The lessons of island time

Every year I make a point to roam the planet and get back down to earth; to strip away the ornamentation of modern life, if only for a moment, and reflect on what it means to be human. Last year, I ventured through northern Europe for eight weeks, and then upon my return to the United States, backpacked for two weeks through Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Wilderness with my best friend, David Munson. This year, David and I spent two weeks mid-June living on a small island in the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, several miles off the coast of Belize. It was, to say the least, a transformative experience.

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On the island I read a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which features a dialogue between a man and his teacher, Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla. Ishmael walks the unnamed narrator Socratically through two different stories being enacted by humankind: one – the “Taker” worldview wherein humanity understands itself to own the world and takes it to be our self-evident destiny to absolutely control the human condition and ultimately transcend our animality to be more the gods of old than part of creation – a mythology of progress, as John Gray, puts it. Ishmael leads our narrator to an understanding of Taker mythology that shows it to be invariably destructive of the planet, essentially set in motion over the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution beginning with the conflicts between the Semitic and Caucasian peoples in Mesopotamia – the former, pastoralists in lifestyle; the latter, agricultural revolutionaries – in which the Taker Caucasians cannot stand to settle into a modus vivendi with the pastoralist Semites and, rather than peacefully coexist, expand “Taker Culture” by sword and fire, utterly intolerant of any way of life other than their own, and ultimately seeking to remove human beings from the laws of ecology by which nature (the gods) govern “who lives and who dies” on our humble planet.


The pastoralist Semites represent, not the first, but continuances of the way humankind lived for three million years prior to the agricultural revolution – herders and hunter-gathers – who still survive today in the ever-waning number of indigenous tribes that still exist despite the march of “progress” that has been underway for the past 10,000 years. Rather than believing the Earth to belong to human beings, these “Leavers” understand humanity to be one animal among many, not destined to rule the Earth, but to coexist as part of its great ecology and to carry forward the emergence of sentience with grace and respect for the immutable laws that govern the existence and balance of life. Where Takers, according to Ishmael, lead destructive, discontent, criminal lives, the Leavers knew harmony with the Earth (even despite the harshness of nature, which Takers aim to escape altogether), a deep-rooted sense of purpose and contentment, and lived within the laws of nature – law-abiding Terran citizens.


Ultimately, it seems to me, the turn-point on which the Taker-Leaver dualism hinges is the idea of purpose. For the Takers, humankind’s purpose is to progress; but “progress is [just] movement for movement’s sake” according to Hayek’s nihilistic dictum, and leaves us restless, insatiable, and discontent in our existence. Only in Taker Society do depression, obesity, addiction, bipolar, ADD, ADHD, mania, insomnia, and suicide really exist – and they are a reflection of the pointlessness of our eternal pursuit of “progress” as we envision it; never content, never sleeping, always seeking to transcend, yet nevertheless unable to ever be more than human – for in plucking ourselves from the forces of natural selection, we will never be able to evolve.

The Leavers, on the other hand, Ishmael says, understand humanity’s original place within nature, as stewards of a Franciscan bent, and do not struggle with nihilism, or the psychological ailments of modernity. They are “down to earth” and so they are happy, locked in step with the rhythms and melodies of the planet; a synchronicity long since forgotten by the Takers. To be part of something greater than ourselves; to have an unambiguous place on Earth; a true sense of home and authentic living in the ancient wisdom of “what works for people” passed down over millions of years.


It is easy to lament the rapacious destruction of the Leavers that do today remain, to call for our peaceful co-existence, to live and let live, so that their ancient knowledge and ways of living will not be snuffed out for good, and to resent Taker Society for being what it is, accustomed to its ways over ten millennia; to be saddened by the trajectory of the human-nature relationship that dominates the planet; to wish to leave all the taking behind and return to simpler living; to re-immerse ourselves in the laws of ecology (for we cannot fall forever!) sooner than later, and avert our crashing down into the canyon below toward which our flightless jet has been plummeting since its inception (forgotten that we are falling, for falling gives a sensation of flight until one hits ground); to pity the Takers; to judge and to hate them; to blame them and to obsess over the fantasy of abandoning Taker mythology for a return to hunting and gathering and herding. How naïve! How childish! One does not judge, or blame, or pity, or hate a sheep for being a sheep, for they are but sheep, born into being sheep, living and dying as sheep and knowing no other way, convinced they are happy and righteous in their wool; unawares that they are fleecing themselves, even still.

The sheep will never abandon the herd, for the herd is all they’ve ever known, and the herd is an echo-chamber beating the drum of progress, sure to the deepest level that any other way of life would be nasty, poor, brutish, and short – and so the fruitless dream of convincing the Takers to again become Leavers is, to be sure, a bucket that will not labor to hold water – there is no hope there; only frustration.


