The Drunk Lesbian Couples Study, The Golden Fleece, And Fiscal Responsibility

golden-fleece

Old Dominion University has recieved a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on the pressing issue of whether lesbian couples drink too much due to stress.   The grant states that

“Sexual minority women (i.e., women who self-identify as lesbian and bisexual) report more heavy drinking, more alcohol-related problems, and higher rates of alcohol use disorders as compared to heterosexual women. Despite this awareness, no studies have examined how relationship factors and partners’ alcohol use contribute to hazardous drinking among female sexual minority couples.”

Professor Jonathan Turley, who flagged this story, adds, “There may be a good reason for that.”

I almost made this an Ethics Quiz, asking if funding such research with taxpayer funds was responsible. I don’t present ethics quiz question when I am certain of the answer, though, and the more I thought about this, the more I began thinking of the late Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards.

In 1975, Proxmire launched the award with a press release announcing that the National Science Foundation had “won”after spending $84,000 to fund a study on the origins of love. For more than a decade, the Democrat from Wisconsin used his awards, which were chosen by Proxmire’s hand-picked panel of budget hawks, scientists and others, to focus attention on frivolous spending by dozens of government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, and NASA, on trivial issues and mysteries. He also got a lot of publicity for the stunt, and sometimes even managed to kill the Golden Fleece-winning projects with the public outrage they generated.

Naturally, scientists hated this, and had contempt for Proxmire, whom they called “anti-science.” One scientist he mocked even sued Proxmire for defamation, in a case that reached the Supreme Court. In another example of alcohol-related research being called into question, Proxmire gave the award to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1975 for funding research into alcohol and aggression in fish and rats, stating that ” the most effective way to understand human conditions and problems is to observe human behavior.” University of California psychobiologist Harman Peeke, whose project was halted midstream by the fleece, bitterly responded,  “I would really enjoy having Proxmire make a proposal to give people alcohol and ask them to fight. That’s simply unethical and immoral.”

There were and are five core objections to Proxmire’s awards, which shadow government research projects to this day:

1. It was just an anti-intellectual  political stunt.

2. It led the public to be suspicious of scientific research and hostile to government funding

3. The research involved in the projects was just “a drop in the bucket”

4. Research that uncovers new truths is always valuable, and

5. Seemingly minor studies sometimes lead to important discoveries.

In 2012, item 5 led a coalition of various scientific and academic organizations create an anti-Pr0xmire award called the “Golden Goose Award,” which was designed to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure at the time but turned out to have a positive impact on society.  One of the first recipients of the Golden Goose Award was the late Wallace Coulter, who discovered a better  way to count blood cells while using funding from the Office of Naval Research “improve the paint used on Navy ships.”

Applying the five objections to Proxmire’s opposition to narrow government-funded research to the drunk lesbian study, however, we see them as driven by faulty logic and rationalizations:

  • Sure, The Golden Fleece Awards were a stunt, but it was a valuable stunt, educating citizens about the degree of waste and profligate spending in the federal government.
  • #2 is a valid objection, as  there was often more to the research Proxmire mocked than his sound-bite descriptions revealed, but taxpayers should be concerned when their money seems to be spent on wishes, ponies and rainbows. Science with underlying political and ideological agendas have also been used to distort public policy. Perhaps not suspicion, but certainly clear-eyed skepticism of scientific research is justified and healthy.
  • #3 is just infuriating. It is an iteration of Rationalization #22, the worst of them all, arguing that since the government wastes billions on a regular basis, wasting a million dollars doesn’t count. If you want a good start to explaining how the national debt under Obama has more than doubled, standing in January of 2016 at more than $13.6 trillion, an increase of 116 percent since he first took office, look no further than this pervasive attitude, which is the definition of “irresponsible.”  As  the great Senator Everett Dirkson famously said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

The quote would have been equally true using “million” in place of “billion,” just not as funny.

  • The assertion that research is always valuable when we learn something postulates a ridiculous absolute: research is more valuable than anything else. The question isn’t whether in an imaginary world requiring no priorities it would be nice to know why lesbians get soused, but whether a million dollars could be better spent on something else.

Of course it could.

  • “Seemingly minor studies sometimes lead to important discoveries” is nothing but consequentialism of a particularly silly stripe, when used to justify throwing a million dollars against the wall to see what sticks to it. One can literally justify anything this way, via chaos theory’s “butterfly effect.” After all, if a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can lead to a thunderstorm in Indianapolis months later, studying what makes lesbians drink might cure cancer. Ya never know!

Fine. But Proxmire was trying to make a serious point—he was a serious legislator–that appears to have been all but forgotten. When the government accepts the responsibility of taking the money of others and spending it on their behalf, it accepts the ethical obligation of responsible stewardship, just like a charity does.  When you are spending other people’s hard-earned money, you have a duty to be careful, frugal, rational and fair. I’m pretty sure of what happened with  the lesbian study: it’s a political sop to a Democratic voting bloc. If you asked the public as a whole whether they would rather see a million bucks used to reduce heart attacks—to take one of a million other options—or study the stress levels of drunk lesbians, what do you think the vote would be? I’d guess about 99%, including some tipsy lesbians, would vote for the heart research. Let this study wait until some drunk, rich lesbian couple wants to fund it privately. This isn’t a “we desperately need to know this, in the interests of public health!” study. This is a “oh hell, we’ve got some budgeted research funds we haven’t spent yet, let’s spend it on this” study.

