Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Some Sad Thoughts On Our Nation’s Birthday

     I know, I know: A birthday is supposed to be a happy occasion. I’m supposed to celebrate, not mope. Anyway, these past eighteen months things have definitely been looking up, in the political sphere at least. But there are other things on my mind, and it seems I can’t manage to flush them.

     Partly, it’s about my damnably retentive memory. I remember too much, and too vividly. You’ve seen some of the consequences. But it’s also about trends in motion that fill me with fear. Here’s one, from a realm of human enterprise on whose probity I’d once have been willing to bet my life savings:

     WHETHER to get a promotion or merely a foot in the door, academics have long known that they must publish papers, typically the more the better. Tallying scholarly publications to evaluate their authors has been common since the invention of scientific journals in the 17th century. So, too, has the practice of journal editors asking independent, usually anonymous, experts to scrutinise manuscripts and reject those deemed flawed—a quality-control process now known as peer review. Of late, however, this habit of according importance to papers labelled as “peer reviewed” has become something of a gamble. A rising number of journals that claim to review submissions in this way do not bother to do so. Not coincidentally, this seems to be leading some academics to inflate their publication lists with papers that might not pass such scrutiny.

     Experts debate how many journals falsely claim to engage in peer review. Cabells, an analytics firm in Texas, has compiled a blacklist of those which it believes are guilty. According to Kathleen Berryman, who is in charge of this list, the firm employs 65 criteria to determine whether a journal should go on it—though she is reluctant to go into details. Cabells’ list now totals around 8,700 journals, up from a bit over 4,000 a year ago. Another list, which grew to around 12,000 journals, was compiled until recently by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado. Using Mr Beall’s list, Bo-Christer Björk, an information scientist at the Hanken School of Economics, in Helsinki, estimates that the number of articles published in questionable journals has ballooned from about 53,000 a year in 2010 to more than 400,000 today. He estimates that 6% of academic papers by researchers in America appear in such journals.

     Behind all this is a change in the way a lot of journals make their money. Over the past decade, many have stopped selling subscriptions. Instead, they charge authors a publication fee and permit people to read the result for nothing. This “open access” business model has the advantage of increasing the dissemination of knowledge, but it also risks corrupting the knowledge thus disseminated.

     This problem is connected to several others. Prominent among them is the centrality of government funding for the sciences, a cancer that was guaranteed to metastasize into something horrible. But the critical element is the “I can get away with it, so why not?” mentality that’s utterly necessary for the problem to arise in the first place.

     “I can get away with it, so why not?” Why not? WHY NOT?? Is this a question a man of character would ask himself? More specifically, would a man who’d gone into the sciences because he was dedicated to the search for knowledge ask himself that question? And if he weren’t dedicated to the search for knowledge, why would he have gone into the sciences at all? A skilled con man can make a much better living in several other fields.

     I don’t get it. But perhaps I shouldn’t expect to.

     Some time ago, I wrote the following about the East Anglia Climate Research Unit “global warming” fraud:

     Scientists, just like the rest of humanity, respond to incentives and penalties. The warmistas in the scientific community were drawn there by a variety of incentives.

     Some were undoubtedly sincere, certain that with enough evidence they could validate the greenhouse-gas thesis and willing to explain away "inconvenient data" with the usual dismissals of the true believer.

     Some were loyal Hessians, willing to go wherever their idols and masters might point them.

     Some were "following the money," as ever greater amounts of money poured from government coffers and the treasuries of left-leaning foundations to support the promulgation of the anthropogenic-global-warming thesis.

     Some were merely publicity hounds, who would ride any wagon that appeared to have the media's attention.

     Some were flogged into sullen support of [anthropogenic global warming], fearful that refraining would cause them to be stripped of their funding and relegated to the outer darkness.

     No doubt there are other light of the fraud the Hadley CRU docments have revealed, none of them in any way connected to the core doctrines of science.

     What matters is the fraud itself. Some thousands of "scientists" were moved to abandon science as it's been practiced for centuries by motives that, if they're to be summed up in one word, could only be called evil. Yes, tens of millions of persons worldwide cheered them on, but that's hardly an exculpation.

     We have created -- and institutionalized -- incentives for fraud and penalties for honesty and candor. Not just for men of science; for virtually every trade and walk of life. For many men, the touchstone of ethical judgment is no longer "Is it right?" It's "Can I get away with it?"

     We have destroyed the bedrock of freedom: our ability to trust.

     And a few years later, I wrote this:

     Trust is one of the social assets we seldom stop to appreciate until it's gone.

     America was once a land in which trust was near to universal. Men trusted women. Customers trusted merchants. Even strangers encountering one another on the street trusted one another, at least in modest things. And why not? This is was America, where talent and effort were everything, where your word was your bond, where you learned right and wrong at your mother's knee. Besides, word got around. You simply couldn't get very far if you short-weighted someone or misdirected him to his loss and your gain.

     The conditions of life in these United States made duplicitousness a losing strategy. It wasn't that we were "all in it together;" it was that the existing structure of incentives and penalties made lying, cheating, and stealing unprofitable in the long term. As another favorite quote puts it:

     A thousand truths do not mark a man as a truth-teller, but a single lie marks him as a damned liar....Lying to other people is your business, but I tell you this: once a man gets a reputation as a liar, he might as well be struck dumb, for people do not listen to the wind. [Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen Of The Galaxy]

     Trust must be accumulated over a long interval of honest dealing. It can be lost with a single lapse into venality. Therefore, when the incentives reward honest dealing better than fraud and theft, people generally will gradually accumulate trust while the few "dissenters" are forced to society's margins. Society will slowly embed a default assumption of honesty among men.

     Today's incentive structure does the opposite.

     Ponder that.

     I don’t know how a whole nation of over 300 million people recovers the integrity required to engender and support mutual trust as the default condition. I do know that it will be required of us to do so, if we want our freedom back. Free men must trust one another; there’s no way to maintain a condition of freedom in the absence of near-to-automatic trust. You can never have enough fact-checkers...or enough police.

     Two hundred forty-two years ago, fifty-five influential men – yes, they were prosperous, but they were also highly influential – pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to a grand experiment: a nation “conceived in liberty.” They trusted one another with everything they had and were. Some eventually paid with their lives...but not because their colleagues in the experiment had betrayed them.

     People natter about the need for a contemporary “second American Revolution” to restore the freedom we’ve lost this century past. But no such revolution is possible in the absence of mutual trust.

Without the ability to trust our fellow man – his words, his products, and his willingness to stand in defense of what is right, never yielding to venality or cowardice – we cannot have a free country.

     That is the true problem of our time. Not how to overthrow the many governments, large and small, that run roughshod over us; that’s a mere exercise in arms, once those arms have rallied. Without a restoration of trust – the willingness to believe that the other guy’s pledge of his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor is sincere and reliable – the rally will never occur.

     Happy Independence Day.

1 comment:

Pascal said...

Subject: Loss of trust in companions and its consequences.

Where have I seen that defined as a requisite for tyranny to insure its safety from rebels?

"The despot cares not that you love him provided you don't love one another." Emphasis added to Tocqueville.

What meaningfully may we do to counter those provisions Fran? I think it must start with willingly offering our vulnerability. Providence seemed to protect us from Benedict Arnolds before. Perhaps a whole lot more faith long diminished needs to be revitalized stat.