SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

“Duh” science and popular misconceptions about scientific research

by Donald Prothero, Feb 01 2012

It pops up in the news every few years, typically when eager politicians are looking for a cause to champion and raise voter anger, and make themselves popular as “guardians of our tax dollars.” The latest version is a recent article in The Los Angeles Times about “duh” science: research that appears to confirm what people regard as everyday knowledge. They included studies that demonstrated that alcohol reduces reaction time; that obese men have a lower chance of getting married; that people who live in safe well-lit neighborhoods are more likely to walk and get exercise; and that college drinking is just as bad as we all thought, but not worse than expected. Such stories are then grabbed out of context and flogged on talk shows as examples of government waste, and become the staple of politicians from both sides of the aisle, eager to enhance their standing with voters.

In this recent incarnation, Senator Tom Coburn (R.-OK) is castigating studies funded by the National Science Foundation which seem silly or frivolous to outsiders to bolster his cred as an anti-waste, anti-tax crusader. He has repeated called for the elimination of the NSF altogether, although he has no idea where American scientists would get their funding if he did so. In past years, the charge was led by Rep. John Dingell (D.-MI), who has served in the House since 1955, the longest serving member of the current Congress. A generation ago, it was Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI), who replaced Joe McCarthy in the Senate and served for 44 years. Proxmire created the famous “Golden Fleece” awards, which publicize what he regards as useless research. Or take a recent quote from that paragon of education and science, Sarah Palin, is in the same vein: “Some of these pet projects, they don’t really make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research.”

The Palin quote, however, reveals the problem with the whole issue of outsiders criticizing science funding: ignorance of scientific research and its context. Anyone who has had any real exposure to biology (as Palin obviously has not) knows that for over a century, the fruit fly has been the model organism of genetics, since it is easy to study and breed, and its genes work wonderfully for research. Fruit flies have taught us more about genetics and evolution than studies on just about any other animal. The same problem permeates all these debates: many areas of science seem obscure to the layman, and don’t seem worthwhile, but in the context of a particular research discipline, they are important or significant.

As the article goes on to point out:

But there’s more to duh research than meets the eye. Experts say they have to prove the obvious — and prove it again and again — to influence perceptions and policy.

“Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,” said Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. “There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.”

Indeed, people are still arguing about cigarettes almost 50 years after the U.S. surgeon general first linked their use to cancer and lung disease. In a recent issue of the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal, a detailed analysis painstakingly laid out a notion that most take for granted: that secondhand smoke in cars is bad for children.

Duh.

Or consider the case of Harvard sleep expert Dr. Charles Czeisler, who has spent about $3 million over the years demonstrating over and over that doctors who don’t get enough sleep make mistakes on the job.

This seems painfully clear. But getting the medical establishment to start believing it — much less change the rules governing doctors’ working hours — has taken Czeisler the better part of three decades. Long shifts for interns and residents are a staple of hospital culture.

When Czeisler presented evidence that workers on rotating shifts at a chemical plant suffered on disrupted sleep, the medical establishment said that doctors were different. When he published results showing that physicians’ 24-hour-plus shifts contributed to car accidents and attention lapses at work, some acknowledged it might be true — but not for them.

Everyone had an anecdote. Czeisler had data. “It was dismissed out of hand,” he said. “They use the same argument over and over, even when we’ve tested it. It drives me up the wall.”

In 2008, the Institute of Medicine issued guidelines calling for limiting interns’ and residents’ shifts to 16 consecutive hours. Last year, authorities did cut back to 16 hours — but only for interns. Why? In part because that’s who Czeisler had studied.

“I was astonished,” said Czeisler, who is now researching whether residents’ performance also is affected by lack of sleep. “I can’t believe we have to do this extra study.”

There’s another reason why studies tend to confirm notions that are already widely held, said Daniele Fanelli, an expert on bias at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Instead of trying to find something new, “people want to draw attention to problems,” especially when policy decisions hang in the balance, he said.

In addition, studies that seem to be confirming the obvious are not so trivial as the media and politicians portray them. Many ideas which we consider everyday wisdom turn out to be wrong—and it takes studies like these to demonstrate the falsity of commonly-held beliefs. Or just to test the hypothesis in the first place, so even if it is confirmed, it is has at least been tested, and it’s not just folk wisdom. Ideally, science should be testing any and all ideas, whether they seem to be common sense or not, because in many cases what we think is common sense turns out to be wrong once scientists have worked on it. After all, your common sense tells you that the sun moves around the earth, that the earth is flat, and that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects—all ideas which have proven false when scientists examined them. Much of science (whether relativity or quantum mechanics or molecular biology or cosmology) is so specialized and hard to explain to the lay man that they are almost impossible to render on commonsensical layman’s explanations without grossly oversimplifying.

Commonly, you will hear politicians and the media criticizing science that just seems obscure to them, often with cries for restricting funding just to practical research that can be made immediately useful to humans. But again, the layperson is in no position to judge what is good research in nuclear physics or in molecular biology, since they know little or nothing about it. Most of the time, the critics of science don’t even try to critique research in highly specialized fields like nuclear physics or molecular biology—yet they feel expert enough in fields like psychology and sociology to critique those kinds of research, even though such research is vetted just as rigorously by the peer review process as research in fields laymen have no clue about.

That’s the crucial point: unless you are qualified by specialized professional training to criticize a particular type of research, you cannot render a useful judgment over what’s good science and what’s bad science. That is the job of the scientific community itself, which polices itself using peer review to fund only the research that meets the highest standards of a given specialty. Peer review isn’t perfect, and not everything that is funded is great science, but it is the best device we have to screen out less important and worthwhile research in the judgment of scientific experts qualified in a given field. And I know from personal experience that most funding is not frivolously thrown away. In my career, I’ve gotten funding consistently from the NSF, and even flown to D.C. to be on panels that screen out the proposals and the mountains of reviews that were generated. It’s brutal. In my branch, at best about 20% of the proposals get funded. That means that 80% of the proposals (many of which are outstanding research, proposed by well-regarded scientists) get turned down just because the competition is so stiff and the funds for scientific research are so scarce. In the last cycle of Sedimentary Geology and Paleontology (my branch) only 10% were funded; 90% were turned down no matter how good they were simply because the funds were so limited. Would you want to waste months of your time and effort to write a pre-proposal, wait for the OK,  and then send in proposal, knowing that the odds are only 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 that it will be funded? That’s the dilemma that faces many scientists, and yet they are under continual pressure to keep the grant funding coming, and maintain their research careers in this highly competitive atmosphere.

So keep these things in mind when you hear yet another superficial story in the media or from a politician or  reporter who doesn’t really understand how science works.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (14 votes cast)
"Duh" science and popular misconceptions about scientific research, 5.0 out of 5 based on 14 ratings

Recommended Reading

114 Responses to ““Duh” science and popular misconceptions about scientific research”

  1. Søren Mors says:

    To a large extent, I agree with you, but feel that there is also another side to the story.

    Politicians certainly aren’t particularly well suited to judge what is good paleontology, and what is not so good (neither am I). But on the other hand, paleontologists aren’t all that well suited to judge how important paleontology is compared to everything else that the government could spend the money on. In other words, politicians shouldn’t have much of a say in deciding which projects gets funded within a field, but they should have the largest say in deciding how the money is split between fields.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Indeed, that is how it is set up in the US, where Congress has the budget power and makes appropriations to each of the science agencies; a non-partisan top scientist who is the director of each agency then splits it up. Still, there are lots who wish that idiotic politicians DIDN’T have that power, because they don’t know anything about science, and because they often vote appropriations based on who bribes them most, or which project will build in their district and create jobs. And lots of people would argue that, in general, politicians are not so good in deciding how to spend our tax dollars, especially considering that our science agencies are a tiny fraction of 1% of the total budget, yet they are always the targets of right-wingers who want to reduce the Federal Government to nothing (not understanding how the budget is already largely allocated to servicing our debt, to the military, and to social services, all of which are very hard to cut). But having seen scientists squabble within agencies over who deserves the funding, I’m not sure how much better they would be if they had the power to oversee all Federal science spending…

      • Søren Mors says:

        That you guys currently seems to have some less than stellar politicians is a separate issue. Not that ours are always that great (I’m danish).

        I still believe that it is the politicians job to decide which areas of research are important to the nation, and which are less important. It is then the voters job to ensure that the politicians elected have some sane views.

        Such a setup will lead to some rather stupid decisions, but I have a heard time thinking of a better setup. As you said yourself, scientist will also squabble amongst them selves about which area gets how much money.

