THE DIVIDE

It should come as no surprise that political scientists are quite agitated, not to mention displeased, by the Senate vote to eliminate National Science Foundation funding for political science. I would be remiss if I didn't say something here, so I'll do one better and say two things about it.

First, the way I might be expected to frame this is by telling you how this decision will impact me. Honestly, however, the internal dynamics of academia ensure that it won't affect me at all. Our professional organization, the American Political Science Association, spent weeks exhorting its members to contact elected officials on behalf of our NSF funding. This is logical but problematic in that the NSF treats the vast majority of political scientists (and presumably people in other fields as well) with a mixture of contempt and indifference. If they get an application that comes from any university outside of the top 10 or so research universities in the country, I'm fairly certain it gets thrown directly in the trash unless they decide to take a few moments to laugh at it. This map shows where all of the NSF money in political science goes. This profession mirrors the rest of our society, in which the top 1% have 90% of the resources and the rest of us get the shaft. Several people have suggested that I should be more supportive because I might use data from, or assign books based on, NSF-funded research. This is true, but it is little more than a Trickle Down economics argument – the vast majority of us who have nothing should lobby the government to improve the lot of our social betters so eventually a few crumbs will fall to us. Or maybe we'll Make It Big someday and join the 1% at Stanford and Princeton! (Note: we won't.)

So this is what it feels like to be part of the Republican base.

Second, the older I get the more I believe that the real divide in this country (I won't speak for the whole world, although I have my suspicions) is not between liberals and conservatives, the old and young, black and white, or any of the most common tropes. The divide in modern America is between people who think facts and knowledge are based on evidence and those who think that whatever one believes is true. The media is liberal because I think it is. Climate change and evolution are myths because I don't believe them. Tax cuts grow the economy because I think they do. This is what attacks on the NSF, and academia more broadly, are about. It's an easy target because a substantial portion of this country doesn't believe that science is a thing. To them, the scientific method begins with a conclusion and research is the process of manufacturing some kind of evidence to support it. The ice caps aren't melting because I say they aren't, and some oil companies wrote a paper proving it. What do we need the NSF or fancy-pants colleges for?

Together, those two points don't fit well together. On one hand I'm not inclined to weep for the people at the top of the caste system in my field. On the other, it's clearly a ridiculous, politically-motivated decision that underscores the driving force behind so many of our current social problems: the inability and/or unwillingness of half of Americans to distinguish between fact and opinion.

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31 Responses to “THE DIVIDE”

  1. John Says:

    Again and again, I have to keep going back to Charles P. Pierce with this stuff.

    "The Three Great Premises of Idiot America:
    1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
    2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
    3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it"

    It should come as no surprise. In the year two thousand and thirteen anno domini, there are reasonably intelligent adult humans living in technologically-advanced first-world societies that believe in an invisible skydad/skymom/skyparents of one sort or another, holding to this belief so firmly that they have constructed an entire life and worldview that revolve around that belief as the core foundation. This, despite the fact that there is absolutely zero hard evidence of any kind to support such a belief, and the fact that the vast majority of their modern lifestyle — their habits and mannerisms, the technology that enables them, and so forth — would have in earlier millenia been considered morally unhinged, utterly corrupt witchcraft and wizardry by the very same people that invented the belief in that/those skydad/skymom/skyparents that the modern person's life is centered upon.

    They require no evidence or proof for the central facet of their lives, why would they require it for anything else?

    And here we come full circle to Bertrand Russel:
    "If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

  2. Orpho Says:

    See, this argument is funny. I'm a grant writer. I don't know if you've tried to apply for NSF funding before, but what the NSF cares about is that you've got "institutional support" (read: tenure) and sufficient facilities to do your research (which matters a lot in astrophysics, while in polisci you've got what you need if you have a laptop and an administrative assistant/grad student/undergrad assistant). I won't argue that people at research I institutions get a lot more administrative support for applying for grants, but I don't see the haves/have nots argument made in that map. That map could be a population distribution map.

  3. J. Dryden Says:

    American populism is such a fascinating beast, isn't it? On the one hand, it's absolutely essential for a functioning democracy–and indeed, the notion that a government must derive its authority from the will of the people who serve under it is one of the most essential moral perspectives in history.

    On the other hand, populism only works if 'the people' actually stop and think collectively about what they really want, what's really important to them, what the government can reasonably be expected to do and what it can't. And so the result of populism is usually utterly appalling. (The first Jackson inaugural will always be my go-to vision of American populism embodied.)

