz, apparently not. The free play of free intellect of free men pushes the frontiers of science. Practical application of what has been found on those frontiers is another matter. Perhaps the seductive NSF-produced conflation called “STEM” is part of the problem, proposing that science is necessarily linked to technology, and other areas of endeavor, such as art, say, are not. Talk about political maneuvering.

Bush had direct experience in what it means to engage the military establishment. He wrote a book about it–Modern Arms and Free Men. There he makes a case for how he engaged the military. Yes, the military had its problems and it tasked scientists with trying to solve its problems. Bush’s point was that once an establishment defines the problems, it has already greatly diminished what is possible, what it will consider, and what science can do, what will be discovered. Bush’s point was that when we saw the objectives–winning a war, saving wounded soldiers–science combined with industrial knowledge and people able to make things (“gadgeteers”) could come up with things that the military establishment could not conceive of, let alone make a priority, and specify, budget, and hire for.

Look at how Bush handles the distinction of science and practical application in Science the Endless Frontier:

Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past.

In this country the increase has been accompanied by more abundant food supply, better living, more leisure, longer life, and better health. This is, largely, the product of three factors – the free play of initiative of a vigorous people under democracy, the heritage of great national wealth, and the advance of science and its application.

Science and the application of science are distinct. Bush makes it clear that science alone is not sufficient:

Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team

Bush is concerned with the problem that money and power like to control work. He argues that basic research at universities needs to allow scientists to pursue the truth:

The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.

Maybe truth is just silly these days. No one buys into Merton’s norms. Or that it’s not possible to be truthful anyway–all the past reports are just lies (and the reports of reports are lies, too, and well, everything is a lie).

Bush’s argument for the “free play of free intellects” is about inquiry undertaken with the support of an organization of “free intellects” that is not the servant of the established order or slave to commercial interests or caught up in government politics or bound only to solve the problems of those in positions of power. But Bush expects science to partner.

Bush describes one effort to expand the frontiers of science, and another effort to apply what’s discovered. Bush does not say that scientists must be isolated to expand the frontiers of science. He proposes, though, that if the scientists work at universities, rather than in companies or government, then they have the greatest freedom to pursue science, wherever they come up with their insights. Not purely for “science’s sake”–even Francis Bacon denounced that. But to expand the frontiers of science, to add to the tools that might be then used by others.

Certainly it is true that technological developments have led to scientific findings. But it is also true that scientific research has led to technological developments. And it’s even true that artistic and social developments have led to science and to technology. Luck and accidents have led to science. Astrology and alchemy have led to science. As Paul Feyerabend puts it, “Anything goes.” The question is how to shape policy for such partnering between the scientific effort, however it is conducted, and folks wanting to do something new or in a new way.

Sarewitz, by contrast, makes a great case that science should serve more visionary, disciplined masters than mere scientists are capable of:

First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.

Frankly, this sounds like hooey. But let’s take it as at least a possibility rather than an established fact. I doubt that anything so general can be said about “scientific knowledge” any more than any other sort of knowledge. I’m not even sure a “rapid” advance is what matters. Maybe just a realization will do. A lot of “science” has been steered to solve problems of, say, solar power, and we have yet to see a whole lot for that steerage. It doesn’t appear that problems, steering, or a pent up desire for “technological innovation” does much to make scientific knowledge advance rapidly.

Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.

Notice how Sarewitz moves into the passive voice–when “science is steered.” The question is, who is it who is so insightful that they can “steer” the abstraction of Science and thus achieve a glorious society, full of technology that solves the problems of, well, technologists? Sarewitz argues that “technology sets the agenda for science.” So perhaps he means that engineers should tell the scientists what to do, or business folks who hire the engineers should tell the engineers what to tell the scientists, or perhaps it is the wealthy investors, or more often the broker representing an investment fund, who determines who the business folk will be who should call the shots about what problems should get solved. Or maybe it’s just someone embedded in a university policy center with time to write about steering science who knows better. Dunno.