      • tmac57 says:

        If the U.S. has to depend on “sane voters”,then we are totally screwed I guess.

      • KC says:

        My suggestion for a “better setup” would be to let taxpayers vote directly on what their taxes fund. Imagine for a moment that when you pay taxes, you could choose where at least 50% of your tax money goes. (The other 50% could go to fund the most critical functions of government, like it or not)

        Anyone who wants to could demand that their “directed funds” could help finance anything from military bombers to cancer research to needle exchange programs.

  2. Kenneth Polit says:

    Most politicians are lawyers, not scientists, so this type of thing doesn’t surprise me. In science there are no authorities, but there are experts, so why don’t we let the experts decide what studies are valid? I’m willing to wager that for the cost of one aircraft carrier we could fund many more, if not all of them. Considering that the U.S. Navy is larger than the next 15 navies combined, I have to ask, who are we trying to compete against?

    • Max says:

      Everyone’s an expert on defense though. The LHC, the Mars rovers, the Kepler space observatory, those are indispensable, but aircraft carriers, who needs ‘em.
      To answer your question, an aircraft carrier doesn’t compete against an enemy carrier, it “competes” against a whole country like Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.

      • Jacob says:

        when it comes to American defense, there isn’t really much of a “competition” at all. The US spends more on it’s military than every other country in the world combined. Just look at this chart when it comes to aircraft carriers http://i.imgur.com/Vfe67.gif . Do you think we should spend billions on another one, or scientific research that can help cure diseased?

  3. Trimegistus says:

    Kenneth: war becomes more likely when the odds get more even. When the Royal Navy had a clear advantage over other European fleets, there was peace. When the Dreadnought Race brought Germany’s fleet near parity, there was war.

    • tmac57 says:

      So when a country has developed an overwhelming superiority in military power,are they are more likely,or less likely to try to use it?

    • Artor says:

      That is, peace at home while those fleets roamed around the world, crushing civilizations and building the empire. That kind of peace?

      • Trimegistus says:

        Yes, as a matter of fact — as opposed to massive great power vs. great power wars with casualties in the millions. I take it you think that’s better? More people dying but at least it’s “fair play”?

      • Artor says:

        Yeah, leap for those conclusions! Higher! Farther!
        I don’t believe that war is a necessary state or desirable. What I’d prefer is actual peace, where nations work to better their own citizens, and build ties with their allies while negotiating diplomatic solutions with their adversaries.

  4. John K. says:

    It is hard to explain why “common sense” is an exceptionally poor way of knowing things. “Everybody knows” is the classic argument from popularity, a decent starting point for a theory, but no substitute for actual experimentation.

    Moreover, it is impossible to tell where research may eventually lead. Public opinion of supercollider research is a good example of this. Why do we care about what sub atomic particles do? Because we may be able to do some truly amazing things once we understand and can predict what they do. The only way to find out is to try and see what happens, “common sense” is not going to cut it.

    Great post.

    • Ed Graham says:

      I usually don’t like seeing Einstein quotes because so many of them are not really his, but I like this real one:

      “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

  5. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Actually, Sarah Palin’s dismissal of fruit fly research was even worse than you think, going beyond the value of fruit flies to biology research. In one speech, she said “”Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!”
    The research she was attacking was being done to help rid the California olive groves of the olive fruit fly, which apparently does millions of dollars worth of damage to the crop, and the French are the leading experts on combating it.

    • tmac57 says:

      Palin was going for a political trifecta using that line:
      Flies (who doesn’t hate flies?),pointy headed scientists,and of course,the French!

    • Max says:

      Palin was ridiculing the very notion of fruit fly research because it sounds funny, which means she thinks ALL fruit fly research is useless, whether it’s agricultural or medical.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      We should note that this happens on both sides of the isle … Rachel Maddow responded to the Palin quote in her show, pointing out that fruit fly research was instrumental in solving some special needs students issues (an area of reseatch that would interest Palin). But as noted in one of the replies below, the fruit flies in question were not those common in genetic research, but those in a different family (Tephritidae, not Drosophilidae). Tephritids are common agriculturea pests, and are what entomologist mean when referring to fruti flies.

  6. Daniel says:

    All well and good, but keep in mind that these studies require money that is taken from the tax payer. To claim that the 99.99 percent of tax payers that aren’t scientists should be on the sidelines as to what studies or projects get tax payer dollars (as the post definitely implies) is downright arrogant.

    One random example of wasteful/confirming the obvious research was to once again confirm the theory of special relativity. Scientists might have found the experiments interesting and intellectually stimulating, but I fail to see how it enhances the public good, or at the very least that the public doesn’t have some right to weigh in on the matter.

    Again, if scientists want to do this stuff on their own time and without my money, more power to them. However, there isn’t a bottomless well. Hate to say it, some scientists are going to be disappointed.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      You just made my point: unless you’re a physicist who works on quantum/relativity research, you can’t judge whether another test of relativity was good science or not. There may be good reasons why they keep testing relativity, especially when there are surprises coming all the time (like the recent data suggesting neutrinos may exceed light speed). Among the community of physicists, enough of them at the granting agencies DID see the value in this research.
      Yes, the taxpayers have a right to know where their dollars go, but in the case of specialized science, they are not qualified to second-guess the judgment of experts in a field.
      As far whether YOU can or cannot see why it’s not in the public good, just wait for my post next Wednesday…

      • Daniel says:

        You barely addressed my point, if you did at all. I, as a taxpayer, am paying for that research. So I, and everyone else who pays taxes, has the right, and I would submit duty, to weigh in on where those dollars are spent. I object to spending millions of taxpayer dollars to do an experiment that to confirm once again a well established law of physics. Yeah, I suppose one might discover something interesting in that experiment that we didn’t know before. But that’s money that could be spent on cancer research, paying down the national debt, paying for the cancer treatment for someone who is uninsured, and about a million other things. But I guess we’re all backward troglodytes for daring to question whether we should indulge the whims of one scientist or another.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Again, you miss MY point. As a taxpayer, or as a Congressional representative, you have the right to decide how much money goes to the NSF, NOAA, NASA, NIH, etc. Those decisions are largely political. And by the decisions you and your representative make on the relative funding of different agencies, that vote is cast whether cancer research is more important than physics. But neither you nor your Congressman has enough expert training to decide whether another experiment in any specialized part of physics (such as on relativity) is justified or not. As I said before, funding is EXTREMELY competitive at NSF and elsewhere, so if the experiment was important in the eyes of the physics community, they know something that you don’t, or they wouldn’t have made it a priority. Your layman’s perspective is inadequate to decide the merits of the story. You wouldn’t try to decide which experiments in neurophysiology or quantum physics or paleontology are more important than others, and it’s no different with this experiment.
        If you want to know more, I suggest to read up on the details of this relativity experiment before you pass judgment. Scientists SHOULD try to communicate why their work is important (it’s the #1 criterion on NSF proposals now) and why it is more important to society than other competing experiments. But don’t cast doubts on an experiment based on some abbreviated, probably distorted press release that does not clearly state why the experiment was done.

      • Daniel says:

        Well then I’ll take Sarah Palin’s political views over the idea that once a budget is set for an agency, the agency, especially a scientific one, ought to have full discretion to shell out taxpayer dollars as it sees fit, the layman only being there to be indulged every once in a while. I find your idea as abhorrent as a General claiming that once the Pentagon’s budget is established that those of us without military training can’t question whether it’s a good idea to build an aircraft carrier. I mean, he and the rest of the joint chiefs graduated from the top of their class in West Point and obviously the rest of us bumpkins can’t appreciate the importance of that piece of machinery.

        I’ll also quote Richard Feynman:

        “I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘there aren’t any.’ He said, ‘Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.’ I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing — and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.” (If I were good at html I’d emphasize the last part).

        Finally, here’s an article on the relativity experiment. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703849204576303393134261736.html

        and a quote:

        “Their achievement may stand largely as a milestone in scientific persistence. In the intervening years, Italian, German and U.S. research groups had already confirmed Einstein’s ideas. “There ain’t much room for surprise,” said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow at Boston University, who wasn’t involved in the projects.”

    • Greisha says:

      Yes, Daniel! Please suggest as a taxpayer what approach to the treatment of pancreatic cancer is most promising.

      • feralboy12 says:

        Billions of dollars spent studying rats. I kid you not!