How dare the  government spend my/your/our money like that?

One reason is that its leaders spend our money like that.

If I were President, I would never take a vacation to anywhere that required a plane trip. Never. The costs of my entourage and the Secret Service detail are always in the millions for such a trip, and expending it is an extravagance. It can’t be justified. This is just one example of how a message is sent out from the top to everyone below regarding the respect that should be accorded to the public’s money. There is no respect. If there was any respect, spending taxpayer money on the drunk lesbian study would set off ethics alarms the second it was proposed.

Another reason is citizens—I assume they are progressive Democrats, but they might just be imbeciles, who reason like one of Professor Turley’s commenters, who wrote,

“Why are you worried about the federal debt? Federal debt is not like household or business debt. There is no timetable by which federal debt has to be repaid – ever. We still have debt from WWII that has not been repaid. So your great grandchildren will not be burdened with paying it back. Or their great grandchildren, either. And “printing money” does not necessarily cause inflation – despite increases in the debt, inflation is very very small.
I repeat – federal debt is not like household or business debt.”

Maybe the comment was written by a drunk lesbian.

________________________

Pointer: Jonathan Turley

Sources: Washington Weekly, The Scientist

 

11 Comments

Filed under Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Government & Politics, History, Leadership, Research and Scholarship

11 responses to “The Drunk Lesbian Couples Study, The Golden Fleece, And Fiscal Responsibility

  1. Rick M

    Your first point sums up the entire debate in my eyes. Anything that brings attention to government waste and Corruption is important. Apparently this latest one is a typical example of what the award was designed to bring a spotlight on

  2. “This is a “oh hell, we’ve got some budgeted research funds we haven’t spent yet, let’s spend it on this” study.”

    Not to mention the thousands of “studies” graduates who are only fit to be hired by universities who:
    1. need to justify their expensive “education,”
    2. have no discernible skills with which to function in real life
    3. would love to further their “studies” agenda with some gently manipulated “data.”

    • Chase Davidson

      I personally feel like they should take those spare funds and find some way to solve the replication crisis. The government could do some real good scientifically if they incentivized replication studies.

  3. I have someone in my family who’s entire business is funded by government and private grants to conduct very specific actual scientific research projects. We’ve talked about this very subject and he refuses to submit any government grant proposals that have any “reasonable” possibility of being presented to the public as being frivolous. He’s done research on some pretty cool government & military real science things and those things that “seemed” to lean a bit more towards what some might consider “frivolous” he would raise money in a different way; he’s even used kickstarter for a couple of research projects.

    My point:
    There are some really worthy government real science research projects out there run by very ethical researchers being a frugal as physically possible, many of them, and we should take care to not condemn the whole because of the utterly ridiculous few.

    That said; I think effective oversight of the government grants is WAY too thin and needs to be addressed to eliminate things like this drunk lesbian research, and other frivolous research, before it ever gets past the first level of grant scrutiny. But let me tell you this; there has been a growing “industry” promising to write government grants to get your research project paid for, yes, there are actually professional government grant writers out there that make damn good money writing grants that will attempt to fleece the government of your tax dollars and these people will push back to keep the oversight very low.

  4. Going to go a little sideways here…

    It’s interesting to me not necessarily that this would receive funding, nothing surprises me when it comes to funding. (I’ll always go back to the example of $400,000 going towards the study of the anatomy of duck penises during the sequester.) But what surprises me here is that there’s a will to study this.

    I hate the alphabet soup acronym (LGBTTQIIAP&f!M5….) Very few of those clumped identities actually share many characteristics or struggles. Lesbians and Gays united over marriage and adoption rights, but none of them ever had issues figuring out which bathroom to pee in or had to gather tens of thousands of dollars for surgery. AIDS is an almost uniquely Gay problem, and they don’t call it “Lesbian Bed Death” because it affects The QIIAP& people. Whoever the hell they are.

    Alcoholism, along with domestic abuse rates are the Lesbian’s version of AIDS, not entirely their, but boy do they punch above their weight class. Horrible pun intended. But for the longest time we haven’t been able to talk about these issues. Why? Politics. There are women involved, not only as victims, but as aggressors. These are problems experienced by women that they won’t easily be able to tie to men.

    Although, I’m sure they’ll try. Who wants to bet the words “Toxic Masculinity” gets mentioned in these discussions about lesbian alcohol abuse?

    • pennagain

      Agree with HT on this specifically – according to studies (self-funded by pscyh grad students) in the 70s and 80s, alcoholism was a major problem in the lesbian community, as it was among gay men, and remains so to a certain extent — because of the obvious: socializing was done almost entirely in bars, for singles or pairs. At the same time, binge drinking has become a growing problem in ALL women in this century proving, if nothing else, that gender equality has some very poor consequences. Since there has been a similar rise in smoking in women, particularly in the young (15-25) group which has long since overtaken young men, perhaps it’s time a legitimate study should be made of Feminism’s Fatal Flaws.

