Archive for February 9th, 2010


Conflicts of Interest

February 9, 2010

Rajendra Pachauri has been getting a fair bit of heat recently for alleged conflicts of interest. He has coyly denied any such allegation. There are many strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest, of course, and those are specified by the NAS rules that Roger cites over at his blog. Among them, the rules are in place to protect a person from giving the impression that his/her objectivity has been compromised.

There is, in principle, nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest. We’re not determined by our circumstances, after all. It’s entirely possible to conduct research, or to argue on behalf of a position, while contemporaneously being employed by, or funded by, some entity that shares your interests. In fact, it would be near impossible not to do so. We all ride on waves of normativity (whatever the hell that means).

What strikes me as interesting about reactions to the recent COI flap are the kinds of arguments that support it.

For one, someone might say that we have strong political reasons to avoid conflicts of interest. The lumpen masses might well misunderstand our conclusions, or falsely challenge our claims, if we are conflicted. That political line of reasoning is different than the claim that most existing institutions have COI rules, so therefore the IPCC ought to have binding COI rules. That is also a different line of reasoning than the line that suggests, as the NAS COI rules suggest, that one ought not to have conflicts of interest to “protect oneself” from defamation.

So there you have at least three lines of argument: the political, the conventional, and the prudential. But there are more.

The NAS also offers the justification that COI rules are objective (meaning procedurally impartial, I’d guess) and that they are prophylactic. They are in place, it appears, to steer a practitioner (any practitioner) away from temptation. That’s yet a fourth line of argument.

Seems to me that there are other important lines of argument too, and maybe these need quite a bit more attention.

One reason to have COI rules is to ensure that the procedure by which information is introduced and validated is immune from scrutiny, independently of whether the fickle individuals, or the fickle facts, caught up in that procedure are. It’s not that procedures themselves necessarily need to be cleansed of all normative pollutants, but rather that that’s what would make a conclusion (arrived at through such a procedure) valid. The validity doesn’t hang on the conclusion’s correspondence with the world, but rather on the extent to which the means of arriving at the conclusion are subject to an appropriately wide scrutiny.

And that’s where it gets damned tricky.

An “appropriately wide scrutiny” is a sufficiently vague notion. Calls to make the scrutiny wider than is appropriate, as some are charging, may equally undermine the authority of the critics. More on this in a bit. Right now? I’m off to class.


More Fodder

February 9, 2010

People seem to love tales of philosophers who make laughing-stocks of themselves, so here’s a brand new one. Looks like Barnard-Herni Lévy has really stepped in it this time.

When France’s most dashing philosopher took aim at Immanuel Kant in his latest book, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”, his observations were greeted with the usual adulation. To support his attack, Bernard-Henri Lévy — a showman-penseur known simply by his initials, BHL — cited the little-known 20th-century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul.

There was one problem: Botul was invented by a journalist in 1999 as an elaborate joke, and BHL has become the laughing stock of the Left Bank.

There were clues. One supposed work by Botul — from which BHL quoted — was entitled The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. The philosopher’s school is known as Botulism and subscribes to his theory of “La Metaphysique du Mou” — the Metaphysics of the Flabby. Botul even has a Wikipedia entry that explains that he is a “fictional French philosopher”.

But Mr Lévy, a leader among the nouveaux philosophes school of the 1970s, was unaware. In On War in Philosophy, he writes that Botul had proved once and for all “just after the Second World War, in his series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”.

I’m not about to defend Lévy, as I haven’t seen the text in question and it does sound fantastically ridiculous, but there is something to be said about the method of citation in philosophy. Generally speaking, we cite not because we want to conjure the great wisdom of a given hot-shot philosopher, but rather because we want to refer our readers to a given line of argument.

Again, Lévy’s position strikes me as manifestly stupid — I’ve got a strain of Kant running through me, fwiw — but I think there’s a general difference in approach. Citations should be understood more like hot-links to interesting side-notes than as page references to the book of knowledge.

At any rate, harde-har-har. Philosophers are idiots.