      • Daniel says:

        Wow, nice strawman there. I have never suggested that there be some sort of layman’s micromanaging of all taxpayer funded scientific endeavors. What I am saying is that its arrogant and inappropiate to suggest that the taxpayer should be told to shut up and not question whether, for example, a taxpayer funded experiment to reprove special relativety serves much of purpose.

        And no, this does not mean that the Sarah Palins of the world are being particularly thoughtful when they decry fruit fly research without bothering to even ask why it serves a more important purpose than meets the eye. By the same token though, snarky comments that don’t address an argument aren’t all that thoughtful or intelligent either.

    • tmac57 says:

      The foundation of science,and the continued advancement of science is rooted in basic research.Applied research also depends on basic research,and arguably applied research has done more for our economic and social development than any other force,in the last couple of centuries.
      It would be impossible for someone outside of science to predict what benefits or deficits a particular bit of basic research would provide,but we know that basic research as a whole, from past experience, is a vital net benefit to society,and it would be foolish and shortsighted for us to turn our backs on it now.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        And that is the subject of next week’s column–stay tuned next Wednesday!

      • Daniel says:

        No one, or at least I am not, objecting to taxpayer funded basic research. Most people are very happy about the Voyager missions despite the fact that they haven’t improved the lives of the Average Joe i at least a material sense. It’s a worthy goal to expand our knowledge of Neptune and Uranus even if there may be no practical benefits to doing so. Nevertheless, scientists do not have some god given right to demand money from the taxpayer without being questioned by anyone outside of the scientific community.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well,if that’s your point,then I’m not sure that anyone is disputing that funding can’t be put under scrutiny by the public in a factual way. I think what Donald is writing about,is the knee jerk response to research that on the surface sounds dubious,but really isn’t.
        I think that we can all agree that if there is some inappropriate or frivolous research being funded,then that is fair game,just make sure what the facts are first.
        And by the way,there are a legion of ignorant people out there that are absolutely against basic research,because if they can’t draw a straight line between the research and some immediate practical application,then they think that it is silly,and a waste of time.

  7. Irene Delse says:

    “In addition, studies that seem to be confirming the obvious are not so trivial as the media and politicians portray them. Many ideas which we consider everyday wisdom turn out to be wrong—and it takes studies like these to demonstrate the falsity of commonly-held beliefs.”

    As an example of common sense that was refuted by research: gastric ulcers having an infectious cause. Maybe Sarah Palin would have sneered about that too if she had been politically active in 1980!

  8. Max says:

    Popular Science presented 10 examples of science proving the obvious and why it matters, as well as 3 examples of science disproving the obvious.
    http://www.popsci.com/node/10377

  9. WScott says:

    Good article overall, and I agree that calling a study “useless” often (usually?) says more about the speaker’s ignorance than about the study in question.
    But like it or not, politicians are elected by the people to (among other things) make decisions on how to spend taxpayer dollars. Sure, they’re not scientific experts. But then they’re not generally experts on anything else they spend money on, to include the military, social programs, etc. To expect them to sit on the sidelines and just let the scientific community make all the financial decisions is staggeringly naïve – that’s simply not how democracy works.
    A more interesting (but harder) question would be to ask how scientists can do a better job of informing lawmakers on what they’re getting for their money. I don’t know the answer to that one (especially in today’s hyper-partisan climate) but it’s something we need to start talking about.

    • Max says:

      Richard Feynman addressed this in his speech on Cargo Cult Science
      http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm

      I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist…
      For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

      • Bryant Platt says:

        If he can’t find any applications (direct or indirect) for his work I shudder to think of his competency! My research in geochemistry may not be directly applicable, but its easy to imagine how it could potentially be incorporated with other work into something that could be applied.

      • Bryant Platt says:

        *applicable to the average person’s life

  10. tim says:

    Start making churches pay taxes and 100% of the taxes from churches goes to science for reparations of the damage and hindrance they have caused,

    • Artor says:

      And peace organizations, foundations for child abuse victims, racism, education, etc. Just start taking the damn things and be done with it!

  11. Insightful Ape says:

    Sen Coburn is calling for abolition of the NSF? That is bad enough. But what is worse is that he is a physician. He should know a thing or two about science. NSF is certainly not where the bulk of spending goes. Even if you abolished it you wouldn’t be closer to a balanced budget even though you certainly would grab the headlines.
    Very disturbing indeed.

  12. Max says:

    It’s interesting to see what conclusions psychologists reach when they can make them up.
    The disgraced social psychologist Diederik Stapel reached conclusions that messy environments promote stereotyping and discrimination, that meat eaters are more selfish than vegetarians, and that we use better manners if a wine glass is on the dinner table.

    Not too obvious, but also not too controversial so as to avoid scrutiny and replication.

  13. Eduardo says:

    In general, I agree, politicians aren’t qualified to decide what is important science and what isn’t… but saying they can gets the votes, so… that’s how things work.
    On the other hand, i really think that science should be made available for the layman to understand it (even if its oversimplified). I’m a biologist, but I love to read about cosmology, or quantum physics. I really don’t understand, but I get the idea that it’s important to do the research, and understand how somethings work. My point is that you must divulge whatever you’re doing, make it simple enough for everyone to understand why you’re doing it, and the repercussions of your research. Science is for everyone, not just for scientists.
    That’s why I admire Carl Sagan so much. I don’t really know what his contributions were, but I do understand that he made some science available for everyone, and in this times, when people still doubt evolution, I believe it’s more important to divulge science than to make science… I mean, if we had to choose only one.

  14. Bill Minuke says:

    Hypothesis: Scientific research is a net long term benefit to the economy.

    Comparison: NSF Budget 6.87 billion , US Military Budget 683.7 billion ( sources http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Science_Foundation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States )

    Problem of Scale: You can cut all NSF spending, it won’t be noticed, given the scale of the spending of the US govt, but it will cause long term economic damage.

    Tangential Discussion: The US with the worlds highest expenditure on it’s military, spends more than 5 times more the country in second place, China. I submit that’s a bit too much.

    Non-tangent: It is as unreasonable for a Taxpayer to make decisions about the science he/she is ignorant about as it is for that same taxpayer to make decisions about military projects they are ignorant about.

    • Max says:

      Should the NSF budget also depend on how much the country in second place spends on science? Is this a pissing contest?
      Should the price of burglary insurance be driven by the cost of a crowbar or by the value of the insured property?

      “It is as unreasonable for a Taxpayer to make decisions about the science he/she is ignorant about as it is for that same taxpayer to make decisions about military projects they are ignorant about.”

      You got it. When DARPA’s Falcon HTV-2 crashed, the same folks who tout the value of basic science complained what a waste of money this Prompt Global Strike stuff is. Like, who will ever benefit from hypersonic atmospheric flight and mastery of aerodynamics and guidance, navigation and control.

    • gdave says:

      Tangential Discussion: Personnel costs are a large part of military expenditures. U.S. military personnel simply make a lot more money than Chinese military personnel – the costs of hiring in a much wealthier economy. We also tend to spend a lot more on things like medical care, housing, pensions, services for dependents, etc.

      U.S. Soldiers also go into combat with kevlar helmets, kevlar vests with plate inserts, GPS units, night vision goggles, M4s with scopes, and a ton (almost literally) of other gear, much of it high-tech and specially “ruggedized” to survive in the field. Much of the Chinese army goes into battle with an AK-47 and a steel helmet. It costs a bit more to equip the U.S. Soldier. Do you want to tell him we should be spending about as much on his gear as the Chinese are spending on their soldiers’ gear?

      Also, the U.S. has MUCH more widespread commitments than do the Chinese. The Chinese military operates almost exclusively within its own borders and coastal waters. It was a major development a couple of years ago when China began deploying a handful of small warships to anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. The U.S. military has a world-wide presence.

      Of course, there are plenty of arguments to be made that the U.S. should scale back its commitments, or that its military could make do with less without endangering the lives of its personnel. There’s also a lot to be said for the contention that we simply can’t afford to support current expenditure levels. But a simple comparison of levels of military expenditures in other countries isn’t that useful in determining how much the U.S. should spend.

  15. Chris Howard says:

    When I hear the “superfluous science” charge being leveled I like to recommend the book, “The Pinball Effect.” or the tv show “Connections.” James Burke’s work is very accessible, and he explains the reason for duplicate studies, as well as providing excellent reasons for “pure science” research.
    Most people have an “ah ha” moment after being exposed to his work.

  16. CountryGirl says:

    It is important to note that the constitution requires the federal government to create and support the military. The same constitution limits the federal government from spending money on scientific research.

