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May 29 2014

I always like to know who’s been bought

A correspondent asked me an interesting and difficult question about the sponsorship of science. I’ve been talking a bit lately about the allosaur affair at the Creation “Museum”, which can be summarized this way:

Michael Peroutka, an odious neo-Confederate nut, donates a valuable allosaur fossil to the Creation “Museum”.

Now the tricky part. What’s the difference in principle between that statement and this next one?

David Koch, an odious destroyer of the environment and climate change denialist, donates $35 million for a Smithsonian dinosaur hall redesign.

That’s a good question, and it brought me up short. The problem with these sorts of questions is that it’s really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations — I like the Smithsonian, I don’t like the Creation “Museum”, so it’s a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question. Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

I’m off the hook in one regard: I’m on record complaining about Koch’s contribution to an earlier exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. His donation was used to describe the role of climate change in human evolution, making the case that it is a good thing, because we wouldn’t be here without the pressures of shifting climate. It was a subtle emphasis, but it’s still an example of the pressure of millions of dollars being used to gently bend the science in a particular direction.

But it’s only a gentle distortion. Otherwise, Koch seems to have had virtually no influence on the scientific opinions of the Smithsonian. Check them out; the Smithsonian explains the history of climate change, it sponsors Bill Nye explaining climate change, Smithsonian scientists are studying climate change, they have articles explaining how climate change is already affecting people’s lives, and they provide lesson plans for educating about climate change. It’s safe to say that we know on what side of this issue the Smithsonian stands, and it’s on the opposite side of Koch.

It’s a tricky thing, this business of funding science. Ideally, it would be done on merit only, by an independent source, like the NSF or NIH (or, as independent as they possibly can be), with no restrictions on how the money is used — a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it’s spent. We know that’s an ideal — government funding agencies are subject to fads, too, and politicians are constantly trying to tinker, with earmarks and prohibitions — but it’s as good as we’ve got. If private donors are involved, the same rules apply: they should give because they value the science, which is a search for the truth, and not because they intend to meddle to get the answers they want. In that sense, the Smithsonian did OK…although there are troubling signs that maybe they accepted some recommendations for Koch.

By the same argument, though, there’s nothing wrong with Peroutka handing over a precious fossil to the Creation “Museum”. It’s stupid and a waste of a good specimen, `but otherwise, philanthropists do get to decide what to do with their own money, and Answers in Genesis can accept it in good conscience.

However, there is another issue. The Smithsonian is committed to doing good science, so they continue to loudly and strongly argue for the scientific consensus, that global climate change is a serious problem, and they do so despite the fact that an extremely wealthy donor disagrees completely with them. I imagine that if a donor tried to insist that his money comes with strings attached and must be used to propagandize for counterfactual claims, the institution would have enough integrity to flatly refuse.

I’d expect the same from the Creation “Museum”. They’ve got a neo-Confederate racist sugar daddy: do they have enough integrity to repudiate his views, even at the expense of antagonizing him? The evidence so far says no. There is a difference between accepting a free donation, and being bought. I’d like to see Ken Ham come clean on his views on the Confederacy, the continued legacy of discrimination and racism, and how much of Peroutka’s paid shill he is. If they are in agreement, that’s fine — just own it, and let us know what kind of people run Answers in Genesis.

Not that we don’t already know they are a gang of loons, but there are quite a few other issues where we could possibly agree…or more likely, disagree.

46 comments

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  1. 1
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ PZ

    I only hope this message gets through to The Ham ™

    Although, I suspect he knows these things already.

  2. 2
    Peter J. Hart

    Ken Ham has always said that racism comes from believing in the Theory of Evolution. Which is probably why the Confederacy was formed a couple years after On the Origin of Species was written.

  3. 3
    Zeno

    Every year it’s the same old story: No one tries to buy me off.

  4. 4
    plutosdad

    Zeno they’ve tried to buy you off, but before they can offer you money they have to come up with half that amount. And before that …

  5. 5
    cervantes

    Yes. The Koch contribution to the Smithsonian, and other not obviously political philanthropic contributions the Koch brothers make, is not intended to endorse any particular scientific conclusion or endeavor, but merely to greenwash their name. The donation to the creation museum presumably is intended to endorse creationism — as it much be since AiG is not a seeker of truth but a promoter of a conclusion; but it is also intended to Godwash racism, as it were, with AiG’s followers. The Smithsonian has demonstrated that it does not endorse the Koch brothers’ campaign against the truth, simply by staying true to its mission. Ken Ham can’t do that simply by carrying on with business as usual — he needs to go out of his way to denounce racism. Will he?

