al gore invents something and all republicans want to do is tear it down

I looked through the Coburn report (hipsters pronounce it co-BURN re-PURN)  that recommends eliminating the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences directorate of NSF. The report contains a section that gives examples of smart funding by NSF. First on the list: the Internet. Second: cloud computing (i.e., the Internet). The latter half of it are studies that Coburn uses to illustrate what sorts of things taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for. And what does it focus on? The Internet–studies of its use and social impact. I was too lazy to keep precise count, but social implications of the Internet seemed like over a third of the projects listed, on these topics:

  • Does playing FarmVille on Facebook help people to make friends and keep them?
  • Do online music videos such as “Money 4 Drugz,” increase our understanding of scientific concepts?
  • Are people who post pictures on the Internet from the same place at the same time often socially connected?
  • Do twitter users “tweet” in regional slang?
  • What are the group dynamics like in the online video game EverQuest 2?
  • Can twitter predict the stock market?
  • What is the relationship between online virtual world users and their avatar?
  • Can Members of Congress improve their approval ratings through internet town halls?
  • Where is the line between work and play in online virtual worlds?
  • How often do people lie in text messages and online messaging?
  • How do people interact in digital worlds?
  • How do political candidates use the World Wide Web?
  • What was the impact of on the 2008 elections?
  • Can avatars in online virtual worlds become more social engaging?

What’s up?  Presuming the folks working for Coburn know what they are doing public-relations-wise, what makes the technical aspects of the Internet the area that is easily championed and the social implications of the Internet the area that is easily derided?

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

9 thoughts on “al gore invents something and all republicans want to do is tear it down”

  1. I’m thinking it’s simply that social implications of the internet sounds like people screwing around with frivolous nonsense. This is just a special case of public understanding of science emphasizing the substantive issue rather than the theoretical issue. You can also see this in critiques of life science that don’t understand why they are interested in model organisms. This is the kind of thing that even “practicing physicians” can fail to appreciate, which is one reason why us research scientists aren’t necessarily impressed by the research produced by practicing physicians (ie, the kind of people who don’t know Bayes theorem and if JAMA is any indication are incapable of reading quadratics).

    In contrast the technical aspects of the internet are seem more scientific and hard and therefore less likely to provoke “my grandmother could have told you that.” The most obvious place you see this is with the “brain scans indicate” effect where banal findings on the order of “partisans get angry when they see pictures of opposition leaders” become newsworthy if they involve a ginormous electro-magnet and color-coded pictures of your noodle.

    BTW, did you see the adorable picture of a shrimp running a treadmill? La cherise sur le gateau is that the aforementioned staffers somehow typed “dick shrimp” instead of “sick shrimp,” though perhaps they were still thinking about the various porn stories they uncovered.


  2. Agreed. Although I thought it was interesting that the genetics-of-politics research was also singled out in the Coburn Report, even though that’s elsewhere often talked about in the same wiz-bang breath as neuroscience stuff.


  3. Can twitter predict the stock market?

    Although I’m skeptical of the prospect, it goes without saying that if it turned out the answer to this was a strong “Yes” then I think we could safely move it out of the “Waste of Taxpayers’ Money” column.


    1. Yeah, although you might also think if the answer was a strong “Yes”, it would turn into “Not anymore” a day or two after the study was published.


      1. this is a good illustration of my point (not that either of you were disagreeing). us trained social scientists hear “can twitter predict the stock market” and immediately recognize that this is (a) an exercise in computer science issues relating to large-scale data mining and (b) an exercise in economics about the efficient markets hypothesis. a congressman hears it and just thinks its a couple of guys getting grant money to retweet stock tips.

        this is something that’s pretty close to home for me as i self-consciously study somewhat frivolous substantive phenomena but am very interested in extracting theoretical lessons from them.


  4. Was Coburn a co-author on the report that identified Ostrom’s NSF grant as a waste of taxpayer money about 20 seconds before she won the economics Nobel? I get all these anti-social science reports confused.

    The third item from the bottom on your bullet list is the key. All the rest are just red herrings.


  5. Coburn is this generation’s dumber-but-more-credentialed version of William Proxmire. (Fortunately, I hope, this is a reference only olderwoman will get. But the rest of you can Google him and “Golden Fleece -Jason.”)


    1. I don’t know the whole story, but in the lore of Madison Sociology is a story of a faculty member who was very detrimentally affected by being the target of one of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards.


      1. Yes indeedee. The first recipient of a Golden Fleece was a very productive psychologist who had grants on interpersonal relations and studied sexual attraction and how people fall in love. Prox thought that was frivolous, although why I don’t know, since we base our entire family system on people getting attracted to each other and falling in love. She happened to have an appointment in sociology because she’d married a sociologist and they wanted to be in the same place — I think that’s the story, it is before my time. I only overlapped with her by a year. She was working under her married name at the time of the GF. Shortly after receiving the GF she divorced her husband and reverted to her pre-marriage name. A few years later, she took another job in a warmer climate (she always hated the cold) and is still quite productive. I just checked and her c.v. has 125 lines on it. So it did not destroy her career, although she was pretty unhappy about it, and I’m sure it didn’t help. Her c.v. hides any clues about this experience, so I don’t think I’ll out her here, although it is certainly possible to do the research to figure it out.


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