Politics, Science, Vocation, and Purpose

There is a fascinating interview with Steven Shapin, author of The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, at the U. Chicago Press website. Shapin questions the distinctiveness of academic and business modes of inquiry:

If we . . . look at the pure research done in industry and that done in academia, many of the most popular contrasts describe the situation rather poorly. If autonomy is the issue, many industrial scientists from early in the twentieth century enjoyed as much of that as their academic colleagues. And the same applies to notions of secrecy and openness. A clear contrast of quality between university and industrial science similarly seems not to hold, while a presumption that applied research and development requires less brain-power than pure research is just dogmatic. But most of all, I am impressed that both industrial and academic scientists seem to want environments in which they can do interesting work and, perhaps, to enjoy a degree of freedom in doing that work. . . .

Many other commentators have also rightly pointed out that academia and industry have for some time been converging in their mores, structures, and conditions for doing science. I agree with that, but I also suggest that there are ways in which some sorts of modern industry can offer more propitious conditions for scientific inquiry than some sorts of universities and colleges. There are interesting implications here for the contemporary tendency to make universities more “business-like”: we should have a better understanding of how industry now seeks to manage and motivate creative people.

For an opposing view, check out Daniel Brook’s critique of Richard Florida in his book, The Trap:

The last section of Florida’s [Rise of the Creative Class] is titled “Creativity to What End”. . . . While the author admits that much of what the private sector directs our creativity toward is “trivial, vulgar, and wasteful,” he never muses on how creativity might be put toward more . . . socially worthwhile ends. Florida advises that “we must carefully consider the ends to which we direct our creativity,” as if “we” were the ones who get to decide. (92)

Shapin’s “half full” and Brook’s “half empty” views of creativity in corporate settings led me back to some reflections I had this weekend on a “Straussian” strain in health law scholarship–its tendency to generate both esoteric and exoteric meanings. Both free-marketeers and advocates for universal coverage have bigger fish to fry than their surface arguments would reveal. Pace bipartisan soothers, we’re not just arguing over which means get us to the ends we all agree on. Larger visions of society underlie each school–hopes and fears about levels of inequality, views on the ideal conditions of entrepreneurship and risk, and assumptions about how much one can fairly be expected to donate to the salvation of a stranger.

Thus I appreciated Shapin’s highlighting of the role of charisma in business–a frank recognition that the types of mathematical models that are supposedly at the heart of a modern business school curriculum play second-fiddle to passion in the minds of quintessential capitalists:

I argue that there are important areas of contemporary science and technology in which the personal virtues and charismatic authority are more important than they used to be. The key here is the uncertainty attending much scientific inquiry, especially in high-tech and biotech. If many aspects of the way we live are increasingly governed by rules and routines, scientific inquiry is an inherently uncertain affair. If you knew exactly what you were going to find out, you wouldn’t—properly speaking—be doing research.

But in areas of entrepreneurial science, the uncertainties are even greater than they are in much academic science. How will the science and technology develop? Will there be a market for these things? Will competitors emerge? And, importantly, how do you organize and motivate people in entrepreneurial enterprises? Since none of the answers to such things can be looked up in a manual, very often the solution comes embodied in the person who speaks for the organization, whose vision it is, who articulates what is to be done, how, and to what ends. We are now familiar with the attribution of charisma to such entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, Craig Venter, and many others. Recognizing someone who possesses charismatic authority is not the same thing as saying that they’re wonderful people, but one ought to take charismatic authority very seriously.

Stephen Marglin makes a similar point in a chapter on uncertainty in his book The Dismal Science, focusing on the “animal spirits” Keynes saw at the root of investor behavior. Keynes observed that “a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic.” Action–including the basic choice of what to study, of what conditions in the world are most intriguing or worth changing–is motivated by an impulse toward a betterment (or at least conservation) of revered parts or aspects of a common world. Charles Lindblom’s Inquiry and Change puts this basic relation between social science and the social world at the core of his concerns.

Even the driest of business topics–such as credit rating–depend on quite contestable visions of the proper balance between business and government. Consider how Australian rating agencies undermined public provision of infrastructure, or American ratings agencies gutted efforts to combat subprime lending:

There are a number of explanations for the failure of the ratings agencies. First, like most participants in global financial markets, they have shown themselves to be subject to the euphoria that is associated with a booming market, and the prosperity it brings to the financial sector. Second, they are subject to inherent conflicts of interest, since the issuers of financial securities pay to have them rated. Third, and most importantly, they have a long-standing bias against the public sector. This is reflected in the fact that state and local governments, which rarely default on their debt, are assessed far more stringently than corporate issuers. In the last year, thousands of private-sector securities issued with AAA ratings have been downgraded to junk, and many have subsequently gone into default.

Let me attempt to tie together these overmultifarious reflections. What I like about the Shapin interview is that he focuses us on how common purposes of academic and corporate research (for example, attracting grants or profits/promotions) can lead to a convergence of the subjects and style of science as practiced at each place. All these writers remind us that individuals and institutions ostensibly engaged in a detached observation of reality and sober predictions of the future can easily be swayed by charismatic authority or ideology–be it the siren song of a Pets.com or the ratings agencies’ implict dreams of a world where all infrastructure was seamlessly managed by private companies.

Of course, Weber has been haunting all these reflections–in his division of politics and science as vocations, his adherence to the fact/value distinction, and his quest for “objectivity” in social science. I’m attracted to Shapin, Marglin, Keynes, and Brook’s writing here because all of them seem to me to be chipping away at these old dichotomies and ideal-types. Objectivity on some level requires us to look at things as objects–a worrisome stance for one committed to understand others intersubjectively. “Facts” about an entity’s creditworthiness may well be predicated on how much the assessor values its existence. Scientists, doctors, and entrepreneurs–perhaps the best-reputed professions in our society–are often in need of the rhetorical skills commonly associated with politicians and lawyers.