    • tmac57 says:

      What part of the constitution limits spending on research?

      • Donald Prothero says:

        I agree with tmac57, since the Constitution was written before the concept, or even the name “scientific research” was invented. Thomas Jefferson was a naturalist, since even the word “Science” wasn’t in wide use then. So where did you get this bizarre notion, Country Girl?

      • CountryGirl says:

        Article I, Section 8 Defines what congress is allowed to do.
        Amendment 10 The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

        Since section 8 did not state that congress can use tax money to fund research and the 10th amendment restricts them to what the constitution say they are allowed to do then congress cannot fund scientific research.

    • gdave says:

      What part of the Constitution “requires the federal government to create and support the military”?

      Section 8 – Powers of Congress

      The Congress shall have Power…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water; To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces; To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…

      There’s plenty there about the POWER of Congress to create and support the military, but I don’t see anything REQUIRING Congress to do so.

      Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers (including Thomas Jefferson) were deeply suspicious of a standing army and strongly opposed the formation of one. From 1788 (when the Constitution went into effect) until 1791, the U.S. Army consisted of a single regiment to defend the Western frontier and a single artillery battery which guarded the arsenal at West Point. In the 1791, the Army was greatly expanded – to a single brigade. Between 1783 and 1794 (that’s a full six years after the Constitution was adopted), the U.S. didn’t have a navy. At all. Not a single ship, until the Naval Act of 1794 authorized an enormous Navy…of six frigates.

      And, like tmac57, I am wondering what part of the “[C]onstitution limits the federal government from spending money on scientific research”? If you are trying to argue that the lack of an explicit and specific power to spend money on scientific research amounts to a ban on such spending, that would also make the Air Force unconstitutional. The Constitution mentions Armies, a Navy, land and naval Forces, and the Militia, but no air forces.

      • Max says:

        Article IV Section 3 comes close

        “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.”

      • Max says:

        I mean Article IV Section 4.

      • gdave says:

        Yeah, but Article IV Section 3 doesn’t specify how the federal government is to accomplish this. It could, for example, call “forth the Militia [of the various States] to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”, as provided for under Article I Section 8, and perhaps supplement that by an ad hoc and strictly temporary-for-the-duration-of-the-conflict expansion of the regular Army. Which is, in fact, what the U.S. basically did until the end of World War II.

      • CountryGirl says:

        The preamble states the purpose of the constitution and it states “provide for the common defense”.
        Article I, Section 8 States that congress will”raise and support armies”… “provide and maintain a Navy”… “provide for calling forth the Militia”… “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia”…

      • gdave says:

        “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

        If you want to cite the preamble, then I’m even more puzzled. Wouldn’t funding for scientific research fall under “promote the general Welfare”? You seem to be ignoring large swathes of the Constitution and cherry picking specific out of context phrases you like. The preamble does not cite one purpose, “provide for the common defence”, it cites several very broad purposes, of which common defense is one. The preamble does not specify exactly how any of these purposes is to be accomplished.

        Your snipped citation of Article I Section 8 is just plain wrong in one vital aspect. You claim that “Article I, Section 8 States congress WILL [emphasis added] ”raise and support armies”… “provide and maintain a Navy”… “provide for calling forth the Militia”… “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia”…”. In fact, Article I Section 8 states “The Congress shall have Power To…” perform those functions. Do you see the difference?

        As I pointed out above, contrary to your assertion in your original comment, the Constitution simply does not require the Congress to raise and support an army and a navy, it merely gives it the power to do so if its members so choose. And, as I pointed out elsewhere, for several years after the federal government was established by the Constitution, it had a tiny Army and had no navy whatsoever.

        And I’m still wondering where in the Constitution you find an ban on funding scientific research.

      • CountryGirl says:

        The question is what did the framers mean in the vernacular of the day. The phrase “provide for the general welfare” was about creating a environment where everyone could enjoy their rights and persue their happiness. A systeme with a fair justice system and fair laws. It DID NOT mean that the government would support the non-producing people or discriminate against those who did produce in an attempt to achieve equal results.

        The “ban” on funding is that the constitution “limits” the federal government to only what it expressly allowed. States would be allowed to fund scientific research and research into voodoo or CAM or even to have a socialized health care system. But the federal government cannot.

    • gdave says:

      I can’t seem to resist beating a dead horse, so here’s a little more on ruling out any spending not explicitly and specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

      Article I Section 8 provides the power “To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States…To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court; [and] To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations”, but not to build prisons. In fact, the first federal penitentiary wasn’t built until 1891!

      And a strict reading of the Constitution would seem to indicate that the federal government would have to rely exclusively on state militias to enforce federal laws, since no federal law enforcement agency is specifically and explicitly authorized.

      CountryGirl, do you think the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, and all other federal law enforcement agencies are unconstitutional? Do you think federalized National Guard units should be enforcing federal laws and arresting and detaining civilians?

      Also of note, the Constitution does not provide for the power to regulate immigration. At all. The closest it comes is the power “To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization”. So, the federal government could regulate who becomes a citizen, but not who enters the country and takes up residence. In fact, the U.S. government did not place a limit on immigration until Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. CountryGirl, do you think that federal limits on immigration are unconstitutional?

      • Chris Howard says:

        Isn’t all of this just “Constitution Worship”? It is, ultimately, just a piece of paper. If the laws that are written upon it are unjust, or outdated, and anachronistic then they should be changed, or abolished for the higher service of ethical, and just laws, and service to the people. Had we been sycophantic, constitutional literalist/idol worshipers we never would have been able to abolish slavery.
        If we have to create a document that more closely fits the needs of modern times then so be it.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        And that’s what 200 years of court decisions have determined. The Constitution is a starting point, but it has required many amendments, and many interpretations as we try to use an 18th century document in the 21st century. We couldn’t go back to the tiny pre-1800 government of the US any more than we could undo our history or reduce our population from 300 million to that of 1789…

      • Chris Howard says:

        That’s why I think the term “… ‘x’ is unconstitutional.” has a relative, and often times irreverent. What we should be asking is “Is this the appropriate, and and ethical course of action, that is compassionate, and that best serves the people?”

      • Chris Howard says:

        And by irreverent, I mean irrelevant… Grrr auto correct!

      • gdave says:

        I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. I don’t worship the Constitution any more than I worship local zoning ordinances. I still have to obey them.

        Saying something is unconstitutional isn’t irrelevant. It is saying that it can’t legally be done in the United States. If you want to amend the Constitution to allow for something currently unconstitutional, great, there’s a process for that, but you can’t just ignore the Constitution.

        IF federal funding for scientific research were in fact unconstitutional, then that funding would have to cease. We could have an argument about whether the Constitution should be amended to allow for it (I would strongly argue yes), but Congress couldn’t simply choose to ignore the Constitution.

        CountryGirl seems to be indicating that is precisely what the Congress has done (without being able to cite any actual ban on such funding within the Constitution).

        If you’re saying CountryGirl and I are engaging in a stupid argument, I’m kind of inclined to agree. But I don’t think it’s “Constitution Worship”.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I believe we are held to a higher ethical, and practical standard than simply following orders, or the letter of the law. If a law is unjust then it is unethical to obey that law, supreme, or provincial. The same could be said for a myriad of “lesser” legal arguments. To simply follow a law with out question, or objection is, in my mind holding a piece of paper, the letter of the law, over the needs of the people it is intended to serve.

      • CountryGirl says:

        I totally agree that our government has implemented many extra-constitutional laws. For example: Welfare the depts of HHS, education, agriculture, commerce, labor, housing, labor, etc. Most of what we spend money on is unconstitutional. We could privatize Social Security, and medicaid, eliminate most of the rest of the departments and spending and our budget would be about $800 billion a year.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        If that’s the world you want, the pre-New Deal world where everyone had to sink or swim, and there were no federal funds for so many things we now require in a 21st century world, feel free to jump in your time machine. The budget you describe is simply not possible in the modern world…

      • Chris Howard says:

        We had privatized, lazze faire fire, and police services, and they didn’t work. Some things work best under a privatization scheme, while others do not. There is no “magic bullet.”
        Government can’t do everything, but neither can private enterprise.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Exactly right. Sink or swim just as everyother living thing in nature has to do. Survival of the fittest. AT LEAST as far as the government is concerned. That does not mean you cannot support your adult children or that a church cannot help the homeless (buy wine) or that the Salvation Army cannot provide jobs for the disabled. The new deal was unconstitutional (at least most of it).
        Ironically the budget we have “is simply not possible”. You have noticed we borrow a couple trillion a year and we owe $16 trillion and we cannot and will not ever pay this off. We must go bankrupt (or conversely inflate our currency in Zimbabwe’s footsteps). Either way the future is grim thanks to the budget you prefer and the willingness of our government to fund things the constitution forbids.

