Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's all take a moment to close our eyes and picture ourselves desecrating the grave of William Proxmire

It hit me the other day that, while I frequently go after Republicans for taking cheap shots at science and research for personal and political game, I don't think I have ever mentioned that the politician who perfected the art was a Democrat. So the next time that John McCain and Maureen Dowd go all giggly over agricultural research, we should all take a moment and thank William Proxmire for getting things started.
Golden Fleece Award

Proxmire was noted for issuing his Golden Fleece Award.,[5] which was presented monthly between 1975 and 1988, in order to focus media attention on projects Proximire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.[1] The first Golden Fleece Award was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love.[1] Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were awarded to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel ("The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," reported The New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying "the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the 'length of the buttocks.'"[1]

Proxmire's critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs. In some circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in "the project has been proxmired". In 1987, Stewart Brand accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy.[13] Proxmire later apologized for several cancelled projects, including SETI.

One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for defamation in 1976. Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that clause does not immunize members of Congress from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings (Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)). The case was eventually settled out of court.[14]
If you read some of the descriptions of the awards, it becomes obvious that, like McCain and Dowd after him, Proxmire didn't care about the potential of the research or even the magnitude of the waste; all that mattered was whether or not he could frame the project in a way that made it sound silly. Here's my favorite example: "He gave the award to a study of the sex life of the screw-worm fly. The results were used to create sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated this major cattle parasite from the US and reducing the cost of beef across the globe."

Proxmire wasn't even an ethical whore. When a project he'd mocked became too popular (such as SETI), his principled opposition suddenly vanished. He was relentlessly and transparently self-serving, but he was able to get away with it because there were plenty of reporters willing to print a good story even if it wasn't actually true.

In a sense, he is still getting away with it. The ongoing war on data owes a great deal to the late senator.

No comments:

Post a Comment