Sarewitz wants us to believe that the problems faced by academic science–problems of credibility associated with publications that prove to be wrong–deceptive, falsified, based on bad data or bad analysis, picking outliers without candor, bad science, and the like–have to do with whether science is free or bound to problem-solving. This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. John Ioannidis expressly calls out clinical research for having a pile of these problems. And clinical research *is* linked to solving the problems presented by medicine, often with the assistance of industry. The problems for clinical science appear to be tied to the problems presented by medicine. And science there isn’t doing all that great. Heaven help us if the vision is for scientists to work for institutions and all institutions to take their marching orders from corporate and money elite because they have a better grasp of what problems we need to solve in society to have a better society. Is that a better “seductive” lie?

Think about it. It’s one thing to have a broken down motorcycle, and asking someone to fix it. They will get at it, expecting that from one angle or another they will find what is broken, and then find what caused the thing to break, and then set about fixing stuff so the bike works and won’t break the same way again. But if I have a desire to grow an arm back, well, there’s no manual, and it’s not even clear what the parts are or how they work together. I can put the military in charge of finding an solution, or a company CEO interested in making as much as she can, or an advocate for growing arms who sets a deadline–but none of that much matters unless the solution is already known to exist and it’s a finite process to find it. If there are millions of possible combinations, then brute force methods of trying every one is not going to get us there. Maybe folks going off “half-cocked” isn’t such a bad idea. Rosetta, a team working on models of how proteins fold discovered that some people just playing with proteins could figure out their folds where algorithms failed.

If I’m going to live with all the stories I believe about science ending up being lies (or at least called lies), I may as well choose my lies to include the challenges of freedom and personal responsibility. Better free play, in my chosen world of lies, than submission to problem-solving for those in power. There are plenty of folk happy to work for the folks in power. I think of Joan Roelofs’s discussion of the masks of pluralism and how folks in power like to keep everyone in the same house of control.

Sarewitz goes on with his list:

Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences.

This scariest lesson has nothing to do with freedom of inquiry. Sarewitz switches here to an idea of isolation, as if scientists inhabit a fantasy world that does not have any “social” influences. Maybe some scientists are that isolated. Not the ones I know, though. Maybe there’s no such thing as science isolated from social influences. Or maybe I have no idea–and you don’t either–what Sarewitz means by this reference to social influences.

The bigger problem is how to square Sarewitz’s account of the happy marriage of science in the service of military problem-solving with the careful introduction of scientists to social influences. Certainly, working for military planners is a social influence, but that doesn’t appear to be the gist of what Sarewitz has in mind.

Perhaps this is just a veiled argument that more scientists should be like the climate scientists, who publish any propaganda swill with whatever data torture they want, so long as it flatters a social agenda that connects whatever events in nature to the nasty influence of human beings emitting CO2. Floods are the result of global warming. Butterfly migration. Crime. Whatever. The vision of scientists being led “carefully and appropriately” from their labs into a “direct, open, and intimate relationship” with societal influences could be a maneuver of a despotic regime. Do we care if that’s how to advance scientific knowledge most rapidly?

Now it’s true that despotic regimes also develop science. The Third Reich did. Some of that science even scientists refuse to use. Stalin’s USSR did. Ah, Lysenko! Corporations happily sell services to whomever the despot is willing to pay. We can do things this way if we choose. The neat thing is that we don’t have to, even in the face of arguments for expediency and rapidity.

Bush worked hard to distinguish different forms of inquiry:

Generally speaking, the scientific agencies of Government are not so concerned with immediate practical objectives as are the laboratories of industry nor, on the other hand, are they as free to explore any natural phenomena without regard to possible economic applications as are the educational and private research institutions. Government scientific agencies have splendid records of achievement, but they are limited in function.

For all the advances in military technology produced via ARPA/DARPA recited by Sarewitz, Bush’s point still stands. The advances, even with their spill-over effects, are limited in function. We still have the same bleeping military-designed airframe after 60 years. There are people whose whole careers are invested in such airframes. They are sophisticated, scientifically adept, wonderful. And committed to serving the status quo, where cometh their income. Same for transportation, for medicine, for agriculture–they are rich with science, but it’s largely old science, limited science. This is not what Bush was talking about.