      • Beelzebud says:

        The late 1800′s were such a paradise.

      • Timmer says:

        The preamble also states “…promote the general welfare…” and I, for one, am willing to read quite a lot into that.

      • gdave says:

        You cite numerous departments and programs you believe are unconstitutional without giving any reason. What, exactly, in the Constitution prevents the federal government from funding “Welfare the depts of HHS, education, agriculture, commerce, labor, housing, labor, etc….[m]ost of what we spend money on…[and]Social Security, and medicaid”?

        And I’m still wondering, do you think federal law enforcement agencies and federal immigration controls (beyond regulating naturalization) are unconstitutional? If not, how are these different from the agencies and programs you don’t like?

      • gdave says:

        Whoops. Missed CountryGirl’s reply to a reply to her comment above, where she makes clear she thinks the 10th Amendment forbids any spending not mentioned in Article I Section 8.

        So, my question about law enforcement agencies and immigration controls still stands.

        CountryGirl, are the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the Border Patrol unconstitutional? What about the Air Force? None of those are mentioned in Article I Section 8.

        And are you seriously contending that spending tax money on scientific research is a separate, enumerable power, that has been reserved to the states? What about spending tax money on desks and chairs? What about spending it on office supplies? Where does Article I Section 8 authorize Congress to spend tax money to heat the Capitol building in winter and air condition it in summer? Are those all powers which the 10th Amendment has reserved to the states?

      • tmac57 says:

        gdave-Nice rebuttal.I would, however, point out that with congress’s approval rating hovering around 10%, that heating and cooling the Capitol building may now be under serious question by the public at large ;)
        Most people seem to want them to go to an infinitely hotter location than they now reside in though.

      • CountryGirl says:

        The constitution limits the federal government and if the constitution did not expressly allow something to the federal government then it disallowed it. The states had specific limits as well but the constitution then with a broad brush gave to the states and citizens the right to everything not specifically enumerated.

      • gdave says:

        @CountryGirl:

        I’d still like a direct answer to several direct questions I’ve asked you.

        Is the Federal Bureau of Prisons unconstitutional? The U.S. Marshal’s Service? Other federal law enforcement agencies? Should all federal laws be enforced by federalized National Guard units? Is the Air Force unconstitutional? Are immigration controls unconstitutional? Is the “power” to buy office supplies enumerated in the Constitution? If not, is this a power reserved to the states by the 10th Amendment?

      • gdave says:

        @CountryGirl:

        If you’re still reading this thread, I’d like to thank you. It’s been many years since I’ve actually sat down and read the Constitution. You’ve given me a direct stimulus to read an engage with the Constitution on a level I haven’t done since I was an undergrad. It’s been a lot of fun.

        Also, just a little more on “general welfare.”

        The first line of Article I Section 8 is:

        “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…”

        The Constitution, however, does not explicitly define “general Welfare.” Upthread you indicate that you think the framers meant “creating a environment where everyone could enjoy their rights and persue their happiness. It DID NOT mean that the government would support the non-producing people or discriminate against those who did produce in an attempt to achieve equal results.”

        How do you know that’s what they meant? If it is, how do you know what they would have considered necessary to “create a environment where everyone could enjoy their rights and persue their happiness”? How do you know they wouldn’t have considered modern scientific research valuable or even necessary to create such an environment? How does federal funding of scientific research “support the non-producing people or discriminate against those who did produce in an attempt to achieve equal results”?

        Again, if you are still reading this thread, thanks for motivating me to read the Constitution in detail again. And would you mind directly answering at least one of the direct questions I’ve asked you?

  17. Chris Howard says:

    I still believe the question shouldn’t be “Is it constitutional?” but rather “Is it necessary, ethical, compassionate, and at service to the people.” Constitutional Idol Worship is the province of small minds.

    • Mal Adapted says:

      The question isn’t simply “Is it constituional”, it’s “Does the Supreme Court of the United States” say it’s allowed?” We can argue on this blog ad nauseum, but the opinions of the SCOTUS justices are the only ones that matter, operationally speaking.

    • gdave says:

      @Chris Howard:

      Are you an anarchist? I’m not trying to be trollish, I am genuinely wondering. If you are, I disagree with you, but I think I understand the argument you’re trying to make. If not, I don’t really understand what you are advocating.

      Do you think the Federal government should be completely unbounded, subject only to what a majority thinks is “necessary, ethical, compassionate, and at service to the people”? Do you think Congress (or the President, or the local zoning board, for that matter) should be free to declare a state religion, ban dissent, and indefinitely suspend elections, if a majority of its members agree that doing so is “necessary, ethical, compassionate, and at service to the people”?

      For an even sillier hypothetical, suppose Congress enacted a law declaring you, Chris Howard, an enemy of the state, confiscating all of your property, sentencing you to death by torture, and punishing all of your heirs and descendants. When brought to court, would you try to convince the judge that this law wasn’t “necessary, ethical, compassionate, and at service to the people”? Or would you simply point out that it’s unconstitutional?

      As a concrete example, when Oliver Brown and twelve other parents sued the Topeka Board of Education in 1951, do you think they were small minded people engaging in “Constitutional Idol Worship”?

  18. Donald Prothero says:

    It seems clear that CountryGirl is an old-fashioned unreconstructed social darwinist with no empathy or conscience whatsoever, and a charmingly naive faith in the free markets (despite Wall Street and the banks just did to us this past few years). Perhaps she should change her screen name to “Scrooge.” I wonder if her hard-hearted attitudes for the less fortunate would persist if she were struck with a catastrophic illness and no health insurance, or something else came along to shatter her comfortable social situation and she began to realize what those on the bottom face every day….

    • Phea says:

      Many are convinced there are easy solutions to very complex problems. It’s just as comforting for some, (and simple-minded), to pick and choose selectively from the constitution as it is for others who do the exact same thing with the bible.

      The last thing a person whose mind is made up wants, is to be confused with facts they may have ignored, failed to consider, or even be unaware of. They much prefer to just see only what they want to see and hear only what they want to hear. Such people are sad, pretty much unable to have intelligent, rational discussions, and for the most part, a waste of time.

    • CountryGirl says:

      The meme is that Wall street and the banks caused all our problems but in fact it was the federal government and ironically acting extra-constitutionally that caused the problem. Congress forced the banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make subprime loans. Congress also forced these same organizations to bundle those loans and sell them on Wall Street so that there would be more money available for even more loans. The banks didn’t “cause” the problem the congress did. Like politicians everywhere they are busily covering their ass and blaming others.

      Would you want your daughters to choose to have 3, 4, 5 or more children by 2, 3, 4 or so different fathers so that she could collect tens of thousands in welfare every year? Would that be YOUR view of “empathy or conscience”… “for the less fortunate”? I doubt it. I don’t want to continue to put young people on the federal plantation to collect welfare the rest of their lives. I want everyone to have the chance to go out there and work hard and succeed (and fail sometimes) and in the end know they did their best, took care of themselves and their families and were good citizens. I don’t want to destroy lives as the phony do-gooder’s with so-called “empathy or conscience” do with their nanny state programs. I would not do this to my own child why would I do it to someone else’s child just to create a dependent class that will vote predictably?? I might be “Scrooge” but you and your superior do-good attitude are “Simon Legree” forcing people into the new slavery.

      I do not want to pay more taxes for more give away government programs. I do not want to see more oppression of large segments of the population to keep them from succeeding. I do not think, under the constitution, that the federal government has any right to take money from me and give it to someone else. I don’t want to be a wage slave and I don’t want others to be welfare slaves.

      • gdave says:

        @CountryGirl:

        Just wanted to make a note on welfare, since many people have some serious misconceptions about this. You wrote:

        “Would you want your daughters to choose to have 3, 4, 5 or more children by 2, 3, 4 or so different fathers so that she could collect tens of thousands in welfare every year?”

        Putting aside what the number of different fathers has to do with anything, by “welfare” here I believe you are referring to what is now known as TANF – Temporary Aid to Needy Families. This is the only direct means-tested cash subsidy paid to individuals by the Federal government.