And so, if we labor for hope that we can stem the socioecological crisis of the Anthropocene, we must embrace a new story that inspires a new sense of purpose in the nihilism of Taker Society and reinvigorates living rather than simply being alive; a sense of home and place and meaning in human life as it exists today, for we cannot turn back the clock, forget what we have been up to for 10,000 years and return to the Leaver way of life. Indeed, we are far too many for that to be at all feasible in the first place, and no one would buy it.

Even life on the island was hardly removed from the luxuries of modernity. Indeed, we would forage and fish, but we were never far from agricultural produce brought by gas powered boat, a diesel generator that electrified the open-air kitchen in the “main building,” our Scuba gear, the Internet modem (even if spotty, unreliable, and generally inaccessible), our cell phones, cooking and harvesting tools, the litter washed up and strewn about the island, our mattresses, and solar powered lamps, toothbrushes, sunscreen, bug spray, and head torches were constant reminders that we were never far, never even close to truly removed, from Taker Culture and the luxuries of modernity. Nor, do I think, would we really have wanted to be. We merely sought to go out on a limb, not leap from the tree entirely; for at the end of our stay we hopped on airplanes and whooshed ourselves back to “civilization.”


But the lessons of the island – of our little limb – we will retain, for its flavor was sweet and its memory powerful – wood labor that one cannot and would not forget; a resonant verse in the new song I will now forever sing; the poetry to onward recite to our Taker kin:

Back down to earth, to embrace the great clod,

To remember and love,

to lay in the grass, and tend to the sod.

For removed we may be, but never too far,

from the ground and the soil that reminds who we are.

Of Takers and Leavers, we humans of terra,

All are of one, as we forge our new era.

For as numbers grow and the planet may groan,

Our task is to labor and spread love for our home.


Our ways and our whims are all subject to change,

And our labor of love is to retake the reigns.

Together as people, all one in the same,

Our fate is in common in living’s great game.

Never removed,

in heart or in whole,

In being together we relight our souls;

By ushering in the sentience of beings,

To be first of the teachers is the song we must sing.


As time marches on and our place remembered,

Our purpose in life is the being of members

in the tribe of the planet and contentment of living,

As stewards and poets and artisans tending

To the movement of souls through the cosmic abyss,

The meaning we seek is in love and in bliss.

In oneness and many, the plural abounds,

For what works for people is diverse in its sounds,

And melodies change in verse and in rhythm,

We are never too far to bring together the schism.


Between humans and cultures and planet and creatures,

All people are set to be leaders and teachers,

But not by our rule, by fire and fist,

For if hubris proceeds we’ll be lost in the mist,

Groping and grabbing at whatever is solid,

But never content,

sordid and squalid.


From gorilla to human, to palm leaf and crab,

We can all reinvent the habits we have,

For the better of all and for all in the light,

It is merely the dawn of what life has in sight.

For the cosmos and Earth expresses through us

the sentience, galactic, of which we entrust

the powers of reason, foresight, and love,

the oceans below us and the stars up above.

Our task is each other,

To teach, serve, and write,

Takers and leavers and creatures, alike.

– J. M. Kincaid, 2017

“Re-coupling science and policy” — an elaboration

Hello fellow humans! I hope you are well. My friend, colleague, and co-author Dr. Alexander Lee, and I wrote a short opinion piece, “Re-coupling science and policy” for the Daily Camera–a local Boulder newspaper–earlier this week.

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This short piece is concurrent with the argument in another of our recent articles, “Two problems of climate change: Can we lose the planet but save ourselves?” published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & EnvironmentThere, we argue that the variety of values-based claims central to the climate ethics discussion, from concern with the burdens of harmful climate impacts to the priority of rectifying the wrongdoing of climate change, are given disproportionate emphasis; most emphasis–we think problematically–is put on the harms-dimension of the climate problem, while we believe the latter is closer to the true heart of the immorality and unethical nature of anthropogenic climate change.

In this new short opinion piece, Alex and I consider the recent turns of events concerning The March for Science, Scott Pruitt’s mass-firing of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and the general trend of unreasonable decision-making, silencing of scientists, and dismantling of values-discourse altogether in the age of Trump.

Science, as it were, is being de-coupled from the policymaking process. Why the decoupling? Because science, and our reliance on science in making decisions of public import, ultimately reflects the progressive values central to the age of reason, i.e. the value we place on collaboration, fostering open discourse among even and especially those who disagree, the importance of evidence, the approach of objectivity, the testability of hypotheses and reproducibility of methods, and the centrality of cooperation to social, political, and ethical progress; values which, I think rather clearly, the Trump Administration does not share. And thus its leaders have taken significant steps to decouple science from the policymaking and public decision-making process. Yet another sign that the age of reason is dead. 