  6. 6
    Kevin Kehres

    Something about Shaw and the starlet comes to mind…(apocryphal though that story may be).

  7. 7
    DonDueed

    plutosdad: LOL!

    I find it incredibly annoying that Ham’s outfit has possession of a real dino fossil. I don’t really know how rare Allosaurus remains are, so it may not be all that big a deal. I surely hope they at least take good care of it while they have it.

    And I dearly hope they go broke sooner than later, and have to sell it off to an actual museum.

  8. 8
    william stafford

    I’m betting that the “museum” will fairly quickly sell the allosaur if it is allowed to by the terms of the gift. The fossil is worth a LOT more as cash than as yet another stupid exhibit to demonstrate how old the earth isn’t.

  9. 9
    wirebash

    In AiG’s defence, the Smithsonian Museum seems to have been influenced by Koch’s views on climate change. The difference is that Smithsonian hasn’t made any factually incorrect claims, while AiG hasn’t made any factually correct claims. But in either case, the donation has been used to fund dishonesty, wether not-completely-honest or completely-not-honest, so I think the Smithsonian should have refused the donation too.

  10. 10
    jamessweet

    Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

    I don’t think we need to shy away from this too strongly. Of course it’s better if we can apply more consistent principles, but in the end, there is an inherent difference between fighting for truth and morality vs. fighting for lies and corruption.

    I think this was always the missing piece when, for example, we talk about the Duck Dynasty guy’s “free speech” rights. Yes, it’s true that his free speech wouldn’t actually be violated if A&E dropped his show. OTOH, if somebody’s reality show got canceled because they spoke out in favor of marriage equality, I’d still be livid. I wouldn’t complain about “free speech” being violated, but I’d be hopping mad at the cowardice of the company involved and their attempts to police the political speech of their employees. It’s not enough that his First Amendment rights were not technically being violated — if his speech had not in fact been genuinely odious, then suspending his show would have been wrong, if legal. But his speech was genuinely odious, so…

    There’s an aspect of that here, too, I think…

  11. 11
    parasiteboy

    PZ – You may have avoided one trap but fallen into another one (false-equivalency maybe?)

    The Smithsonian may have repudiated Koch’s anti-global warming views by not having their climate change exhibit influenced by him.

    But you want AiG to repudiate the donor’s neo-Confederate racist views for donating an Allosaurus . There is no connection between neo-Confederate beliefs and the false science AiG is spouting about the Allosaurus .

    If you want the AiG to repudiate the neo-Confederate views of their donor then you should expect the Smithsonian to repudiate the efforts of the Koch brother’s with something like voter ID laws that suppress the votes of minorities.

  12. 12
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    I would also note that Niel Degrasse Tyson gave a private astronomy lesson to the Koch family. Interestingly, the family appears not to be anti-science per se. They are merely scumbag capitalists who are willing to fuck over the entire planet to preserve their wealth.

  13. 13
    Trebuchet

    The Koch family’s wealth is highly dependent on science, specifically geology. Believing in non-biological oil, as YEC’s are wont to do, didn’t make them rich.

  14. 14
    parasiteboy

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space@12

    I would also note that Niel Degrasse Tyson gave a private astronomy lesson to the Koch family.

    If this was done as part of his official duties as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, I would not be surprised. Wealthy, potential donors will get the VIP tour.
    If it wasn’t part of his position at Hayden, I would be very surprised and disappointed.

  15. 15
    PaulBC

    ‘Michael Peroutka, an odious neo-Confederate nut, donates a valuable allosaur fossil to the Creation “Museum”.’

    ‘David Koch, an odious destroyer of the environment and climate change denialist, donates $35 million for a Smithsonian dinosaur hall redesign.’

    When I read the above, I feel like the little girl in the taco ad. “Why don’t we have both?”

    I admit that I might be more careful if I thought Koch was going to take back his donation as a result, but that’s purely a pragmatic concern. Both characterizations strike me as accurate.

  16. 16
    tfkreference

    Is it generalizing to assume that Ham has a receptive audience in what was the Confederacy?