More Bush:

Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science in accordance with the Five Fundamentals listed on page 26.

Here is my summary of the list on page 26:

  • stable funding
  • citizen oversight
  • external to the government
  • leave methods and scope to universities
  • responsible to the President and Congress

There are certain kinds of research – such as research on the improvement of existing weapons – which can best be done within the military establishment. However, the job of long-range research involving application of the newest scientific discoveries to military needs should be the responsibility of those civilian scientists in the universities and in industry who are best trained to discharge it thoroughly and successfully. It is essential that both kinds of research go forward and that there be the closest liaison between the two groups.

We are talking long range. But we are not talking isolated and we are not talking merely problem-solving. The long-range needs are not merely to solve problems. Yes, that too, but obsolescing problems and defining new problems are also critical functions. As Richard Lester has argued, interpretation is as important as problem solving. Problem-solving is obedience. Interpretation is freedom. One has to read only a portion of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics to see that in nearly every paragraph, along with showing ways to solve problems, Feynman also introduces uncertainties, unknowns that don’t have even an established problem base. How do we “solve the problem” of how a thunderstorm moves atmospheric charge around? How will this ever become a problem selected by military folks or corporations to assign their money and talent to?

Yet more Bush:

Placing the civilian military research function in the proposed agency would bring it into close relationship with a broad program of basic research in both the natural sciences and medicine. A balance between military and other research could thus readily be maintained.

Bush wants to keep military problem-solving out of civilian-managed basic research. It may well be, as Sarewitz retells the story, that cancer research was more energetically pursued by the military, waging a “war” on the disease, than by the NIH fussing around with whatever academics wanted to study. But the results of both approaches are not all that impressive when it comes to cures. All Sarewitz can do is point to the next “promising” therapy–when have we seen that before?–and no-one has the science in back of any of it to know that it will work, will work for a large class of cancers, will continue to work, won’t have awful side effects or drug interactions. The money positions in medicine are in chronic maintenance, not prevention, not cures. Funny how the research gets shaped that way when it serves a master.

By contrast, Bush is not directly interested in either. That’s one of the big fallacies of the linear model ascribed to Bush but not at all in Bush. He does not expect that only medical research will result in medical advances and only military research will result in military advances. Yes, these things happen, but they are limited. Rather, he argues that the results of basic science will get drawn on for other uses.

Bush considers two alternatives. Perhaps this is a misleading dichotomy, but consider it first before deciding. Bush sets out his theme in Modern Arms and Free Men that he wants to “explore [the meaning of science’s history in the war] in the relations between man and man, as individuals and in the organizations they create” (7). Bush postulates two approaches:

Since the beginning of organizations there have been two controlling motivations that have held them together. One is fear, utilized in the elaboration of systems of discipline and taboos. The other is the confidence of one man in another, confidence in his integrity, confidence that he is governed by a moral code transcending expediency.

There is often some of both approaches present in any circumstance, Bush observes, but one or the other has to take the subordinate role.

Sarewitz frets that science has become “detached” from the military-industrial complex, and that has fostered dishonesty in research. I must be the only person left on the face of the earth who thinks the military-industrial complex might not be the bastion of honesty. I’ll point to Robert Coram’s account of Col. John Boyd’s experience with how the Pentagon chooses what problems to solve in building a fighter aircraft.

It may indeed be that there is a problem with honesty. Feynman saw it:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that.  After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.  You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist. . . . I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.  It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Sarewitz doesn’t think scientists can do this. He asserts that “scientists can never escape the influence of human bias.” There’s so much going on in that assertion I’m not sure it can be unpacked at all. Let’s just say that by the time one has decided everyone is lying or manipulating or is hopelessly biased, what’s the point of carefully and appropriately trotting them out to feel other social influences? It would appear they already have plenty of social influences and nothing one can do can stop their mendacious foolishness. Even Swift, in Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t treat the scientists of Laputa as liars–just fools off messing with things that don’t matter.