Decoupling science from the policymaking process is yet another move in the Trump Administration’s course to remove representatives of reason from the public discourse; the scheme to silence reasonable public discourse outright. As Alex and I argue, “silencing scientists silences values” — and the open consideration of values is indispensable to the march of progress. As progress in ethics and social order is non-linear, and certainly not guaranteed or immune to regress, we must be tireless in its defense. And to be sure, where science and values discourse alike are squelched by the Trump Administration, it’s not just the age of reasons that’s under siege — it is the very possibility of progress in society.

Let’s get it together, humans.

The age of reason is dead

Fake news, merchants of doubt, alternative facts, silenced scientists, and the con-mander-in-chief. The end of the age of reason is upon us. It’s been dying. But it’s finally dead. And so we eulogize:

As Carl Sagan (1997) prophesized:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…”

Our regressive descent into mysticism and superstition has reached terminal velocity. Late capitalism and the Anthropocene have delivered us to a new medieval period of human history, coupled with a neo-feudal socioeconomic order and global klepto-plutocratic oligarchy.

Most have been deluded by radical progress in science and technology to believe that progress in ethics and social order is necessarily concurrent. Among the most delusional are those who remain ascribed to the leftist dogma that globalization and the worldwide liberation of human beings from the barbarity of the human condition are guaranteed. Progress in science and technology may be a fact but it is all the more evident now that inevitable progress in ethics, politics, and social order are a myth.

The rise of Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism in western Europe are mere symptoms of the utopian and fundamentally unsustainable project of global neoliberalism and installing western-style democracy the world over. Even the bastions of liberal social order in Europe and North America are buckling under the pressures of globalization and the task of governing radically pluralistic society.

The political right many live in a fantasy of denial about the trajectory of diversity and demographics in Western culture, the science of climate change, and the possibility of sustaining the longstanding heteronormative, patriarchic, and anti-ecological social hierarchy amidst unprecedented pluralism, but the left is perhaps worse off in remaining faithful that human beings will universally “see the light” and reject the superstitions and prejudices that are seemingly inseparable from the rapacity and tribalism of human nature.

As isolationist plutocratic oligarchy becomes the new governmental norm of 21st century politics, there’s a little evidence to support that our gradual dissent into darkness will reverse course.

As Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project of Yale University have confirmed for years, people’s superstitions, values, and world views invariably precede their acceptance of empirical data that contradictions their predispositions. It’s simply easier to accept facts that confirm your worldview than to change one’s mind, potentially upending one’s sense of order and meaning in life. To accommodate our cognitive dissonance we rather pretend the world isn’t what it is. Instead of untangling the moral valence of scientific research in civic discourses, we prefer to silence them altogether—to silence scientific and ethical communication outright.

For years now our politics have been shrouded in mis-information about everything ranging from the ills of smoking cigarettes to the causes of human induced climate change. Merchants of Doubt have been among us for decades and now they remain among the only voices not silenced by the current US federal administration.

Some representatives of the scientific and progressive community have “gone rogue” on Twitter and remain dedicated to contesting the slew of falsehoods perpetuated by those with financial interests in the status quo of energy production, gender norms, and institutional oppression across races and genders and sexualities. But ultimately these outbursts of indignation will be consumed by the indiscernible din of hodgepodge identity politics and conflict among the elites and populists of the left.

The unwillingness of the political left and right to even engage in coherent civic discourse and has brought upon us the era of fake news and alternate facts. Rather than wrestle with truth, untangle the diversions of values and moral assumptions underlying our disagreements, and cooperate, we prefer to submerge ourselves in echo-chambers that make us comfortable and self-righteous, only reinforcing what we merely presume to be objective truth about the direction and order of the world.

It should come as no surprise that the challenges of experimenting with pluralistic society have culminated in the reemergence of intractable tribalism; tribes that refuse to even listen to one another. The age of reason worked while it did because discourse enabled constructive disagreement and ultimately collaboration, but our inability to be discursive about our treatises of ethics and social order evidences that for all our technoscientific progress, reason will succumb to the barbaric disposition of human beings to use the power of technology to wage war on ourselves and the non-human world alike rather than create a world without poverty, oppression, and ecological degradation.

We have abandoned our reasonable capacities to take responsibility for human agency in the world. Trump’s reinsertion of interest in torture; the reinstatement of black sites; the embrace of dictators from Putin to Assad; nuclear re-proliferation; the outright denial of human-caused climate change; the rapid backpedaling of progress in women’s, non-heterosexual, and non-cisgender rights; voter suppression; white nationalism; the retraction of US humanitarian aid around the world; the beginnings of mass deportation or internment of Mexicans and Muslims; and the refusal to accept political and climate refugees simply on the basis of their ethnicities and religions are the tip of the regressive iceberg. If anything, the rise of Trump demonstrates that the liberal progressive vision of the world’s trajectory toward global tolerance and pluralism is a secular utopian myth.