    Americans are, at heart, a practical people. I don't mean "smart" or "good with their hands" or anything folksy. I mean that we believe that knowledge must be tangible to be relevant. If it's not, then as far as we're concerned, it's faith-based. And we believe passionately in our right to hold whatever faith we choose. (We're big boosters of the 1st Amendment insofar as it applies to each of us as individuals–to other people, not so much.) There's a lot we don't know because it's abstract, and based in the mathematical interrelation of numbers so big they have no material points of comparison, which is why for most of us, The Economy is a god, and not a set of mathematical principles and probabilities. It's why "tax cuts," which we can hold in our hands in the form of the refund check, are good, no matter what kind of abstract, in-some-hazy-future disasters they may provoke. We know nothing of history that is not based on A. the Revolution, B. the Civil War, and C. WWII. So our views on whether or not Vietnam or Iraq were appropriate places in which to stick our noses are, frankly, completely based on our gut reactions of liberal guilt or bottomless racism.

    We're not, despite all this, an ignorant people–we know a lot of things. It's just that the things we know are not related to political decision-making. We know who just advanced to the next round of March Madness. We know that Taylor Swift keeps writing break-up songs with guys she dated briefly. We know last year's Oscar winners, and can recite the entire menus of every major fast-food franchise by heart. We know a lot of things. But none of those things enable us to know enough to have a real opinion about climate change. Or what "the sequester" is and how it affects us.

    But my question is: Should we feel obligated to do so? Why is are we constantly bombarded with "Ha Ha Look At How Dumb Americans Are" stories? Who gets to tell us what we should care about–and who gets to tell us that it's up to us to learn what we need to know? By what right are we held in contempt by the cheap shock-mongers of the media? Whatever happened to "I don't know–and I don't know because nobody has ever explained it to me in terms I can understand. I got a shitty education because of a instructional paradigm that hasn't changed in over 100 years, making it completely out of touch with a technologically driven society of completely different moral values and informational interaction. The media is market driven, which means that the things that matter, which are often less than sensational, are either ignored, or related to me in shriekingly partisan bombast, which I intuitively know is bullshit. Maybe the truth exists–but telling me I ought to know what it is because I have access to it is like shoving me into a research library and telling me to find the answer without bothering to tell me how the millions of volumes are catalogued. Fuck you, in short–if I'm ignorant, help me. But you won't, because it's more fun/profitable to exploit my ignorance. Meantime, I have a job and a family and a mortgage on a house that's constantly in need of upkeep. I have a life that's less than easy to maintain, so either be part of the solution, or stop mocking the problem."

    There. Now somebody go tattoo that on Aaron Sorkin's dick so he has to look at it while engaged in his favorite pastime.

  4. MF Says:

    I think that nails it, Ed. This has always been the scam behind "values voters". Values as opposed to what? Non-values? No, to see the real meaning you need enough philosophy to be familiar with the fact/value distinction. Saying "my decision is based on values" is tantamount, in most cases where people would bother to say it, to saying "my decision is not based on fact." The legitimization of this choice is a cancer in our society, but it's only really metastasized in the Republican party.

  5. The boring one Says:

    Orpho, I don't think Ed made a haves/have nots argument. His simple point was that the tier I research universities get almost all of the polsci grants and that therefore lobbying for polsci funding would amount to lobbying for funding for tier I research universities. So the academic analogue to "haves" would be "researchers with tier I reputation" and the analogue to "have nots" would be "researchers without tier I reputation".

  6. Middle Seaman Says:

    NSF tries to fund proposals based on quality in areas of science I am familiar with, other than Poli Sci. In other words, NSF money spreads over 50 to 60 US universities. The top 10, do get more money because they have excellent people.

    Joe Blow works his ass off. When finally home, tired, stressed and spent, he listens to his favorite TV programs. Fox will tell him that the earth is flat, others will be more accurate but not by much.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    So who still thinks post modernist rational thought is good?
    When everything is open to personal narrative this is what you get.

    Also "science" and governments haven't done themselves much help by being sycophants for corporate interests. Love Canal, Monsanto… etc, etc, etc anyone?

    So science's objectivity has been rotted.

  8. Arslan Says:

    Interesting. Just last week I mentioned how the ruling class doesn't actually want to improve education, particularly with critical thinking skills, for the simple reason that once you have critical thinking skills and you start applying them to our society, all the myths upon which that society is based become apparent.

    There is a big incentive to foster political illiteracy as well. This is what let's you tell buttmad senior citizens that Obama is a Communist and Nazi, just as it allows Ron Paul cultists to subvert any attempt at creating a left-wing movement.