        TANF has a lifetime limit of 60 months total. How this limit applies varies from state to state. Some states allow households to continue receiving TANF funds for eligible children (still subject to the 60 month limit) even if the adults in the household are no longer eligible. Others don’t. In addition, adult recipients must begin working within two years of coming on assistance; single parents are required to work at least 30 hours a week, two-parent families must collectively work 35-55 hours a week depending on circumstances. Failure to comply results in reduction or loss of benefits to the family.

        Furthermore, TANF funds are provided to individual states to administer – each state has broad leeway to determine eligibility. Each state program must ensure that at least 50% of single parents on TANF are working, and at least 90% of two parent families are working. The state program must also be designed to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

        In other words, TANF is strictly temporary, and is specifically designed to DECREASE welfare dependency and ENCOURAGE two-parent families. Of course, the actual effects of the policies may be different than the stated designed intent. Do you have any actual evidence that TANF traps families and individuals in “welfare slavery”?

        And as to the “tens of thousands in welfare every year,” where did you get those numbers? In 2011, the maximum monthly benefit for a single-parent family of three (that’s the whole family, not per member) ranged from $204 in Arkansas to $923 in Alaska. In 2004 (the most recent year for which I could find figures), the maximum monthly TANF benefit for a single-parent family of 6(!) ranged from $305 in Alabama to $1229 in Alaska. Even if you wanted to throw in the value of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), that only adds $428 a month to the average TANF recipient as of 2010. Your claim of “tens of thousands” is off by an order of magnitude.

        BTW, I’d still appreciate a direct answer to any of the direct questions I’ve asked you in this thread.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Welfare is NOT just TANF. There are over 2400 different welfare programs hidden in the budgets of over 5 cabinet level departments. The federal government spends over $1.2 trillion a year on the various welfare programs and the states spend an equal amount for welfare. It is no coincidence that the amount of our national debt since 1964 is roughly the same amount the federal government has spent on these “Great Society Programs”. A total waste of money.

      • gdave says:

        Sure, depending on how you define “welfare spending”, it includes a lot more than TANF – but you specifically mentioned a woman having “3, 4, 5 or more children by 2, 3, 4 or so different fathers so that she could collect tens of thousands in welfare every year”. That seems to indicate you were specifically thinking of TANF, which directly provides cash payments to poor families. Regardless, no family in the U.S. collects “tens of thousands in welfare every year”. Not even close, not even if you count SNAP, housing assistance, energy assistance, etc.

        Just where do you get your numbers from, anyway? According to usgovernmentdebt.us, for FY2011, total Federal welfare spending was $482 billion, not $1.2 trillion. If you include Medicaid, total “welfare” outlays were $829 billion.

        Social Security and Medicare combined were about $1.3 trillion, though. Was that what you were thinking of? By some definitions, that could be considered welfare spending, but not many people receiving Social Security and Medicare are likely to be having “3, 4, 5 or more children”.

        None of this, however, addresses whether any of this spending is Constitutional.

        And, since you are apparently still reading this thread and willing to respond to my comments, would you please directly answer any of the direct questions I’ve asked you? Maybe just one?

        BTW, thanks again for motivating me to research some of this stuff. It’s been many years since I studied poli sci, and I’ve enjoyed taking a look at the Constitution and federal budget outlays again.

      • Alan Shaw says:

        Being new to this blog, I am amazed at the level of discourse in these comments. If one cannot find dispassionate, rational argumentation on this blog, then I don’t think I’ll find it anywhere on the internet.
        OK, so my two cents. I’m generally an advocate of free markets, but I agree with the main point Dr. Prothero is trying to make in the original post / article (i.e. that once public funds are allocated, we should let the experts decide what the best research projects are). I also think at least some public funding of basic research is good, and here’s why. Basic research is a “public good,” which, as defined by economists, means that it is a good from which no one can be excluded and that the market is unable or reluctant to provide. There are libertarians who would disagree with that, but the other point I want to make is that libertarianism is a spectrum of thought, not one dogmatic system. Most of us believe in the rule of law to protect life, liberty, and private property (definitely not Somalia), and those of us who do not, really should call themselves anarchists (in my opinion). Also, I can’t resist saying that CountryGirl is a very poor spokesperson for free markets (again, in my opinion).

      • Donald Prothero says:

        I never thought I’d see the day when something as bizarre and misguided as this appeared on a SkepticBlog website. Maybe a right-wing nutjob fantasy site, but not in a site where data and reality and science are valued over ideology. Are you sure you’re talking about Planet Earth, Country Girl, or some alternate reality?
        For now, let’s leave aside the Bush Administration and banks’ profit- and greed-driven responsibility for the economic crisis (sure, they were helped by Fannie and Freddie, but they did most of it on their own). Even more disturbing is this harsh, unsympathetic viewpoint of humanity straight out of the bad old days of Social Darwinism a century ago. “If they are going to die, let them do it and decrease the surplus population”. If you talk to my parents’ generation (my mom is 88 and still remembers it vividly) who watched as the bankers and speculators drove the economy off the cliff in 1929 and then the GOP Hoover Administration did nothing while Americans starved, you would see why they voted for FDR four times and why they were glad we had the safety net of Social Security. Except for rich bastards like Romney, the rest of the 99% of the American population is just one uninsured health crisis, or one layoff away from poverty and starvation–through no fault of their own. The recent recession has shown this in spades. Ask those people who were laid off due to corporate greed whether they want to take away the social safety net and let their families starve without federal aid. Heck, I was once very poor and living on the brink of starvation, and I know how scary that was. I was glad that at least I didn’t starve to death then!
        SO Country Girl would prefer to live in a country with no taxes and no social safety net? Feel free to migrate to any of those Third World countries with no middle class in Africa, South America and elsewhere–just a handful of super-rich individuals living in fortified bubble with armed guards, armored limos, and gated fences–and the other 99% who get little or nothing of the country’s wealth and live in constant poverty and threat of starvation! If you think that the US is too “socialist”, go to a country which should be a libertarian’s dream: Somalia. No government to get in your way there!
        For the rest of us, a mixed economy and mixed government that gives us the benefit of the economic dynamic of capitalism without falling back on the bad old days of robber barons and child labor seems to work for us just fine. And if you study the literature on the nations which have the happiest people on earth, they are all those “socialist” nations like Germany and the Scandinavian countries, which have maintained strong economies despite the global recession, yet have cradle-to-grave security, from free health care and education and child care and unemployment insurance to longer vacations. That’s reality, not fantasy…

      • CountryGirl says:

        FDR was clueless and his programs made the depression worse. If Hitler had not started WW II and Hirohito hadn’t attacked us FDR never would have figured out how to make his socialist programs end the depression. The war ended the great depression not FDR.
        Come back in 5 years and tell me how happy they are in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. There is a big reset coming…soon. They do have one advantage we don’t have; They have the worlds biggest economy to seel their products to. Without us their economies would be in trouble.

      • gdave says:

        “The war ended the great depression not FDR.”

        I love this argument. It wasn’t the New Deal. It was mass conscription, direct government control of key industries, wage and price controls, rationing, steep tax increases, “voluntary” bond purchases, and massive deficit spending. So, in other words, the New Deal didn’t go far enough?

      • CountryGirl says:

        Interesting that your arguement seems to take all the worst things of WW II as the basis of your arguement. But obviously as you know it was not conscription that rebuilt the country it was the sudden massivve need to produce goods and equipment.

      • tmac57 says:

        So the obvious conclusion is that instead of ending the war in Iraq,the U.S. should have expanded it to encompass a world wide conflict,thereby solving our economic problems.Thanks CG for that valuable economics lesson.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        I said NOTHING about whether the New Deal ended the Depression, and that’s completely off point (as are most her comments). I said that the generation that survived the Great Depression were HAPPY to have a safety net in the form of Social Security–and if you check the polls, NOBODY want to end Social Security. Even the GOP is talking about finding different ways to fund it, but American society is overwhelmingly in favor of having SOME form of protection against disaster when you lose your job and/or health, or when you retire. SO despite Country Girl’s extreme liberatarianism, I don’t think she would find much support in this country for her heartless social Darwinist ideas…
        And I too have lived in Europe and spent time in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. I found that they were universally happy with their social safety net, and unwilling to part with any of it They would NEVER trade their system for anything as harsh and inhumane as Country Girl longs for.

      • gdave says:

        @CountryGirl:

        You wrote,

        “Interesting that your arguement seems to take all the worst things of WW II as the basis of your arguement.”

        I was listing all of the war-time government policies with I could think of with an economic aspect, good or bad.

        “…it was not conscription that rebuilt the country it was the sudden massivve need to produce goods and equipment.”

