Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science with an Agenda

CNN reports today that a new long-term study from Princeton implicates high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in obesity. Critics from the processed food industry and big Agra are piling on to criticize the study as flawed.

I have not read the study report or its critiques, but this behavior on the part of those with a vested interest in corn production and sales reflects a pervasive problem in the modern scientific world. Researchers are not left to study what interests them and add to the deposit of human knowledge -- they are expected to investigate what will serve some other than scientific purpose and woe be to the researcher who publishes information that is unfavorable to any large industry or interest group.

I recall a time when researchers at Bell Laboratories, under the aegis of pre-divestment AT&T, were told to investigate and discover, with no mandate to produce results that would shore up Ma Bell's bottom line. This was as near pure science as any in my lifetime, I think -- the ethic being that all knowledge is good and ultimately useful. The practical benefits included the transistor, the photovoltaic cell, fiber optic cables and a series of educational films directed by Frank Capra. Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Ray did more to build curiosity about the natural world and respect for those who devoted their lives to discovery for its own sake than all the lectures, textbooks and journal articles we were required to endure in our years of formal education.

Perhaps the researchers at Princeton were seduced by their proximity to the Institute for Advanced Study, which still prides itself on doing pure science. They must have thought, "If they can do it, so can we." They can, but at their own risk. Had they kept their results secret rather than trying to do the socially responsible thing -- had they not felt obliged to warn the public that daily consumption of HFCS might not be a good idea, there would be no controversy. They stepped on some very rich toes and that is always fraught with peril.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Praise of Old Books

“Government doesn’t grow the private sector. Business grows the private sector.” Kirkman Finlay III

This quotation, reported at The Pulse of Columbia ("The Gloves Are Off") reflects the conventional wisdom of most Americans for whom broadcast or cable news is the lens that mediates reality. Most would probably take as axiomatic that public sector means government and private sector means small business and corporations. But this has not always been the case.

As I read what Mr. Finlay said at a debate of mayoral candidates in Columbia Monday evening a bell rang, not at ringside but in the back of my mind. I recalled having read recently an analysis of the public sector that included privately owned corporations in that class of human artifacts. Where could it have been? I have never read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto is buried under some forty years of memory. No -- it was another old book: not so old as Karl Marx but perhaps older than the young Mr. Finlay.

The value of reading and re-reading books is that, some day, an idea from them will present itself as an ameliorative for the hybridized, mass produced thinking of modern civic discourse. Two millennia and more after the writing of Ecclesiastes, there is yet very little that has not seen the light of former days. Most of what we call "new" is not. It is a modification, a reconfiguration -- sometimes a perversion of that which has been with us longer than we know. Such is the case with our notion of the public versus the private sector.

Ask any high school graduate or mayoral candidate the difference between the public and private sectors and you are likely to get the same answer: government and its agencies are public; everything else is private. I have never heard it said otherwise by any professor, plumber or politician. But I have read otherwise, in a little book published in 1969. Few people who read this have read or even heard of A Critique of Pure Tolerance. It is a set of three essays by an analytical philosopher, a sociologist and a Marxist giving their respective assessments of the role and value of tolerance in modern pluralistic societies. I picked this book up for a second reading recently, read the first essay and put it down -- meaning to finish it "soon."

This evening, when I read the Pulse article, I was reminded that there is another understanding of the public sector that extends beyond civil government. A few moments of reflection brought the likely source to consciousness and I sought it out. It is from Robert Paul Wolff's "Beyond Tolerance." Half-way in he cites an older book, On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill to summarize Mill's idea that, in a free society, the individual must be permitted to do exactly as he or she pleases, regardless of the opinions of others, except as the actions of the individual affect other individuals. It is a technical exposition of what I was told as a child: my freedom to swing my arms (or a bat) ends where any part of another person's body begins. Had I attended kindergarten, I am sure I would have been exposed to utilitarian philosophy there.

That, for Mill, is the private sector: what an individual does in the privacy of his or her own thoughts, habits and actions that does not impinge on the same right of any other individual or bring demonstrable harm to the society as a whole. Mill continues: "...[F]rom this liberty of each individual follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals...for any purpose not involving harm to others...." And that, for Mill, is the public sector -- the realm of cooperation among individuals, whether as government, corporation or private fellowship, that some times or all the time affects other individuals or the society as a whole.

Now Mr. Finlay may have meant, when he spoke of what does and does not grow the private sector, that government does not have the ability to increase individual liberty, but that business does. I suspect, though, that he equates the private sector with the economy which, in Mill's libertarian philosophy, is in the public sector because it is the concern of everyone.

Here's to old books!