The problem for Sarewitz is that he’s picked a visible totem for the problem–Vannevar Bush’s “free play of free intellects”–and turned that idea into a strange, distorted image of itself. Then he tells us that this is the problem, that scientists have too much freedom and they should take direction from the techno-industrial complex and its financiers. Sure, that’s an option. But perhaps, as Sarewitz also points out, the “system” of allocating funds and the “system” of publishing and the “system” of academic promotion–all of these are broken systems.

In any of these “systems” we don’t find much evidence of the “free play of free intellects.” Rather, we find people fighting to survive, with five or six assistant professors struggling for one tenure spot, and everyone fussing over how they rank compared to everyone else, and if one loses a federal grant, there might not be another one soon. Those dysfunctions are not ones of freedom and honesty, but of systems loaded with money but managed by people worried about careers and status, compliance and expediency more than the science. But if we shut down these systems, Sarewitz would be out of a job, at least in a university policy center. So, no, that does not appear to be a viable direction.

But Sarewitz thinks there is a way out. Just force the scientists to come up against “technological application”:

In the absence of a technological application that can select for useful truths that work in the real world of light switches, vaccines, and aircraft, there is often no “right” way to discriminate among or organize the mass of truths scientists create.

“Often” is one weasel word in this assertion. The second is “useful”–what makes a scientific “truth” useful? Especially, what makes it even a truth, if most scientists are incompetent, self-promoting liars producing wrong and useless publications? The big argument, though, is whether “technological application” is such a panacea for the advance of science. Certainly application proves a point–but Bush’s concern was that such “science” was limited. It is not the case that federal funding–or corporate funding, or foundation funding–does much better at discovery, let alone practical application. It’s not that “biomedical science is failing the truth-test of technology.” It’s more that, as Feynman put it, “we are just too stupid” to figure out how things work so that we might use technology (or not) to get what we desire.

Vannevar Bush worries in Modern Arms and Free Men that

With the federal government plunging into the support of research on an enormous scale there is danger of the encouragement of mediocrity and grandiose projects, discouragement of individual genius, and hardening of administrative consciences in the universities. (247)

Bush proposed a National Research Foundation, which became the National Science Foundation, but which then went off on its own direction–not so much free play of free intellects but the lack of insight in those that control the funding. It’s not that program officers are not trained in science or that they don’t do their best to identify topics worthy of study. But the whole system of allocating competitive grants, cut into small portions or bulked up into grandiose projects, still end up being versions of Lear’s “who loves me best?” The frame of the world is knocked a-kilter by the mere question. The allocation of money, the review exerted (or not) over progress, the insistence on scientific candor, and a disinterest in publishing for career advancement all would appear to have a role to play.

The idea that the only test of science is whether there is a technological application is pretty limited. Once, the idea was that there needed to be a crucial experiment that could test a hypothesis. Up or down, not just as a statistical measure built on a bunch of half-formed assumptions about “significance” and the appropriateness of thinking in terms of fitting data to a “lamplight” probability for every uncertain phenomenon.

Perhaps the problem is the sheer amount of money. Perhaps it is the shift from technology change to (a lie about?) “high technology”–that the only science worth doing involves expensive, complicated instruments that few can afford. Perhaps the problem is embedded in the idea of “extramural research contracts.”

The most productive scientific labs I worked with in managing IP were mostly not funded by the federal government. Often they involved teaching or service work. Often they were committed to chasing something down, not necessarily because there was an immediate application, but because if they could get at it, there would be real science, not necessarily even a publication. They scraped by. They weren’t popular or politically favored. They got ignored, marginalized, bullied, upbraided. Not enough money, not enough publications, not enough status-producing federal grants, not enough evidence of being better than one’s “peers.”