Ultimately any remaining exaltation of liberal utopianism is a matter of secular faith. Some will surely attempt to cast their faith as optimistic confidence in the capacity of human reason to overcome the primitive barbarism of our animal condition, but such a subtle difference in framing cannot cover up the apparent mysticism of liberal millenarianism.

As the age of reason comes to a close the only reasonable prediction left is that by John Gray in his book Black Mass. As the project of globalization fails to deliver its promise of universal economic and political liberation from the hardships and barbarity of the human condition, succumbing to the laws of entropy, the human experience will again be characterized by a resurgence of fundamentalist religion, superstition, and allegiance to mythology as a last ditch effort to maintain any sense of order and direction and meaning and purpose in our existence.

I still find happiness, contentment, and solace in my loved ones, in music, in beauty and art and literature, in exploring the wilderness, in pluralism, and in the catharsis of writing; but my faith in human reason has been eclipsed by the swell of fear and barbarity around the world, paired with the fervent but unfounded insistence from the left that “this too will pass” and the arc of progress will once again and necessarily take route. I will continue to do everything in my power to protect and assist people and the nonhuman world in need; to take responsibility and act for good reasons; to live ethically. I will continue to write and speak out and petition and defend what I believe to be justified and right. But liberals, now more evident than ever, cannot take progress for granted. When we assume that progress in ethics is guaranteed or inevitable—the natural and righteous evolution of humanity—and that this is just a hiccup—we’re no better than the mystics of the ancient world for whom reason had little value.


Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.


The popular apocalypse

     Western culture today—-traditionally and in the popular sense—-is rife with apocalyptic narratives. Our fascination with end-times is, on one hand, couched in a history of Manichean religious conviction, and on the other, a new symptom of our growing disillusionment with modernity. Democracy, capitalism, globalization, science, and technology—-the many arms of the project of progress—-have failed to rid the world of evil as we imagined they would. Fairness, equality, standing, mastery over nature, control over our destinies—-all were promised, but delivered only piecemeal if at all.
     Now we begin to taste the bitter fruit: that “modern” social orders are no more immune to the undesirable aspects of human nature than those of our “ancient” counterparts. Modernity has, in many ways, served only to amplify the human capacity for evil and to exacerbate the very problems we sought modernization to remedy.
     In our disillusionment with modernity we revert to an older faith—-a religious solidarity grounded not in messy reality, but in the irrational belief that beneath the chaos of nature there exists a greater universal order to which human beings are specially attuned, giving us status above and above the rest of the natural world—-that it rests upon our shoulders to change the course of history.
     The grand scheme to bring paradise to all, while successful in privileging a few with enormous wealth, has meant and continues to mean poverty and geo-political subjugation for many—-many of whom reside in the third world or global south and never stood to benefit from modernization in the first place. The immediate social impacts of economic exploitation in tandem with the long-term environmental effects of resource extraction, including local pollution and non-local consequences such as climate change and all that climate change entails for sea-level, food production, and habitability, amounts to a paradox of sorts: our pursuit of progress—-our forward-looking idealism—-has condemned the very future we sought to enrich to lives of hardship.
     And so in our shock, in our dissatisfaction, we reflex to eschatology. We foretell and therein help to ensure a prophesy of inevitable conflict. A great war between Good and Evil to accomplish through violence what progress could not. The apocalyptic genre is popular not arbitrarily, but because we sense, and in some sadistic cases, likely expect, that something of the sort will play out because we believe that without a dramatic purifying event—-an epic triumphant narrative—-history is destined to repeat itself without any hope of breaking free from our Sisyphean condition. The truth is that the former is far more likely than than the latter. Good will never triumph over Evil because both are essential to what it means to be human. Both are a matter of perspective and construction, culture and habit, perception and preconception, all of which further ensures the longevity of both ideas so long as humans are around.
     The fate of the world does not rest on human shoulders. Life will continue long after the human animal is gone, regardless of our footprint. Albeit, we may render the planet entirely inhospitable to ourselves and other sensitive creatures, but life will go on in some form. To suppose that life on Earth somehow depends on the human struggle between Good and Evil is simply an irrational and self-aggrandizing exercise of humanistic narcissism. While we may view our role in nature through dichotomous lenses, one side destined to win out over the other, in reality ours is but one of many animal cycles that will culminate not in glorious victory, but in gradual speciation and extinction.

To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development


The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.