The Conservative Caucus Foundation

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Watching for government waste!

Excerpted from Volume VI, Number 6 * June, 1995


Another questionable example of Federally-funded scientific "basic research" run amok is a project of Professor Dan Fisher of the University of Michigan whose specialty is the geological sciences and who is curator of paleontology. He got a three-year, $105,000 National Science Foundation grant to analyze the tusks of mammoths and mastodons to try and find out why they became extinct.

Okay, so what has he discovered? Well, he tells me in an interview that he cuts and samples these tusks and compares them to recent elephants to determine, from analyzing their growth rings and their isotopic chemistry, "something about the environment in which the animals lived, the rates at which they grew, their age at death, their age at sexual maturity, and, for females, the intervals between calves and the number of calves in their lifetime -- a whole range of things like that."

Me: "But, why? Of what use is this knowledge to your typical American taxpayer?" Well, he says, there are two benefits here. One is "a sort of pure scientific reason." The other reason is "quite applied, quite relevant" knowledge for "current global needs." Regarding the first rationale, he says mammoths/mastodons died out when "about 10,000 years ago" North America lost about three-fourths of its large mammal fauna.

Me: "But, if you found out exactly why -- which you never will because you guys debate everything -- how does this benefit the average American taxpayer?!" Because, he says, "we might be in a better position to understand and avoid some of the impending extinctions now."

Me: "Okay, so what, precisely, have you learned?"

Fisher: "Well, one thing I would label as (of course) preliminary and tending in this direction, is that hunting by humans was a major factor in the extinction of mammoths/mastodons." Being pro-animal-rights over human survival, he adds: "So, essentially, we were doing then what we're doing now, different in detail but with the same effect."

Me: "But, were these mammoths/mastodons hunted for food? Or were they just wantonly slaughtered for the fun of it?"

Fisher: "No, they were hunted for food, basically. And their bones and hides were used to some extent."

For shame! Imagine, early man wanting to hunt and eat animals, and use their hides to survive! But, of course, this was before Federal grants on which they might have survived, as has Prof. Fisher.

Me: "But, why do we care about this 10,000-year-old data?" Well, he says these mammoth/mastodon tusks are "a little record of climate changes" and we need to know this "to test our computer models" regarding how climate works today.

Me: "But, the future isn't necessarily the past repeated."

Fisher: "No, but the past is the only thing that's finished." He says the past and future "are one dynamic system," that "we're all on the same planet whose interactions are governed by the same set of processes, even though one aspect may become more important, and another less important, tomorrow not necessarily being like today."


Me: "But you admit what you've discovered so far is only a 'preliminary' finding. There will never be an agreement on the significance on what your tusks show."

Fisher: "I would disagree."

Me: "See! This is what I mean. You even disagree with this. This is exactly what I'm talking about."

Fisher: "But, we often reach a very high level of consensus."

Me: "Really? What does 'often' mean? And how high is this level of consensus?"

Fisher: "Well, this depends on the situation."


Me: "But, this is the problem. All you guys, if laid end-to-end, couldn't reach a definitive, certain conclusion about anything!"

Fisher: "I think this depends on what level of certainty you mean. I'm not sure we're looking for the same thing." Amen! We're not. I'm looking for scientists who pay for their own projects! Fisher adds, when I say there are no levels of certainty, that certainty means certain, period, that: "If that's what you're looking for, you may not find that level of certainty for anything."

Me: "Are you certain of this?!"

Fisher: "I said you may not find that level of certainty."

Enough already. You're getting the picture here and it is extremely fuzzy, to put it mildly. These are folks not sure of what they're looking for, not sure that they've found anything, and not sure, exactly, of what use is what they may have found. Thus, about one thing I am absolutely certain. There's no way on God's green earth that scientific "basic research" like this ought to be funded by the hard-earned tax dollars of Americans. Not at all. If a scientist wants to study voles smelling each other's urine, or what mammoth/mastodon tusks portend for the future, then God bless'em. May they prosper and produce much valuable information. But, such scientists ought to hustle for funds in the private sector, not feed at the public trough.

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