  9. amil666 Says:

    It's a LOT more than a Trickle Down economics argument. The huge difference is that research is supposed to be done to further the science and not for the scientist's own personal gain (which isn't to say that it isn't often done for personal gain). If a great scientist is doing great research, that should be inherently valuable to all scientists or anyone who values science, even if it doesn't further the careers of other scientists–hell even if it undermines your life's work. It's human to feel chagrined and jealous, but the purpose of science isn't to make scientists happier or freer or to give them job security or whatever–it's to find the objective truth. The goal of an economy, on the other hand, is to serve some practical interest (in happiness or freedom or whatever your ideology dictates) of the population.

  10. c u n d gulag Says:

    As I'm sure Ed knows, America is now mostly a "Rentier State."
    From their respective Wiki entries:
    "A rentier state is a term in political science and international relations theory used to classify those states which derive all or a substantial portion of their national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources to external clients. This theory was first postulated by Hossein Mahdavy in 1970."

    "Rentier capitalism is a term currently used to describe economic practices of parasitic monopolization of access to any (physical, financial, intellectual, etc.) kind of property and gaining significant amount of profit without contribution to society."

    This will be oversimplified, because I'll be trying to explain a rather complex set of ideas into bite-sized chunks, but here goes:
    Goodbye, Henry Ford – maker of cars.
    Goodbye, George Romney – CEO of a company making and selling cars.
    Hello, Mitt Romney – parasitic mover of capital.
    Hello, Tagg Romney and Paris Hilton – inheritors of capital acquired parasitically.

    A "true" Capitalist feels the pain of economic downturns, since people have less money to spend, they purchase less of their goods/products.
    A Rentier Capitalist doesn't, because labor is cheaper, and desperate people still need the basics that Rentier Capitalists provide, in some form or other.

    A "true" Capitalist, excepting his/her own natural levels of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and/or homophobia, welcomes Civil and Human Rights, since access to better jobs and lives will broaden the market for his/her product(s).
    A Rentier Capitalst doesn't – it increases the cost of labor on his/her "rental" capital.

    I'm 55, and what I've had a front-row seat for, has been the planned, and well-executed, destruction of the Middle Class in this country.

    And that has taken place because, after the dual crises of The Great Depression and WWII, and their aftermath, when tax rates on the wealthies soared to rebuild this countries, and the worlds, economies, once on the path to rebuilding, the Uber-rich have struck back, and said, "ENOUGH!!!"

    Too many people were getting some of the wealth that the Uber-rich felt should only belong to them.
    Too many people were getting to be "middle class," and were asking too many questions. Now that they weren't desperate themselves, and felt that they and their families were secure, too many of them looked at "the others," and wondered, 'why can't they get what I got?'

    Civil Rights for African-American, and the fight for Women's Right, were the final straw.

    Black people and women have always been regarded as providers of cheap labor – and here they were, getting rights which would cost the Uber-rich still more.

    Middle class people aren't desperate enough to be glad to accept whatever crumbs are even offered, as had been going on since people left caves.

    And so, the middle class in this country had to be destroyed, to make people desperate enough to accept whatever crumbs the Uber-rich – Rentier Capitalists – leave to them.

    The Democrats are no angels, and have been cowardly and compliant, and sometimes complicit, too many times, but make no mistake, this was the agenda of the money-people behind both parties – and their main, go-to party of politicians, has always been the Republicans: at least since the late 19th Century.
    The agenda's of Nixon, Reagan, and the Bush's, has been to move money from the middle, up.
    "What's the matter with Kansas?" They bought into the wedge issues of race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation. And sadly, Kansas wasn't the only state. Too many people in too many states have voted against their own best interests because of these wedge issues.

    Goerge W, Bush didn't quite finish the job, but he sure came close.
    And we dodge a bullet last year with Romeny and Ryan.

    But don't think for a nano-second that the Koch brothers, the Pete Petersons, The Waltons, and their Rentier Capitalist heirs, of this country, and the world, are ever, EVER, going to stop.
    Not until they have every last fucking penny.

    And what they hate most, is an informed public, capable of seeing through their bullshit.
    They are desperately trying to make us all desperate enough, so that we can't focus on anything besides what we have and are desperate to keep, and not look at what THEY have and don't want to share.

    And that is why they are all so desperate to end Net Neutrality.
    They already control almost all of the MSM.
    The internet is the last bastion of democratic and informed thought.

    Keep up the fight on Net Neutrality, and we'll keep having a fighting chance.
    Let them get control, and the game's over.

    Wow, not what I expected to end this massive word-turd with. But, I'll take it.

  11. Tim H. Says:

    In fewer words, only abject misery provides the contrast that lets the wealthy feel better about theirseleves.

  12. Hazy Davy Says:

    Second.

