Newsweek recently ran an article arguing that wind power really costs more than people think. The story’s italicized tagline identified the author thusly: “Randy Simmons is professor of political economy at Utah State University.”
A respectable (and presumably reliable) credential. As the Daily Kos reported, however,
The Erik Wemple Blog yesterday asked Simmons whether his Newsweek blast at wind power should have contained more information about his ties to some key players in the U.S. energy sector. For instance, between 2008 and 2013, Simmons served as the Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy from 2008 to 2013, in what he terms a “fixed-term professorship.” And Simmons currently supervises a program known at Utah State University as the “Koch Scholars” program, which runs on an annual grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. It’s a “reading group” that meets on Tuesday evenings. “The Koch Foundation grant buys the books, and food and provides a scholarship for each of the 15 students chosen that semester,” writes Simmons in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog.
Surely the Koch’s major fossil fuel holdings and generous underwriting had no effect upon Simmons’ research conclusions. (If you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you.)
When special interests can “buy” (or at least influence) presumably objective research results, is it any wonder that all research is viewed with skepticism?
In an environment where everything is suspect, it becomes so easy to engage in “confirmation bias”–to believe those sources that confirm our preferred worldview, and to dismiss contrary evidence.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style, arguing that constant revelations about corrupt practices in so many major institutions of American life–not just government, but also major league sports, the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals, big business (Enron, Worldcon, et al)–had eaten away the fabric of trust needed in order for society to function. That was before the ubiquity of cell phone cameras had given us evidence of pervasive police misconduct, before stories emerged about phony FBI forensic testimony, before the “banksters” and the Great Recession they triggered…the list goes on.
Democratic governments require a robust civil society in order to function properly. Civil society requires social capital. Social capital–our connection to one another–requires trust and reciprocity.
That trust is hard to come by these days.