  17. 17
    twas brillig (stevem)

    The problem with these sorts of questions is that it’s really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations — I like the Smithsonian, I don’t like the Creation “Museum”, so it’s a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question.

    Another post hoc trap is too conflate the attitude of the Koch as ‘tainting’ the money they donate (umm… the ad hominem trap). That is, telling the Smithsonian that to accept money from the Koch besmirches whatever they end up doing with it. [unfortunately, Ham denies that accepting a donation from a racist makes him a racist, blah blah blah] It is too easy to blame the recipient of the donation for accepting “dirty money”; without considering the actions the recipients take with the money they just received.
    …moving on…
    My answer to the question, “…difference in principle…?” would focus on the _donors_ as the “difference” in principle (i.e. ‘no difference’). BUT, to begin with; my initial response would be, “Are you implying there IS a difference? I don’t understand the question.”

  18. 18
    PaulBC

    More seriously, I do see the statements as equivalent. The interesting thought experiment for me is what if a more worthy recipient of the allosaur fossil had received it from the same donor?

    Should I associate the hypothetical recipient with racism? Should I require them to give it back? I’d rather see the fossil used for science or displayed in an appropriate educational setting, and this strikes me as a primary consideration. I would expect a sincere attempt to dissociate their views from those of Michael Peroutka as a condition of accepting the gift. That would be sufficient. In an ideal world, I’d expect the same thing from the Smithsonian.

  19. 19
    Lynna, OM

    Stuff for which the Koch brothers paid can sometimes be wholeheartedly condemned:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-21/ohio-poised-to-break-from-u-s-push-for-renewable-energy.html

    Ohio is debating the sharpest break from a three-decade campaign by 29 U.S. states to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by promoting power from renewable sources.

    The state House of Representatives is weighing a bill that would freeze for two years requirements that power companies generate electricity from sources such as the wind and sun. The measure, already passed by the Senate, has the backing of Koch-brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity and Republican Governor John Kasich. He says it will buy time to study “well-intentioned” measures enacted in 2008 that are too costly. […]

  20. 20
    ashleybell

    huzzah! I’m heading up to that very museum in DC this Saturday…I haven’t been there in 25 years or more… The Natural History Museum in NYC gets a visit ftrom me every 2 years or so however…AND both dino wings are funded by David Koch.. I had no idea until my most recent visit last week

  21. 21
    Amphiox

    I am strongly suspicious that the Koch’s are playing a shell game with regards to AGW. Their business empire relies on science, and I suspect they know enough about the science of climate change to know that it is at least reasonable to accept that it is likely enough to be true that planning for its effects is a reasonable course of action.

    BUT, from the point of view of public policy, the things that would be done to prepare for AGW are also things that affect their bottom line, so they have made the cynical calculation to oppose it for rank personal gain.

    If one dug deeply enough I would not be surprised at all if we found that various Koch companies have, internally, already prepared, or are preparing, business plans that take into account likely future climate changes. Whether to ameliorate their own impact on climate change, or to exploit the existence of climate change to pad their own bottom lines or mitigate their own potential losses. (The second, cynically, being the more likely scenario….)

  22. 22
    hexidecima

    It’s always struck me that the Koch brothers want science and need it, considering their sponsorship of science shows on PBS. They also seem to want a intelligent class and are willing to make a ignorant working class by encouraging the teabaggers.

  23. 23
    Matrim

    @14 parasiteboy

    If this was done as part of his official duties as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, I would not be surprised. Wealthy, potential donors will get the VIP tour.
    If it wasn’t part of his position at Hayden, I would be very surprised and disappointed.

    Why? Do you expect that to somehow change DGT’s position or otherwise do something negative? The more exposure to science and reason people have, the better. Worst thing that would happen is he’d be “bleeding the beast”

  24. 24
    blf

    Is either of the following a useful thought experiment?