        OK, but it was a “sudden massivve need to produce goods and equipment” for the GOVERNMENT. Which paid for those goods and equipment with steep tax increases and MASSIVE deficit spending. So, again, you seem to arguing that the New Deal didn’t go far enough.

        And at this point, this thread has not only derailed, it has plowed through the station and left Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor looking on in bewilderment, so I’m not going to follow this particular line any further.

      • gdave says:

        @Donald Prothero:

        I hate to seem to be siding with CountryGirl, but you made a couple of contentions that caught my eye.

        “Except for rich bastards like Romney, the rest of the 99% of the American population is just one uninsured health crisis, or one layoff away from poverty and starvation…”

        Do you really think someone in the 98th income percentile is one health crisis or layoff from poverty and starvation? I understand and agree with the point I think you’re trying to make, that a large part of the U.S. population is in a marginal and precarious economic position – but it’s hardly 99%. And while living in poverty is awful, and malnutrition (or at least misnutrition) is a real risk, I don’t think many people in the U.S. are in danger of literally starving to death (although they apparently would be if CountryGirl had her druthers).

        “…the GOP Hoover Administration did nothing while Americans starved…”

        That’s not really true. The Hoover Administration actually engaged in unprecedented levels of stimulus and relief spending. In fact, FDR accomplished so much in his famous 100 Days partly by getting a lot of initiatives through Congress that had originally been proposed by Hoover but had been held up for various reasons. With hindsight, his handling of the crisis was far from ideal, and there’s plenty of room for reasonable criticism of his policies, but he was hardly the heartless do-nothing he’s sometimes portrayed as.

        “…nations like Germany and the Scandinavian countries, which have maintained strong economies despite the global recession, yet have cradle-to-grave security, from free health care and education and child care and unemployment insurance to longer vacations.”

        I don’t want to derail this thread even further, and it’s late, so I won’t go into detail here, but the economic picture with regards to Germany and the Scandinavian countries isn’t quite as clear-cut and rosy as you seem to be indicating. Just for starters, you are perhaps familiar with some problems Germany is experiencing with the Euro?

      • CountryGirl says:

        I was going to come to the defense of Hoover who was one of the most intelligent presidents in our history. He had a long carear in which he was the key person fighting famine and broke new ground in providing aid to an entire nation. He did indeed do more then just sit on his hands after the crash of 1929. Part of the problem is simply that what appears to be an obvious “fix” for the problem is not. That is massive intervention by the government prolongs the problem and makes it worse. The correct action is counter intuitive; which is to allow the failed companies to fail which will allow ambitious and productive people to buy up the assets cheap enough that they can then make those companies productive again and bring back jobs. Trying to prop up a failing company, system or nation merely prolongs the misery and makes the crash worse. The problem most politicians have is reflected in that old saying; “if all you have is a hammer then all problems look like nails”. To a politicians with the ability to tax and dole out money all problems look like they can be fixed with higher taxes and more government spending. You almost can’t blame the politician who wants to do the right thing and is the leader after all and knows he must act decisively. But in general it is like new parents who dote on their child and spoil them and if the child grows up to be a normal adult it is in spite of those mistakes and not the result of them. So it is with a country’s economy, if it survivies and does well it is in spite of our politicians meddling and high taxes not because of them.

      • tmac57 says:

        Do you think that the European Union should let Greece default? I think I already know the answer.

  19. Alektorophile says:

    Although I am European, I spent a third of my life in the US, and have met other people with CountryGirl’s (aka “Scrooge”) views while there.I vividly remember an otherwise nice lady saying with nonchalane that people who could not afford health insurance should die of their illness, it being their fault for not having worked hard enough and become rich. Scary, scary stuff. And chances are these are tge same people who spend their Sundays praising Jebus…

    And where does this right-wing fantasy view of a doomed Europe come from? Have any of these people ever even been here?

  20. CountryGirl says:

    I’m sure you can find someone who would say that people who do not work and cannot afford health insurance should die of their illness. I have no doubt there are a few people like that. But that is NOT what this discussion is about. What we are talking about is a simple concept (which seems to still gone over your head). The question is should a government be able to take money and assets from hard working people at the point of a gun and the threat of imprisonment and bankruptcy to then give that money to people who either will not or can not work? Simple as that. I was able to make that point without any “Jebus” bigotry, you should give that a try.

    I lived in Europe for 4 years and visit often. I love Europe, enjoy traveling there and I have friends there and like the people. I do think that Europe is in trouble right now (I would not have said doomed). I do think some European countries will endure some tough economic times in the near future.

  21. gdave says:

    @CountryGirl:

    Your comments and mine are scattered throughout this thread in replies to replies to replies, so I’m posting this here.

    I’ve asked you a number of direct questions throughout this thread. You’ve read and responded to many of my comments without answering any of the direct questions I’ve asked you. I’m going to try one last time. Would you please directly answer any of the direct questions I’ve asked you? If you intend to continue posting in this thread without answering any of my direct questions, would you mind at least directly telling me that? Thanks.

    @Everyone Else:

    I apologize for my part in derailing this thread. If you came here looking for an careful and nuanced discussion of the points Donald Prothero raised in the original post, sorry.

  22. CountryGirl says:

    @gdave:

    Were these the questions you asked:

    “Just where do you get your numbers from, anyway? According to usgovernmentdebt.us, for FY2011, total Federal welfare spending was $482 billion”

    There are over 2400 “welfare” programs hidden in five different cabinet level departments. Welfare is far more then just TANF, section 8, Medicaid, foodstamps, EITC, WIC, etc. $1.2 trillion. These programs are embedded in the budget in nooks and crannies exactly so when people dig into the numbers they always under estimate it; like your $482 billion number.

    “Social Security and Medicare combined were about $1.3 trillion, though. Was that what you were thinking of?”

    Social Security and Medicare programs are paid for by the recipients, they are not “welfare”. Last year SS took in $840 billion from payroll taxes and paid out $815 billion. Additionally the federal government has taken money out of SS for the last 70 years or so and now owes SS about $4 trillion. Medicare costs keep increasing as congress adds more to the program and allows more categories of people to be eligible. So Medicare does run a deficit but Congress could fix that if they had the guts.

    • gdave says:

      @CountryGirl:

      Thanks for responding to a couple of my questions. I have quite a few scattered throughout this thread in my replies to you.

      You still really didn’t answer the question about your source for total welfare spending, though. Where are you getting that $1.2 trillion figure from?

      You indicate that you don’t consider Medicare and Social Security to be “welfare”. I only asked about that because that figure was close to the one you cited.

      In FY2011, the U.S. Federal budget was about $3.6 trillion. Social Security + Medicare (which you are not counting as welfare) was about $1.25 trillion. Defense spending was about $900 billion. Interest on the debt was about $230 billion. EVERYTHING else COMBINED was about $1.2 trillion. Are you actually contending that ALL Federal spending other than Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest is “hidden” welfare spending? Or do you think that much of the defense budget is actually hidden welfare spending? Again, where are you getting that figure?

      If you’re willing to answer any of them, here’s some more direct questions I’ve asked you in this thread:

      [You've contended that via the 10th Amendment, any powers not enumerated are reserved to the States or the people. By enumerated, you seem to mean explicitly and specifically mentioned, particularly in Article I Section 8.] Do you think the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, and all other federal law enforcement agencies are unconstitutional? Do you think federalized National Guard units should be enforcing federal laws and arresting and detaining civilians? [The Constitution explicitly authorizes calling forth the Militia to enforce Federal laws, but does not explicitly authorize prisons or law enforcement agencies].

      Do you think that federal limits on immigration are unconstitutional? [No power to regulate immigration, beyond regulating naturalization, is explicitly granted by the Constitution].

      Are you seriously contending that spending tax money on scientific research is a separate, enumerable power, that has been reserved to the states? What about spending tax money on desks and chairs? What about spending it on office supplies? Where does Article I Section 8 authorize Congress to spend tax money to heat the Capitol building in winter and air condition it in summer? Are those all powers which the 10th Amendment has reserved to the states?

      [You posted upthread what you contend the Framers meant by "general Welfare"] How do you know that’s what they meant? If it is, how do you know what they would have considered necessary to “create a environment where everyone could enjoy their rights and persue their happiness”? How do you know they wouldn’t have considered modern scientific research valuable or even necessary to create such an environment? How does federal funding of scientific research “support the non-producing people or discriminate against those who did produce in an attempt to achieve equal results”?

      Do you have any actual evidence that TANF [or welfare programs in general] traps families and individuals in “welfare slavery”?

