Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Boston Legal Hypocrisy?

Tibor R. Machan

A couple of weeks ago Boston Legal, the TV series created and produced by David E. Kelley—otherwise known as Mr. Michelle Pfeifer—featured a program in which a partner of the firm opted to withdraw her sizable contribution for climate change research to Stanford University because Exxon/Mobile also gave them some big bucks. This plot line gave Kelley, who was credited with having written the segment, the chance to sound off on how big corporations manage to buy research from universities. Receiving huge sums, the thesis goes, even though there are no official strings attached, cannot but bias the researchers in favor of the interests of the donors! That was the basic message and it was delivered in characteristically moralistic tones, making sure no one missed the point that morality in this and other matters with which the program deals lies on the side of those championing Kelley’s causes.

Just how contorted the idea is that Kelley is peddling here can be appreciated from a recent Associated Press story that reports the receipt from the National Science Foundation by the University of California, Merced, of a $4.6 million grant “to start an outdoor laboratory geared toward studying climate change in the Sierra Nevada range.” The direct recipients of this grant will be researchers at various ”UC campuses, including Berkeley, Irvine, Davis and Santa Barbara, as well as scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the U. S. Forest Service.”

First of all, clearly those favoring the climate change-global warming hypothesis may also have to consider that their motives are likely to be influenced by money. Some big companies may wish to downplay climate change and global warming for purely mercenary reasons, regardless of what the evidence shows. But then government agencies such as the NSF could well have their own agenda and those producing findings that support it could well have biases of their own. Not that they have to, no more than those who receive funds from Exxon/Mobile or other big corporations.

The point is that there are agendas being pushed on both sides, by no means just from private oil firms, and if this must corrupt research, it will do so in both camps. But, of course, this idea never surfaced in the Boston Legal episode. The notion that climate change/global warming researchers might themselves be biased because they receive big bucks from the Feds was nowhere to be heard on that episode, trust me.

Second, when a private company gives a grant to a research centers, taxpayers aren’t forced to contribute. Those who don’t agree with Exxon/Mobile’s take on climate change or global warming can buy oil and other products the company makes from competitors. When the National Science Foundation provides funds to all these universities, it is using money extorted from citizens at gun point. So there is no way to opt out from funding the research by those who believe it is all a hoax, exaggerated or unscientific. Such funding is akin to the sort that many find objectionable when government support is provided to, say, abortion clinics or certain types of stem cell research; or when a highly controversial military expedition is being funded with taxes even though millions of American’s consider it immoral.

Of course, no such considerations made any appearance in Mr. Kelley’s business-bashing episode of Boston Legal. This, too, makes it very clear that all the posturing of holding the moral high ground is groundless. No thought was given to the possible immorality of confiscating resources from those who disagree with some governmental project. Only the purported evil of big oil got a forum.

Finally, notice, too, that all of this business-bashing is being broadcast on ABC-TV, a humongous commercial organization that is about as fully enmeshed in trying to make a buck as is Exxon/Mobile, and probably selling Exxon/Mobile air time to advertise its goods and services. Mr. Kelley and his team are certainly not free of complicity with big business; rather they are all making a very nice living from getting ABC-TV to run their show even as they explicitly and implicitly call into question the integrity and good will of all those who try to earn a profit.

In the end, what’s most important to remember is that the integrity of professionals in science, education, engineering and other fields isn’t all that easy to undermine, not if those individuals will not allow it. To think that a grant from Exxon/Mobile will corrupt researchers could well be a case of projection on Mr. Kelley’s part. Maybe he is easy to corrupt with money, so he thinks everyone is.

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