Programming Scientists to Perform Social Engineering

Chuck Rogér

Editor's introduction: Chuck Rogér spots red flags in an ASU alumni magazine that represent a movement in higher education to politicize science. He considers governmental central planning an inappropriate ideology for a university to embrace. We invite debate – does science sell itself out when directed toward partisan political purposes, especially when directed in support of governmental central planning? Or can such planning fit well within the mission of academic science?

An Arizona State University professor wants to train physical scientists to be social engineers. Political science professor David Guston contends that “stakeholders” in academia and industry should work with consumers and the feds to manage the “societal implications” of “environmental health and safety issues” surrounding certain technological breakthroughs. Private sector engineers would team with government bureaucrats to fashion industry regulation. The approach would turbo-charge an existing culture of crony capitalism. Guston calls his concept “anticipatory governance.” Clear thinkers call it scary.  

Indeed, “anticipatory governance” is just another name for governmental central planning. Although the technique has wrecked entire societies, ASU’s work proceeds. Fundamental flaws in thinking pass from teacher to student.

One way to sell flawed thinking is to boldly declare a goofy premise and hope that the boldness dazzles enough to distract from the goofiness. In an article in ASU Magazine, a publication of the ASU Alumni Association, business and technology writer Lee Gimpel claims, “In the last generation or two, humanity has had to wrestle with the societal and moral implications of gene splicing, nanotechnology, climate engineering, artificial intelligence, the Internet and social media, just to name a few.” In fairness to Gimpel, he may not even subscribe to this contention. To keep donations flowing, alumni associations routinely engage writers to contrive glowing tales of the “implications” of work done at the old alma mater.

Gimpel delivers quite a tale.

For starters, the contention that “humanity” can “wrestle” with anything wraps nonsense in a falsehood inside a straw man. The truth is that individuals and markets routinely adjust to technical advancements. After initial shake-outs, industry and consumers adapt. Product demand rises, producers respond, manufacturing costs decline, prices drop, and people live fuller, more productive lives.

But such mundane realities get ignored when the objective is to lionize sages who promise to rescue society from the vagaries of advancing technology. Gimpel alleges that although gene splicing, artificial intelligence, and Internet-based social media threaten “society,” three ASU professors will lead the way through such “technology-driven change.”

According to one of the professors, none other than David Guston, scientists must foster “social relationships,” craft “policies,” minimize “surprise,” and “mitigate” societal “disruptions.” Guston examines possibilities such as creating an “Office of Technology Transfer” to “stabiliz[e] the boundary between politics and science.” The professor investigates things like using a “Citizens’ Panel on Telecommunications” to influence “the future of democracy.” Impressive.

Driven by such high-mindedness, ASU is equipping fledgling scientists to play social engineer. For example, “PhD Plus” students are encouraged to use their dissertations to address “social implications, political context, or ethical concerns.” Failure to at least fake a socially progressive worldview may mean no science PhD.

ASU adulterates science in at least four venues. The Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes (CSPO), Center for Biology and Society, Center for Law, Science & Innovation, and Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) train students to “ask questions about the long-term effects” of scientific work. Adherents to such thinking would have called Wilbur and Orville off the beach on December 17, 1903 and demanded plans for avoiding any nastiness that might befall people riding on scaled-up versions of the flying machine.

Making plans is a priority for Guston, who envisions engineers, scientists, manufacturers, and consumers collaboratively shaping the future. No such effort has even infinitesimally improved the human condition. Yet the world’s Gustons gravitate to lofty thinking which justifies creations like CSPO and CNS. Coincidentally, Guston leads both endeavors.

Heady but dead-end mind-follies are not exclusive to ASU. Universities all over the world hatch similar grandiose schemes. But with the concept of “anticipatory governance,” Guston goes the extra mile, prescribing a regulatory approach that would institutionalize corporatism.

Is there any reason to expect ASU’s “innovative” approach to create meaningful upsides to offset such major downsides?

No, but law professor Gary Marchantbelieves that ASU’s “unique cluster of groups and individuals” makes the university “a real hot spot” of thought. The braggadocio is based on the bandying about of “ideas.” There are no specific, beneficial, non-academic results attributable to ASU’s centers and consortiums (1, 2, 3, 4). This lack of practical outcomes is common to highfalutin academic programs. At ASU, it’s not tangible outcomes, but “new and different work” that has campus-dwellers feeling “enthusiasm and excitement.” The thrill will almost certainly not spill over to producers and consumers.

Still, “new and different work” is being done at ASU, especially in the School of Sustainability, where students wander “fields of green” to learn how “sustainability’s intersection with the economy opens doors for new environmentally minded professionals.” ASU collaborators are, in one professor’s words, having “great fun.” But approaches born of the rabid environmentalism which flavors that fun are being used by government to inflict economic suffering on Americans. Ideologically motivated “green” and sustainability research—not exclusive to ASU—provides moral support for President Obama’s refusal to issue oil drilling permits. As a result, consumers are being held hostage to OPEC’s high oil prices. The “fun” research pushes low-quality, high-cost wind and solar power (5, 6, 7, 8, 9) and feeds an anti-business EPA agenda. To fulfill the Obama administration’s “renewable energy” thrust, the EPA is burying manufacturers and fossil-fuel-based energy producers with overregulation.

Curiously, government regulation is integral to the ASU approach, which sends students to Washington “to understand the political, regulatory and public relations side of science[.]” Pushing ideologically-conditioned scientists into cahoots with staunchly ideological government regulators is a really bad idea.

And there is no shortage of bad ideas at ASU.

Law professor Marchant attends climate change and sustainability conferences. It would be unsurprising to find that the professor’s students reject objectivity and embrace global warming religion. Moreover, Marchant speaks to judges who rule in cases involving not only legal issues like privacy and intellectual property, but also scientific areas such as genetics. This is especially troubling. When people who teach scientists and lawyers team with judges to do social engineering, education itself gets corrupted. “Society” gets burned.

Another ASU professor, Jane Maienschein, “specializes in the history and philosophy of biology and the way that biology, bioethics, and biopolicy play out in society.” To leverage “the wider scope of science,” Maienschein preaches her vision directly to the public, sometimes using an educational presentation network.

To Guston, Marchant, and Maienschein, as with self-proclaimed seers at other universities, providing guidance to society is life’s work. “The world will evolve,” Maienschein declares, “but we can have some control, some shaping over that—if, but only if, we think as we go along and have the tools to think wisely.” The arrogance is breathtaking. Elitist central planning aimed at creating a socioeconomic paradise has always produced human misery. But this time, ah this time, the seers will show “humanity” how to construct “anticipatory governance” for “shaping” the world.

Our professors don’t actually explain why “new and different” science education is a good thing. As economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell once observed, the “vision” itself confers “a special state of grace” on anointed believers. Skeptics are “not merely in error, but in sin.”[1] Furthermore, “Those with sweeping schemes for ‘reconstructing society’ seldom pause to ask about the sufficiency of anyone’s knowledge for such a task. [2]

Anointed believers at ASU and throughout the “progressive” halls of academia see themselves as supremely knowledgeable to teach society to “think wisely.” There is no need to validate assumptions or methods. In essence, to the professors, the question is not if the world can be remade as envisioned, but instead how to lead society on a journey which visionaries deem essential. 

A writer, physicist, former high tech executive, and desert-dwelling Cajun, Chuck Rogér invites you to sign up to receive his “Clear Thinking” blog posts by email at Contact Chuck at [email protected].



[1] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, Basic Books, 1995, pp. 2-3.

[2] Ibid, p.110.

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