      And as to the “tens of thousands in welfare every year” [which you contended a single mother receives], where did you get those numbers?

      I certainly understand if you don’t respond to this – I’ve asked you a lot of questions throughout this thread, most of which you’ve apparently missed (it is a long thread with a lot of multiple indent replies to replies to replies). Still, I’d be interested in any answers you’d like to give. Thanks.

  23. CountryGirl says:

    The only way to find all of the welfare spneding is to actually research the quite long and quite dry budgets for each department. Here is a short list of some budget items that are welfare but some may suprise you:
    SNAP (food stamps) $68 billion
    WIC $7 billion
    School lunch $16 billion
    Administration for Children and Families $59 billion
    Medicaid $300 billion
    TANF $35.7 billion
    CHIP $27.3 billion
    Indian health services $15.4 billion
    Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services $4.5 billion
    Prevention and wellness $804 million
    Child care $3.7 billion
    Social services block grants $1.8 billion
    Child support enforcement $4.3 billion
    Foster care & adoption assistance $7.5 billion
    Childrens health insurance program $10.5 billion
    Head start $8.3 billion
    Maternal and child health $904 million
    HIV/AIDS $2.33billion
    Substance abuse and mental health $3.67 billion
    Health care fraud and abuse control $1.73 billion
    Refuge programs $878 million
    Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program $5.3 billion
    Tenant based rental assistance $19.55 billion
    Project based rental assistance $9.4 billion
    Section 202 housing $825 million
    Section 811 housing $300 million
    Community development funding $4.4 billion
    Other housing programs $30 billion

    Not a complete list, my research on this was over a year ago and I don’t know if I kept a complete list.

    I can’t tell if you are being facetious or obtuse when you say something like “Where does Article I Section 8 authorize Congress to spend tax money to heat the Capitol building in winter and air condition it in summer?” Obviously since the constitution requires a congress it would require those things that support and enable a congress. You arguement seems to be the classic slippery slope that since the constitution is capable of being interpreted broadly by any agenda group arguably it could be interpreted to authorize anything. When it comes right down to it that is the question and my view is that the constitution was set up to limit the federal government and any arguement contrary to that position is by definition incorrect.

    The discussion of what the framers meant by “general welfare” is not new. Historians and experts have shown that in that era and based on their writings the framers intended that the federal government support and maintain a fair and just court system so that everyone (thus “general”) had an equal opportunity for fair treatment (welfare). You can argue it really meant to tax the middle class so the money could be given to the lazy and indolent but clearly that is not the intent.

  24. CountryGirl says:

    Social Security and Medicare should not be incorporated in the federal budget. This was done a few years back for the express reason of making it appear that the federal budget was not running as large a deficit as it was. The SS fund was taking in a lot more then it was paying out so putting it in the budget made it appear that congress was succeeding in balancing the budget. So eliminate SS from the equation and look at the budget. The SS system should have been taken out of the hands of congress. Look at http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba514 to see what could have been done to improve SS.

    In general the military budget runs from $450 billion up to whatever it takes to fight a war. Without the war the military budget is NOT $900 billion.

    Last year the Dept of Ed spent $100 billion and never educated a single person. The entire budget is bloated and loaded with welfare expenditures and the dept of Ed should be eliminated.

    Similar waste can be seen under the heading of “Housing and community”, $141 billion last year. Huge welfare spending is hidden in the Dept of transportation budget, the Dept of Labor, Dept of energy, etc. Why are 2400 welfare programs hidden in the budgets of 5 or 6 cabinet level departments with the details only available after hours or perhaps days of digesting huge budget documents?? The answer is easy, this is done to obfiscate and give politicians cover when someone makes a claim that welfare costs are excessive.

  25. CountryGirl says:

    What does a single mother with two or three children get in welfare? In general they get (combined state and federal):
    Food stamps $700 a month Much more in California
    housing $900 a month
    medicaid (or the state’s version) $1200 a month
    heating and utility subsidy $100 a month
    free cell phone $40-60 a month
    babysitting/head start $400 a month
    school lunch $100 a month
    Pell grant $500 a month
    transportation, varies, from $0-200 a month
    EITC could be as much as $500 a month
    WIC $100-300 a month

    This is a partial list, there are many programs in the various states.

  26. CountryGirl says:

    Immigration: There is no constitutional mandate for immigration. If the federal government choose to it could simply end immigration completely. We are the third largest population in the world and I can see no reason we “need” more immigrants. Arguably immigration (legal and illegal) is a huge burden on taxpayers. With no legal reason to continue immigration I think it is unfair to citizens to burden them with the cost of immigration while at the same time losing jobs to immigrants. I would favor a moritorium on immigration until our current immigrants can be fully acclimated to their new life. That means they all learn English, have jobs, are not on welfare, etc. I would then like to see the question of “limited” immigration be put to a national vote. Let the citizens vote up or down for more immigrants.
    I would also be in favor of a law making it a felony to be in this country illegally and to start prosecuting illegals. I would also favor making it a felony to aid or abet an illegal and prosecute the employers, landlords and anyone making illegal immigration possible.

  27. gdave says:

    @CountryGirl:

    Thanks for replying to some of my questions. This comment thread has become very long, and strayed very far from the topic of the original post, so I don’t really want to drag it out anymore. But since you were considerate enough to answer some of my questions, I’ll try to answer yours.

    “I can’t tell if you are being facetious or obtuse when you say something like ‘Where does Article I Section 8 authorize Congress to spend tax money to heat the Capitol building in winter and air condition it in summer?’”

    Sort of facetious, I suppose. I’m making an argument reductio ad absurdum. Contending that Congress only has the power spend money on items specifically enumerated in the Constitution, taken to its logical extreme, results in the absurd contention that Congress cannot spend money to heat the Capitol building. I absolutely agree with your reply that “Obviously since the constitution requires a congress it would require those things that support and enable a congress.”

    “Why are 2400 welfare programs hidden in the budgets of 5 or 6 cabinet level departments with the details only available after hours or perhaps days of digesting huge budget documents??”

    Well, I would submit that the following scenario is at least possible. Over many decades, many different individuals and coalitions in Congress, the administration, academia, and elsewhere attempted to respond to different problems in different times and different circumstances with different solutions. The policies eventually enacted were the result of a complex mix of ideology, negotiation, political calculation, and turf battles over budgets and power among a large number of political actors. The idea of creating a single coherent, unitary welfare system that incorporated the functions of all of the programs that would eventually be enacted never even occurred to most of those involved. The result is an organic, piece-meal, ad hoc, messy, and almost unbelievably complex array of agencies and programs, many with overlapping and redundant remits. It’s a system that no one would deliberately set out to create. So, it’s just like the rest of the Federal government.

    Your jeremiad on immigration actually beautifully illustrates a point I was trying to make. You favor a moratorium on immigration. Yet the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate a power to regulate immigration. Reading such a power into the Constitution would seem to require a fairly broad reading of Congress’ implied powers. Article 1 Section 8 enumerates a power to tax and spend in order to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”, two very general goals. In contrast, the same section enumerates very specific regulatory powers. It would actually seem to require a much broader reading of Congress’ implied powers to contend that it can place a moratorium on immigration, than it does to contend that Congress can spend money on scientific research or to keep American citizens from starving to death or dying of easily preventable diseases.

    “When it comes right down to it that is the question and my view is that the constitution was set up to limit the federal government and any arguement contrary to that position is by definition incorrect.”

    Thanks. That actually answers a lot of my questions.

  28. CountryGirl says:

    If the vast array of welfare programs simply feel into the various government departments by innocent serendipity why wouldn’t one of the hundreds of thousands of overpaid federal workers have thought of combining them all into the Health and Human Services Department when it was created? I think it is far more likely that congress was being devious and intentionally hid all those different welfare programs in as many dark holes as they could find so that the taxpayer wouldn’t ever be able to figure out the true cost of welfare.

    If you assume that congress does not have the legal ability to control immigration then the only logical conclusion is that there should be NO immigration.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      This is completely off topic. I wrote about scientific discovery and the necessity for pure basic science research. Nowhere did I mention anything REMOTELY related to your obsessions about welfare, Congress, taxes, and immigration! Please respond to the topic, not to what is on your mind, or don’t bother to post.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Fair enough. And all the other comments that were off topic I assume you will tell each and everyone of them as well. And no more responding to questions either, right? I await to see your post to each of the other miscreants because I am confident you didn’t single me out because I didn’t applaud your comments…

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE