Philosophy, Funding, and Conflict of Interest

A couple of weeks back, Justin Weinberg at the Daily Nous posed a really interesting question. The context was Daniel Dennett’s review of Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Dennett gives a relatively standard story about conflict of interest in science funding using a hypothetical story of saturated fat research funded by “the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon.” On standard accounts, we are right to apply a higher level of scrutiny towards research whose funding displays a potential conflict of interest, and this is why, e.g., we have COI reporting requirements in certain journals and for federally funded research.

Dennett then points out that Mele’s work is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which (simplifying a bit) has an ultimate agenda the integration of science and religion, and lately has been funding large projects that involve philosophers, scientists, and theologians working together on a shared theme, like Free Will or Character. Mele has received and managed two such grants.

Here’s Justin:

Mele’s project is not the only Templeton-funded philosophy project, nor is Templeton the only source of funds with an agenda. Dennett is claiming that funding from ideological sources casts a shadow on philosophical research in much the same way that funding from industry casts a shadow on scientific research. Is he correct?

Unfortunately, the question was lost as the thread got hijacked by a lot of nonsense, specific details about Templeton and Dennett’s neo-Atheist anti-Templeton agenda, as well as some understandable pragmatic implications of Dennett’s statements on Mele’s character. Most egregious were the many denials that conflict of interest is an issue in science, that they somehow amounted to a fallacious ad hominem argument. For instance, Terrance Tomkow and Kadri Vihvelin claim “the motives of the researcher or his employers are always beside the scientific point.” Dennett answered this point well when he said,

As for Tomkow and Vihvelin’s high-minded insistence that one is obliged “to ignore” the sponsorship of research, I wonder what planet they have been living on recently. Why do they think that researchers have adopted the policy of always declaring the sources of their funding?

Or as Richard Zach said, “It’s as if the past few decades of work on values in science didn’t happen.”

I think Justin’s original question is interesting, though, because it encourages us to think past the specific details of Mele’s book, Dennett’s critique, and the Templeton foundation. Maybe it is because I work at a STEM university, but I often hear talk that the humanities are going to have to move more towards extramural funding. For philosophers, Templeton is where the big money is, but there are also plenty of smaller private foundations, donors funding endowed Chairs (as Zara pointed out), and so on. It’s a timely question. And it is one that invites us to reflect on the similarities and differences between the sciences and philosophy (or the humanities more broadly). I wish more commenters had taken up the call.

I would suggest one analogy and one major disanalogy between science and philosophy in regards to conflict of interest. The analogy is, if I understood him right, what Dennett was getting at: funding applied on a large scale can alter, or even distort, the research agenda of a discipline. And evaluating that will require us to think about what the research agenda ought to look like.

The importance of research agendas in science is the centerpiece of Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy and Science in a Democratic Society. He describes the ideal research agenda for science or a scientific discipline as well-ordered science (WOS), and he argues persuasively that not only epistemic and internal disciplinary values, but also practical and ethical values are central to determining what counts as WOS. Further, he argues that WOS should be evaluated democratically, in some sense. Because science is a social institution, it is ultimately responsible for serving the public. Kitcher also rightly recognizes the roles of funding sources and individual choices in actually setting research agendas, and argues that individual sciences have a duty to stand up and fight for change when the research agenda in their field is very far from well-ordered.

Likewise, we could ask about what “well-ordered philosophy” would look like. Presumably, many philosophers (like many scientists) would argue that notions of intrinsic intellectual/philosophical merit, strength of argument, and freedom of research should determine the ideal research agenda. I, and I suspect Kitcher as well, would prefer pragmatic, ethical, and political considerations to play a role. Either way, we can ask whether and how funding sources are moving us towards or away from a well-ordered research agenda.

Mele’s work discusses Free Will, argues that contrary to some triumphalist claims, the sciences haven’t settled the question yet, criticizes some of those claims by scientists, and is agnostic about whether free will is compatible with determinism. I’m not sure how those things fit with the ideological agenda of Templeton, though I can understand the feeling that they do, somehow. And insofar as Templeton wants to stay a major player in funding research on Free Will, we could see more of this sort of thing, less of other approaches. Zooming out to the context that Justin invites us to consider, it is worth wondering what the effects of funded research can be on the research agenda of philosophy, and it is worth deliberating about whether some funding sources should be considered a problematic conflict of interest, Templeton included. (My own view, held tentatively, is that Templeton is alright in this respect but should be closely monitored.) But also note, that until one has a sense that funding agencies are having a systematic effect, it doesn’t seem reasonable to criticize individuals in the way that Dennett does (if implicitly).

The disanalogy I would like to mention has to do with the different types of arguments that are made in empirical science and in philosophy. Philosophical arguments are usually scholarly while scientific arguments are generally technical. I mean these in a specific sense inspired by Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (N.B., these terms aren’t the ones Latour uses). To make an argument in philosophy requires nothing more than a library card, writing implements, the ability to adopt the current style of the literature in the field you wish to contribute to, and the ability to craft an argument. Scholarly arguments can be evaluated on their surface—you need only to examine the content of the text itself, and perhaps the cited sources, to understand the argument or produce a counter-argument.