     ● Change the names of the donors (both of them) to “Hitler”:
       ○ Hitler donated millions to the Smithsonian…
       ○ Hitler donated a genuine dinosaur fossil to the creationists…

     ● Change the names of the donor (both) of them) to “Darwin”:
       ○ Darwin donated millions to the Smithsonian…
       ○ Darwin donated a genuine dinosaur fossil to the creationists…

  25. 25
    unclefrogy

    @ 21
    I seem to remember a long interview program might have been on Charlie Rose with the CEO of Exon in which he tried to indicate very much what you suggested
    I think that they just do not see the same urgency to change and they are calculating that there will be some losses but it will be OK in the end. Given the track record when they are left on their own there will be a long long time for recovery and much damage and I think they might be in the end some of casualties.
    Unlike the Neo-confederates, they will drop the failing position in oil/energy companies and go make money on something else when the profits fail. Until then they will play hard ball to win because the thing they are loyal to the most of all is their fortunes. What ever gets in the way of profit is the enemy including ideology and they will fight it or drop it which ever seems best.
    what was that Rumsfeld called them “dead enders” that’s your neo-confederate racist KKK
    uncle frogy

  26. 26
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    It’s similar to a malaise I’m feeling about Harper’s Women & Children initiative. Yes, a big summit is good. Yes, helping women & children with specific, directed aid ($3.5 billion’s worth!) is good.Yes, stressing the importance of vaccination is good. Yes, improving survival through pregnancy is good. But…….. what about the fact that the easiest, most effective way to improve the health and lives of women of childbearing age is to give them the capacity to exercise their right to control their own reproduction? Ignoring this just means more pregnant women and infants to care for with the limited resources of the future.

    And just like the Koch bros. thing, it’s a whitewashing strategy. All you have to do is look at his record on First Nations poverty (or missing women), or his scrapping of the Early Childcare Program, or the defunding of the Court Challenges Program, or defunding of Planned Parenthood, that he doesn’t actually care so much about women and children per se.

    So, do I feel good about it or do I feel disgusted? I guess I have to feel good and hope that the status quo can be improved upon in the future. Blech.

  27. 27
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

    What jamessweet said. Judging actions by results is not inherently illegitimate.

  28. 28
    eeyore

    As I said on the previous thread, I’m deeply suspicious of guilt by association arguments, partly because I’m old enough to remember McCarthy (and I don’t mean Eugene). Historically, guilt by association has far more often been used against the left than against the right. And there are plenty of reasons to repudiate Ham based on his ideas without needing to drag in who his donors are; how much does it really tell us there’s a single issue on which he agrees with a neo-confederate?

    Very, very few people or programs are pure, and we all make our peace one way or another with people or institutions we’re not entirely comfortable with. That’s a fact of life.

  29. 29
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Very, very few people or programs are pure, and we all make our peace one way or another with people or institutions we’re not entirely comfortable with. That’s a fact of life..

    Personally, I would think religious programs should make themselves beyond criticism, but Ham stepped in a mountain of pigshit with his acceptance of the allosaurus, without criticizing the source, which means to neutral observers he tacitly agrees with the bigotry of they source….

  30. 30
    eeyore

    Nerd, it means no such thing. Do you buy goods made in China? If so, does that mean you tacitly agree with slave labor? And even if you don’t buy goods made in China, I’m sure if I ask enough questions I’ll eventually find something that you do that links you to unsavory people.

  31. 31
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Nerd, it means no such thing. Do you buy goods made in China?

    Total non-sequitur. One of the people in my department is from China. The government gave up the pargons of morality when Mao died. They are there for the power, and corruption.
    Whereas Hamikins claims to be moral and driven by his imaginary diety and mythical/fictional babble. Hypocrite of the highest order, compared to the Chinese government.

  32. 32
    mnb0

    Let me try to devise a little test to solve your dilemma.
    Will Ol’ Hambo allow an independent radiologist (or how are these people called) to test the Allosaurus and measure it’s age?
    Will the Smithsonian give the relevant scientists access to the results of all the research done with those 35 M and allow them to evaluate it?
    I have little debt this test can be improved, so go ahead.

  33. 33
    OptimalCynic

    Pecunia non olet. To me, it’s far more important to judge the use the money is put to rather than the source.

  34. 34
    eeyore

    Nerd, that’s called changing the subject. The whole point of PZ’s post, which you seem to have missed, is the result-oriented expedient of making excuses for people you like while not being even handed toward those you don’t like. Yes, differences can be found between Ham and the Chinese government, but that’s not the point. The point is you apply a double standard.