  13. Eric Titus Says:

    Clicking through to the NSF site gives better maps.
    The two states that really stick out in terms of funding are Illinois and Michigan. I expect this is because UMichigan and UChicago/NORC conduct a lot of surveys. Clicking through, it does seem to be the case that almost all the money is going to private/public research universities. Otherwise, the funding seems sort of evenly distributed, with many states having around the same level of funding per capita.
    If you look within some of the larger states there are some surprises as to where the funding is going. In Texas, Rice is solidly #1 . #2 is…U of North Texas. UT-Austin clocks in at #5. In California, Standford is #1 by far (it runs the ANES election survey), but UC-Davis and UCLA get more than UC-Berkeley.

    So I would say there may be less bias in the actual assignment of awards than you are letting on. Elite schools often recruit researchers with experience winning grants/fellowships. They may encourage professors to apply. In addition, the centrality of these schools in academic networks mean that they are more likely to be the places where professors organize ambitious research collection projects. So I think there may be issues of inequality within academia, but I don't think it's fair to say, based on the evidence, that the NSF discourages non-elite applicants.

    Looking over the funding, you may be able to make a case that the NSF should fund fewer mid-size surveys and more huge/tiny ones? Even UChicago and Northwestern are only at their high levels of funding because of a "TESS" research project. My guess, looking at the data, would be that much of the funding (maybe around 2/3?) goes to 10-15 large surveys. But looking at individual awards, or awards to graduate students, they do seem to be more evenly distributed.

  14. Elle Says:

    If a great scientist is doing great research, that should be inherently valuable to all scientists or anyone who values science, even if it doesn't further the careers of other scientists–hell even if it undermines your life's work.

    I suppose the question then becomes whether targeting grant funding at the top slice of institutions is a way of ensuring that the best work gets done. To the degree that assessing the research outputs of an institution is a profoundly politicised and subjective process, itself based on indicators that are achieved through politicised and subjective processes, I would suggest that it isn't.

    I'm not an academic, but I consult on and commission research projects. It's my observation that, in the research areas that my work overlaps with, the top tier universities are more conservative and much less likely to take the type of heterodox approaches that I'm most interested in. I don't know if this has been replicated in the US, but there has been some progress in Europe, apropos of concerns about the diversity of some academic specialisms, towards getting research funding bodies to require universities to take substantive action on equality and diversity to secure funding. As well as meeting women's aspirations, the theory goes, this might bring new ideas and approaches into the mix.

  15. c u n d gulag Says:

    Tim H.,
    Fewer, AND BETTER, words!

  16. JohnR Says:

    Very good, Ed! You get a cookie!

  17. Xynzee Says:

    @John: at the same time can you provide hard evidence that the Skyfather does *not* exist?

    Even Dawkins has changed his view to agnosticism, because when challenged to provide hard, scientific evidence against the existence of God he could not do so. Therefore as a pure "scientist" he moved to a more "scientific" and less cognizantly dissonant position of agnosticism. Thus making your belief structure equally a rejection of scientific method as any foamy mouthed zealot.

  18. Elle Says:

    I'm not sure that's exactly what happened, Xynzee. The God Delusion has a chapter in which Dawkins explains his agnostic/atheist spectrum, which is explained and critiqued in this very digestible blog post here.

    As the author of the post sets out, some people who would place themselves in a similar place on the spectrum would identify themselves as atheists, and some wouldn't.

  19. bb in GA Says:

    @xynzee

    great line…

    fmz here…thank you Jesus!

    //bb

  20. Rosalux Says:

    Meh. I'm not going to cry rivers that already enriched American academics receive less funding (as Ed says, it's not as if these grants are going to lowly lecturers and profs outside of the Ivys).

    This reminds me why my brain explodes every time some billionaire makes a billion dollar grant to Princeton or Yale and the media fellates him for his boundless generosity. Princeton does not need more money.

    I'm fine with congress making other budget priorities (though in reality, they will choose to fund instead Defense spending or tax cuts for oil companies, not spending in the public interest).

  21. Patrick Says:

    http://biobook.nerinxhs.org/bb/ecology/population_biology/USA_states_population_color_map.PNG

    Weird how it looks a lot like the funding map…clearly all the babies are going to the top 1%

    I normally like your stuff Ed, but I don't feel like this one is up to par.

  22. tveb Says:

    I would have had fewer objections had they decided to cut all social science funding, and not just single out political science.

