More Intellectual Disrobing, Please

November 13th, 2007

Posted by: admin

No calls for burlesque here…the phrase is a quote from John Dewey in his book Experience and Nature (1925, Chicago: Open Court):

“An empirical philosophy…is an intellectual disrobing. We cannot permanently divest ourselves of the intellectual habits we take on and wear when we assimilate the culture of our own time and place. But intelligent furthering of culture demands that we take some of them off, that we inspect them critically.”

In my last post, and some of my others on Prometheus, I have – if only implicitly – been encouraging such periodic, if not perpetual, divestiture and inspection. I want to do the same with this post. Instead of a call to rethink the perpetual appeals for a president that pays attention to science, I want to look at calls for revisiting science policy. I am in favor, but I think such proposals are, ironically, in need of the very intellectual disrobing they are advocating.

As an example, I point out this New York Times profile of former National Academy of Engineering President Bill Wulf on the occasion of his departure from that post earlier this year. (I should note that I did work for the National Academies, and staffed two different panels Dr. Wulf participated in.) While much of his comments focus on what he calls the ecology of innovation (something I may visit in a subsequent post), I want to point out some of his complaints about technology policy that could use some intellectual disrobing. That they take place in the midst of calls for essentially the same thing is not unique in policy.

Wulf is interested in revisiting various innovation policies, and while it may not be the intellectual disrobing Dewey had in mind, acknowledging changing times and circumstances should be encouraged, even more generally than in the following:

“At least every once in a while we should stand back and say what was the intent of intellectual property protection, what was the intent of the export control regime, what was the intent of antitrust? And in the light of today’s technology, what’s the best way to achieve that?”

Great questions, and my experience and study with each of these policies demonstrates that the intents behind these policies can change over time. Their consequences certainly do. We see some skin here. But we’re only going from t-shirt and long pants to tank top and board shorts (or a evening gown to a blouse and pencil skirt). Another Wulf quote shows an intellectual habit worth examining.

“Or take what he called “the idiocy” of enacting short-term tax credits for research and development. “R and D takes many years,” he said. “If companies invested this year to take advantage of the R and D credit and then the next year it went away, they would have to stop the research and they would have wasted money.”

He says this is why corporate leaders tell him “with near unanimity” that tax credits have little influence on their decisions.”

The habit here is the tendency to presume that policies that affect science and technology were designed, developed or implemented with science and technology in mind. This is tax policy, and while no more of a rational area than any other part of policy, it does not necessarily follow that encouraging research is the first or only intention of such a policy. If the last sentence of this quote is any indication, the R and D tax credit does not influence corporate R and D policy. That seems unlikely (and groups such as the Business Roundtable would take issue), but it does not make such policies “idiocy.”

What Wulf, and all of us, ought to do to properly disrobe – intellectually, of course – is not only to ask about the intent, consequences and outcomes of science and technology policies, but of interests that would influence relevant policies. This influence isn’t always obvious, because it is often indirect – the policy is designed for goals outside of science and technology.

When I write interests I am thinking a bit differently than when Roger spoke of values when he suggested that we ask “So What?” in a recent Bridges column. He was writing about political disputes involving science, but particularly where appeals to truth were involved. The interests I speak of can include contested values, but also disputes about the purpose of various policies and the consequences of policy choices. Unintended consequences don’t have to connect to any particular values to affect the outcomes of science, technology, or innovation. But our intellectual habits often presume intention or purpose where there may be none. To better understand those circumstances we need to question our presumptions, interests and values, to shed our intellectual clothes and scrutinize the surroundings.

Anybody know a good tailor?

One Response to “More Intellectual Disrobing, Please”

  1. ConfusedCollegeStudent Says:

    ah! scrutiny of scrutiny…when will it end! Life isn’t so simple..for what aim are we even debating this?