Some elements of scientific texts can be evaluated in this way. But scientific arguments are also technical. In particular, much of the argument hangs on what Latour calls inscriptions—tables, charts, graphs, and figures—produced by instruments. There are hard limits to how far one can interrogate a technical text. One can raise questions about certain inferences and interpretations, and one can examine the equipment and materials that produce the data and the inscriptions, at least, as long as one has an invitation to the relevant laboratory and the patience of one’s host. But past a certain point, making an effective counter-argument requires a counter-laboratory with instruments producing inscriptions that can be used in arguments. To a large extent, the technical nature of modern science is a major source of its power and effectiveness; but a cost is that we have to rely on trust to a greater extent. And conflict of interest is at least a pro tanto reason to withhold that trust, whereas trust is not at issue in philosophical arguments in the same sense.

So while it is incorrect for Jim Griffis to say that “If the ‘science is impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued’ there would be no problem with who paid for the research,” because of the technical nature of science, he is right to say that “for philosophical works, either the argument is cogent or it’s not.”

Full disclosure: I have previously applied for (but not received) Templeton funding.

9 thoughts on “Philosophy, Funding, and Conflict of Interest

  1. Pingback: More on Funding & Philosophy | Daily Nous

  2. This is an interesting point. I’ve talked about the notion of “transferability” in mathematics, as an expectation that all mathematical arguments are independent of trust on the author. (“Probabilistic Proofs and Transferability”, 2009, Philosophia Mathematica) I’ve suspected that this may be relevant in philosophy and the humanities generally. I hadn’t considered yet many explanations for why a discipline might choose to organize itself around this concept, other than a general deprecation of trust. But this seems to get at a possible explanation. Here’s the text of my paper, in case you don’t have journal access:

    • Thanks, Kenny! That’s quite interesting. I’m not sure what I’ve said really provides a full explanation, but it is true that requiring trust opens the empirical sciences up to a certain kind of vulnerability which humanities (and apparently mathematics) don’t have to worry about.

    • Thanks Dan! I take this as a friendly amendment, since I didn’t have much to say about what trust looks like. Either way we conceive trust, we need it in the empirical sciences in a way that we appear not to need it in philosophy.

  3. New reader here. Good blog, well written and good thougt.
    Sorry Matthew I think either you or I, have lost the original point of the question: the original issue wasn’t about whether we can “trust” the scientists or the philosophers about the content of their research, it was about whether we can “trust” the money-granters to grant the money to the “right” (or as you or Kitcher put it) well ordered Reaserch (a token-set of that kind-set called ‘science’). In fact, you are right, I think, until you shift the point of attention to the thickness of the content due to, inter alia, inscriptions. It seems to me the problem is that while a money-granter can grant money to a scientific research they think it goes somehow in the direction of their agenda, which is something nobody denies nor fails to appreciate, the extent to which a research CAN actually go in line with their agenda is limited by the physical world and its rules. Other scientist can and will disavow them any minute. For this, money-granters tend to 1 ) occult their activity (in various ways, we can imagine, but let’s not be unreasonably conspirativists) 2) Declare their activity as regular brand managing (nobody is surprised if Bayer doesn’t finance social theory or theoretical physics 3) go for research that is at least indirectly helping their agenda to not get cought while advancing in some degree their bigger agenda in the long run. In philosophy 1) does seem a bit laughable 2) again, which brand can gain brand-value, by funding philosophy? But 3) seems like a real possibility, and in philosophy it’s even easier to do: imagine a money-granter with an agenda, call him Alpha. Alpha can choose which philosophical research to fund between X and Y. When asked why it founded X and not Y it can ARGUE (and it doesn’t have to, nobody really demands explications to Templeton Found.) its way through, nobody will “prove” him wrong in a way epistemically so binding as to damaging Alpha as “unscientific” or “obviously biased”.
    Also, in philosophy is dangerous in another way: Alpha doesn’t have to have an agenda, it can simply be biased, philosophically and culturally: the money-granters are people, not even philosophers would be unbiased while deciding to whom give 1 million dollars: to the famous Harvard professor who does the most read and discussed philosophy of mathematics or to the South African or Spanish philosopher nobody knows but who does solid work in metaethics or political philosophy? It can choose what it reads most, or what it hears most, or what seems more plausible, more probable, more in line with the current cultural zeitgeist (academic or not), and in this latter sense it can just be wrong, which is something everyone can be, even public funded institutions, but it seems always more suspicious in a private fundation (for example).

    Very sorry for the long post.
    Have I completely misinterpreted your perspective on this?


    • Ruben,

      I am not sure I entirely understand your comments, but two thoughts:

      1. I am not sure that focusing on research agenda & well-ordered science was particularly apropos, here. The issue is the bias created by conflict of interest. So I may have thrown a red herring into the mix.

      2. In some sense, whether a philosopher is biased or not doesn’t matter. As I’ve argued, the bias will be outed much quicker in philosophy, where everything relevant to the argument is available on the surface. In science, many technical details are opaque to the reader; if bias is outed, it will be through a much more difficult, longer process. This seems to me to be the crucial difference, from the issue of funding and bias.

  4. I just realized your argument was divided in analogy/disanalogy, I did’t catch the separation. Then most of what I’ve written is superfluous. Sorry.

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