Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tech Liberation Front brings on a Discovery Institute representative

The Technology Liberation Front is a blog I've been reading for a few months for its quality contributions on issues involving technology, regulation, copyright, digital rights management (DRM), network neutrality, and so on. It covers a lot of the same topics as Ed Felten's excellent Freedom-to-Tinker blog, with a strong libertarian bent.

What a disappointment it was to see that the newest contributor, Hance Haney, comes from the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute. While Haney is in Washington D.C. and is not affiliated with the intelligent design wing (the Center for Science and Culture), crackpot George Gilder is a senior fellow of the TDP.

I commented to this effect at the Technology Liberation Front, which prompted a response from Lewis Baumstark:
As I have no previous knowledge of Hance or the Discovery Institute, I prefer to allow him to live or die here on the merits of his debate and analysis, not on his link to a pro-ID institution.
Lewis should remedy his ignorance of the Discovery Institute before coming to a conclusion about whether such an association taints Hance's reputation and credibility--surely he would not have said the same if Hance was a representative of the (in some ways more honest) Institute for Creation Research or International Flat Earth Society. As readers of this blog know well, the Discovery Institute has a long history of dishonest and deceptive public statements and attempts to influence public opinion, public policy, and educational standards. Do a Google search for "Discovery Institute" or "Dembski" for numerous examples at this blog; many more can be found at (especially Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Pharyngula) or The Panda's Thumb.

Jim Harper of TLF responded to Lewis's comment by writing "And the winner is . . . Lewis Baumstark! Curious. Courteous. Way to go, Lewis!" How odd that he would declare Lewis the "winner" when Lewis claimed ignorance of the Discovery Institute, or call him "curious" when his comment betrayed no interest in rectifying that ignorance. "Courteous," I'll grant.

I agree with the comment at TLF from Cog (of the Abstract Factory blog):

The Discovery Institute ought to be shunned by all right-thinking people, simply as punishment for so shamelessly polluting our public discourse about science. Everybody associated with the Discovery Institute should know, and never be permitted to forget, that their affiliation with that institution tars their name and calls their integrity into question.

This isn't to say that we should pre-emptively dismiss everything Hance says, but that he should never forget the cost that this affiliation will have for his professional reputation and all the views that he professes to hold. The suspicion of Lippard and others (myself included) is entirely rational, and promotes the proper working of the information ecosystem, just an investor's skepticism about former Enron executives would be rational and promote the proper working of the market.

Precisely so--it's not that Hance can't make valid or useful contributions, it's that anything he says needs to be given extra scrutiny because he willingly associates with and is employed by an organization with an established and continuing record for deception and dishonesty. "Guilt by association" is fallacious for evaluating the validity of an argument, but the company you keep is often a good indicator of your character and can create prima facie evidence about your reliability that your own words and actions may then confirm or refute.

I've experienced this myself--I'm employed by a company with a financial scandal in its past (Global Crossing). I continue to work there because I believe that the scandals are in the past and those responsible for them are no longer associated with the company, though my resume will likely always be somewhat tainted by the association and give me an extra hurdle to overcome. I consider myself fortunate that not only has the company cleaned up its act (the financial filings under the current CFO have been praised by former critics of the company for their completeness and transparency) but that my area of employment was quite distant from the scandal and has received public praise.

UPDATE August 28, 2006: Julian Sanchez comments on this subject here. Adam Thierer has responded to the controversy at the Technology Liberation Front, but he does not even attempt to address the issue raised by the Discovery Institute's regular practice of deception and dishonesty.

UPDATE August 30, 2006: Tim Lee has responded to the controversy head on at TLF.


amstar said...

I have never given any thought to the non ID branches of the DI. Are they involved in any other controversies in which their tactics have been called into question?


Jim Lippard said...

George Gilder (Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project) has been personally involved in controversies (he gave some very bad investment advice prior to the dot com meltdown, including continuing to recommend investment in my employer, Global Crossing, as its stock crashed--it became the largest telecom bankruptcy in U.S. history until Worldcom broke the record a few months later).

There's the Cascadia project, which is involved in transportation issues and has received about $9 million in funding from Bill Gates.

There's a Bioethics program, which overlaps heavily with the intelligent design folks--they oppose embryonic stem cell research, assisted suicide, and animal rights.

There's an Economics program, which has Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute as a Senior Fellow (and the web page for that program also touts Gilder).

There's a Law and Justice program that argues for tort reform, an Environmental program that appears to be critical of the Endangered Species Act, a "Religion, Liberty and Public Life" program, a "C.S. Lewis and Public Life" program, and an Education program that argues for home schooling and school choice. This last set is relegated to an "Other Programs" page on the DI website.

So there's certainly potential for other controversies.

amstar said...

thanks for the info Jim

Richard Bennett said...

Discovery is best-known for its ID program. At a party in Seattle last year I met James Na and Seth Cooper and they complained to me that whenever they did DI business with a new agency, they had to spend the first 15 minutes apologizing for ID.