  23. Jerry Vinokurov Says:

    Newsflash, yo: most of the research money goes to the top places in *every* discipline. It's called the Matthew Effect, discovered and coined by Robert Merton way back in the 50s. While I share the desire for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, including research money, that desire will definitely not be achieved by defunding the NSF or any of its subdivisions. Pretending like this is something that's going to only affect Princeton and also fuck Princeton is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  24. Da Moose Says:

    I've done about 3 decades of intense study on this government and its society both in the classroom and experientially. The dilemma you describe, with regard to allocation of tax resources, speaks to a final conclusion I've made, that I've come to in the past two years, which is, if we expect as citizens to fix the income inequality in this country it must start and end with the tax system. Your tax " refund" every spring is just a buy off to look the other way from a centralized tax system that is organized and maintained by those who pilfer it. Until the average American wakes up to this fact, income inequality will continue. Reverse the State to Federal tax ratio and you fix income inequality along with a lot of other mounds of crap currently emanating from DC.

    Traditional liberals don't like to hear this point because they whine about civil rights and its federal backing and the potential absence thereof if you weaken federal power. Well, your gardener may landscape your house properly but he's also certainly phucking your wife. Any liberal who advocates for federal civil liberties in exchange for a corrupt prison system, a corrupt pentagon, a corrupt legal system, a corrupt political system, a corrupt corporate system, is someone who profits from this system and anybody who doesn't think that the endgame for fixing this is not in DC is either ignorant or part of the problem.

    It's time for all things governable and governed to be questioned and re-examined at their root.

  25. Robert M. Says:

    The strongest predictor of success of an application to the US NSF is the presence of a PI or co-PI who has been funded before. When similar situations occur in economics, it's a sign of decreasing class mobility.

    And there is absolutely a class system in the academy. Grad students sit at the bottom of it, followed closely by the hundreds of adjuncts, lecturers, and even early-career TT folks who still weren't lucky enough to land one of the score or so (if you're in a big field) associate jobs at major universities.

    The way to get ahead is by knowing someone who's already made it, and convincing them to lend their name and reputation to your work. It's also important to do it within a couple of years of gaining a Ph.D., because otherwise the odds of it happening at all shrink drastically.

    It's not quite as bad as economic mobility in the US has become, but it's close–and it's highly correlated, considering that the quality of your degree is largely a matter of status driven by tuition cost.

  26. terraformer Says:

    Very similar to the dissolution of curricula in civics and social studies. As alluded to above, polysci is now on the block. The old adage "when people think, they tend to vote Democrat" is pretty true in most respects, I think. You systematically take that away, equate the word "social" with all things bad, and you set up an ignorant society that is easily bowled over via the power of greed.

    Me? I just wear my favorite shirt that says "Science doesn't care about your beliefs" and hope that it triggers some original, contrary thought in someone.

  27. Bernard Says:

    lol, well, well, well. the proof is in the pudding. the Immoral Minority got their way and screwed the Pooch/America. after 30 years of watching the Republicans and Democrats/Repubican Lite suck up to the Rich/Corporate Owners, we have enough proof to see how "real" this Faith Based BS is.

    what was a good country for lots of people to live has finally been corrupted enough by the Effing Republicans to where the shtt is effectively hitting enough people to where they can "taste" what reality for teh Faith Based Fantasy People/Republican and Right wingers is really like

    and unfortunately, a lot more is coming down the pike. lol Global warming or climate change is just a small part of the melting iceberg we shall see above the water line.

    the idiocy of the Republicans , Great Father Reagan, who so heavily prophesized the willfully ignorant, has now achieved enough inertia. all the good people who have suffered at the hands of these evil bastards,well, they are just fccked.

    but then again, im prejudiced against such ignorant redneck MFers and always have been. especially the Values Voters, Religious nuts and other assorted crazies. i do have to admit the devil is much smarter than any of his loser Christian followers.

    please wake me when Jesus comes and God rewards the good for being so effed by the Great Grifters of America. Thank you St. Ronnie and your select chock full of nuts brigade.

    God is just a simplistic ploy to keep the willfully ignorant under the thumb. i guess thinking is way too hard to justify. plausibility is the only hope we have of God's inexistence. so we just have to pretend there is life after we die, cause the Faith Based Believers prove there certainly isn't any proof of sentient being alive in the human form.

  28. Xynzee Says:

    @Bernard: just out of curiosity. Where would you place my "Buddhist" cousin who's into her macrobiotic, plant based diet, who rejects the science behind vaccinations?

  29. just me Says:

    xynzee –
    I speak for just me, not Bernard, but your cousin ranks right down there with all the other twits who think that faith virtually eradicated small pox and polio from the planet and the science behind vaccines is just a big conspiracy theory to make pharmacutical companies rich.
    And while I'm at the keyboard, just out of curiosity, how wise do you think it would be to base an entire culture on the magical abilities of pink fairies and green unicorns? After all, you can't prove they don't exist.

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