Monday, November 07, 2005

Every day a New Study

Tibor R. Machan

Over the decades I have been following, in an unsystematic but quite reliable fashion, the innumerable studies produced by research universities and think tanks. One result of my informal survey is that I am completely unsure about whether coffee is good or bad for people in general; whether one should take naps or sleep a full night; whether salt, sugar, milk or...well, you get the point...are for or against me in various quantities and frequencies.

Most recently I read of a study that claims that people who retire earlier tend to die sooner than those who retire later. Friends whom I informed of this immediately pointed out that early retirees could well be in worse health than those who stay at work. In short, the study isn’t worth much without excruciating details about it and science journalists simply don’t bother to include those.

First of all, it is worth keeping in mind that universities thrive on studies. Professors, especially in the natural and social sciences, are forever writing proposals appealing for funding of this, that, and another research project. Governments not only fund many of these but, along with the universities themselves, often give training courses to the potential researchers instructing them on how to prepare the proposals.

But, then, just consider: universities and colleges routinely remain in business—they are kept in existence, in other words—almost entirely regardless of whether they are wanted in the general society. They are mostly tax funded, as is all this research. Unlike big and small businesses, very few educational institutions go fatally bankrupt. Most professors take out time to lobby for keeping these places on the government and private dole—“Such endeavors as our higher education and research should never be subjected to market forces,” they plead, as do many artists, scientists, medical professionals and all others who believe that world owes their kind of work job security (while the rest—say, makers of shoes, bakers of bread, producers of cars, etc.—have, of course, no such thing).

Now in this atmosphere where people can keep jobs the free marketplace may well not support, there will clearly be a lot of make-work. Not only is it an article of faith in most university disciplines that original scholarship and research are marks of excellence; not only do degrees and promotions depend a great deal not on teaching students but on doing this kind of work; but a good portion of the funds for it all can be gotten without having to persuade the funding agents, taxpayers, of the merits of these projects. The people to be persuaded are mostly colleagues sitting on evaluation boards who, if I may be a little cynical, are often interested in spending down their budgets so they can ask for more for the next fiscal year or quarter rather than in thrift and results. (Indeed, in some disciplines talk about practical results is deemed pedestrian!)

So do not be terribly surprised when study after study pours out of these institutions—and it makes little difference whether they are privately or government owned and managed, they are all going to government for much of the funding of their research. All these corrupting factors, which are now entrenched in the whole educational and research culture, contribute to the production of endless streams of nearly incoherent information, one week advising some practice, the next discouraging it.

When people who champion the free society, with its free market place by way of which funds are to be allocated to various projects, but all of it on a voluntary basis, they are told often just how the market place is unreliable. People do not know what is important to do; they engage in impulse buying; they engage in trivial pursuits; they are hooked by advertising—you know the drill!

OK, so some of this is probably true. But it is rarely noted by the lobbyists for government subsidies how severely their pet system corrupts the institution that is supposed to provide education and wisdom to young people, as well as dependable research.

It’s time they are reminded of this.

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