Sarewitz makes a big thing about the innovation of adding deadlines to discovery. Deadlines, he argues, will make scientists “accountable.” There is a problem, of course, in throwing millions at scientists and expecting them all to work hard. Eventually, they may–through luck rather than organization–produce a script of Hamlet–or Lear. There is also a problem in demanding an exacting accounting of how money is spent. How do auditors know better than scientists where to spend? And there’s a problem in thinking that by putting in a deadline anything will change. Lazy, self-serving scientists will stay lazy and just jump to other research–there’s always money, it seems, for someone with a good, self-promoting story. Hard working, motivated, honest scientists will stay at their work, funding or not. Is that, too, just a seductive lie? Perhaps no more than thinking that it is innovative to demand a deadline, or try to find a “vaccine” against breast cancer just “by focusing on something impossible.”

Perhaps–I’m full of perhapses, I guess, if it is an age entirely of lies, some seductive and others just dumb (other than Sarewitz’s assertions, which must be somehow true)–the case is that research, however it is done, tends to discover the unexpected more often than the object of interest. A basic research project produces a new piece of instrumentation that no one dealing with instrumentation would have thought to create without the project. In essence, that’s how George Dyson describes the development of the digital computer. The people figuring out what to build weren’t solving a problem, weren’t put up to something by the techno-industrial complex. They were outside that complex, on its edges, doing what neither the academics wanted nor what the government or industry could imagine. A skunk works of a sort, but not just hidden (isolated by choice) from corporate management oversight, but also from false deadlines, accountants, bureaucrats, administrators. Of course, it is most likely just a seductive lie–but it makes some sense.

Sarewitz thinks that future of science is in “institutions”

closely linked to the people and places whose urgent problems need to be solved; they will cultivate strong lines of accountability to those for whom solutions are important; they will incentivize scientists to care about the problems more than the production of knowledge.

My sense is that this is a vision for more bureaucracy, more management, and more making-do. That may help third-world countries, in some technologically imperialistic but intending to be compassionate imperialistic way. But it doesn’t have much to do with science. It’s an argument for “anything goes”–pure Feyerabend, and that is okay. But if “anything goes,” then so does all sorts of other forms of inquiry, not dependent on “institutions,” not piled up with a bunch of pre-determined conditions for success, no ships of discovery managed by accountants and foot-stomping managers demanding discovery now, and discovery that solves a problem, and makes people with money more money–and who cares what otherwise might become known.

Stewart Kauffman (in At Home in the Universe) points out that the combinations of chemicals vastly outnumber the time in the universe to sample all of them. We don’t have good maps through such complexity and possibility. Noodling is one response. Messing with technology to find better adjacent possibles is another. But so is making wild jumps to less attractive positions that might eventually prove to lead to higher peaks. It’s just that folks don’t jump much, “fringe” science is laughed at (even if it is plate tectonics or washing hands between surgery and the delivery room), and journals screen out reports that confirm or disconfirm previous findings.

By the time we near the end of Sarewitz’s discussion, he is biting his tail. At the outset, scientists have to be led to experience social influences and pounded into accountability by deadlines, and by the end, he writes approvingly of the idea that scientists need to be insulated from “some of the cultural pressures to do research that quickly leads to publishable results.”

Sarewitz, himself embedded in extramurally funded institutional science, appears to have little connection to the social influences of people who need their problems solved now. Not that bringing things close to home matters. I’m only different in that I’m not funded and not embedded in an institution, and don’t have a career as a commentator on science. I have just been working to find the next step once someone has developed something useful, using IP and NIPIA (non-IP intangible assets) as a starting point.

Instead of blaming our problems on a bald distortion of Vannever Bush’s thoughts on the role of government in supporting the expansion of the frontiers of science, perhaps we would be better off reading and thinking more carefully–at least so that we don’t end up with contradictions we don’t recognize between the beginning and the end.

Susan Fitzpatrick, who figures prominently in Sarewitz’s article, has a level head with regard to the problems in science. She’s outside the institutional order of extramural funding, doesn’t care much for academic careerism. I have a great deal of empathy for her situation. It will be interesting to see how she develops her programs for the McDonnell Foundation. Perhaps she will rediscover what Bush found was working, and not what Sarewitz suggests. If we are to find our motivation in seductive lies, then I say we should take the time to be attuned to the seduction and not pass them off as mere manipulation.

See a follow-on article, “Shaping Science,” here.

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