  35. 35
    Ichthyic

    it’s not as complicated as this is being made out to be.

    would you accept money to do your research from the Templeton Foundation?

    no, because it has strings attached.

    that simple.

    no strings, then the source doesn’t matter much.

    universities make this rationalization every day. both in the money recieved by donations from Alumni, and donations from public and private corporations.

  36. 36
    Amphiox

    Will Ol’ Hambo allow an independent radiologist (or how are these people called) to test the Allosaurus and measure it’s age?

    I don’t actually think one can test a fossil directly for its age once it has been removed from its context (ie the location and rock layers in which it was found).

    Indeed, if a fossil is removed from its context with that context being properly documented, much of the scientific value of the specimen is lost forever, which is one of the major problems with fossil poaching.

  37. 37
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I don’t actually think one can test a fossil directly for its age once it has been removed from its context (ie the location and rock layers in which it was found).

    True, most mineralization of the bone happens after the fact. What paleontologists like to see is a layer of volcanic ash both above and below the fossil. Then potassium/argon dating can be used to bracket the age of the fossil, as the volcanic eruption resets the “clock” on the amount of argon left.

  38. 38
    randay

    Isn’t Ken Ham Australian? He should be asked about his views on the white man’s treatment of the Aborigines in Australia. It is not a pretty story.

  39. 39
    stinkyj

    Ichthyic @ 35

    that’s my take as well (although I’m on the industrial end, not the academic end of the rapidly drying up money pipe).

    the moment that the recipient of funding is told what the research needs to show is the moment they should walk away.

    PZ’s point about the gentle redirection of conclusions is quite worrying. Nothing factually incorrect that can’t be supported or is a long way off mainstream, but just adding a little extra spin in a context where it looks that bit more measured and authoritative (a renowned and trusted museum).

  40. 40
    barbaz

    Apropos look who’s bought:

    Freethoughtblogs just showed me this advertisement:

    For the protection of children, the family, and the christian roots of Germany.
    [...]
    Sign our petition.
    [http://www.aktion-kig.de/kampagne/web_frag.html?gclid=CNCJ0pLR074CFWgUwwoddwYAUA]

    (go klick the link, then they have to pay money)

    Yes, ftb advertises for anti-abortion, sex-is-evil, christian fundamentalist organizations: aktion-kig.de

  41. 41
    chigau (違う)

    The ads you see are based on your browsing history.

  42. 42
    Blondin

    …a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it’s spent.

    But, PZ, if they did that someone would spend money to research the sex lives of fruit flies. FRUIT FLIES! I kid you not!

  43. 43
    Thomas Holtz

    For all his faults (and they are legion), David Koch’s charitable contributions to science and artistic do seem to be sincere. In this he seems to take more after his mother than his father (or brother), who tend(ed) to fund purely political causes.

    It is possible for people to have actual cognitive dissonance, and simultaneously support science and the arts while working in ways to destroy the environment. I’m not saying it is right; I’m not saying it is logical; but I am saying it is possible.

  44. 44
    Thomas Holtz

    If you have the time, there was a good interview last week on NPR about a biographer of the Koch Brothers: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/21/314574217/how-the-koch-brothers-remade-americas-political-landscape

  45. 45
    parasiteboy

    Matrim@23

    Why? Do you expect that to somehow change DGT’s position or otherwise do something negative?

    I don’t think DGT would change his position (not sure which one you specifically mean, but I think he would stick to the science on any position).

    My first thought was, if you are the director of something, part of your duties is to show potential donors around and may be a written requirement of your job.

    I think that is a big difference as compared to getting a call from the Koch’s and agreeing to give a private lesson (which is how I quickly and wrongly interpreted the comment from a_ray_in_dilbert_space@12, see below). The main reason why I think there is a difference is because the Koch Brothers money, through PAC’s, supports a lot of anti-science political candidates. Although one could argue in this scenario that maybe DGT felt like if he had some face time with the Koch’s that he could change their minds about something, like global warming, by working that into an astronomy lesson. But without being their or hearing something about it no one knows.

    In the end I should have just used my “Google Foo” to find out that the Koch’s won the lesson as a prize at a benefit.

  46. 46
    barbaz

    @ chigau 41
    I’m aware the ads weren’t hand-picked by PZ.

    However, I have no browsing history on such sites (unless it was linked from this blog). I think it’s more likely chosen by some word filter that noticed that this blog talks a lot about christians and related topics.

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