      And just to make it clear where the paramount damage is, let’s go back to referring to “girls,” at least through those of college years, and examine with that reference in mind why the causes of rape may not be due to an increase in or modern revelation of “male privilege.” Or at least consider that parity between ‘young women’ and adults is not a given. Separate dormitories and curfews? No, there’s no going back; teenage (girls and boys) may still vote the pop ticket.

      However — and I have said this before — from childhood on up the main thrust of upbringing should be toward responsibility, not rights. Rights are predicated on being able to maintain fundamental responsibilities … like health maintenance (based on self-knowledge including your body and its sexuality), self-control, self-discipline, respect for yourself and others and, oh, ethical behavior should cover the rest of it. Then you have the right to grow into womanhood with your own self-created safe-space and not worry about false equalities with men, or GLBTQs, POCs or WASPs.

      • “remains so to a certain extent”?

        Do you have any information that shows that this problem is on the decrease? I can’t seem to find any solid, recent resources on this, but it seems to me that these problems are actually on the rise.

        Regardless… To your last paragraph… The idea of rights and responsibilities is an interesting one. Women tend to get rights without the responsibilities that normally come with those rights… And perhaps they don’t appreciate those rights because of that.

        You look at the right to vote… Let’s be honest, in 2016, everyone pretty much takes the right to vote for granted, but “It’s only been X years since women got the right to vote” is toted out constantly. What’s never said is that it’s only X+Y years since men had universal suffrage.

        By 1856, men (at least the white ones) had received universal suffrage in America. It was earlier in some states than others, but it was there. This was a HUGE change from 1820, where the general election was decided by 108,000 votes, representing about 1% of the national population. What men had to pay for their vote was selective service. They had to sign up for the draft. And this wasn’t in 2016, this was back when people actually got drafted. They realised that the right to vote was the right to self determination, and the right to self determination was worth dying for.

        Fast forward 60 years. 1920 is the year women’s suffrage succeeded. The suffragists who had success getting men the vote were agitating for women to get the vote, this time joined by the suffragettes (Who it could be argued might actually have slowed the process down). They struggled, not just against men trying to keep their power base… I doubt they even thought about it in those terms, but also against women. Women’s suffrage was not a majority opinion even among women prior to 1918. You want to know why? I’d say World War I. If you look at what people wrote back then, it was generally accepted that women were terrified that their receipt of the right to vote might mean that they too would be required to sign up for selective service, and as a whole they didn’t think their votes more important as their lives. What changed? WWI ended, they didn’t see another war on the horizon, and suffrage was negotiated to a point where it was obvious selective service wasn’t on the table anymore.

        Women got for free what men literally died for, and they’re still bitching about getting after men 100 years later, regardless of the fact that one of the largest reasons that woman’s suffrage didn’t happen earlier was because they didn’t want it. Men still have to sign up for selective service, even if they’ll never actually be called to it.

        • pennagain

          Do you have any information that shows that this problem is on the decrease? I can’t seem to find any solid, recent resources on this, but it seems to me that these problems are actually on the rise.

          Not sure what you mean by “this” problem: that gay male alcoholism is decreasing? Yes. Not that I am going to go do the research for you – you can google for yourself but if you have a substantial gay population where you are, do a count. One-third to one-half the gay bars there used to be thru the early 90s have closed, albeit with tears of nostalgia — and that’s with a steady increase in gay population where I am and the same reported by friends in New York, Denver, Austin, Houston and LA., and Liverpool (UK) (Exception: Istanbul; trying to get an old friend and his Turkish bf to leave before the shit comes down heavier). Part of the reason is that there is wider geographic distribution and activity, and a certain amount, still tentative on both sides, of gay/straight “integration,” especially with married couples. The other part is not so happy but not my subject at this time: a preference for substances other than alcohol (again google-able – or check out your local GL bookstore non-fiction section, prof or sociologist). The women have a particular problem, starting in early teen girlhood — they drink (and smoke and fuck) different kinds of alcohol — wine is preferred, in fact, — for different reasons than the boys & men do, and their bodies don’t deal with the outcomes as well — the stats, reasons and sad stories are there online if not within the scope of your vision and social life, as I said. The struggle for that elusive “equality” has a fatal boomerang effect, not least that it tends to erode common sense and self-preservation.

          Nothing to say to the rest of your post, sorry, and I’ve gone far enough off-subject as it is.

  5. I’ll go at this a different way. I didn’t like research when I was doing my graduate work and for my thesis. However, even if people thought researching Lesbian drinking habits and comparing it to heterosexual women would prove noteworthy, right there lies a big problem. The comp numbers wouldn’t be the same since one has to figure out what percentage of lesbians are alcoholics, compared to non-alcoholic lesbians. Then you take that number and you compare it with heterosexual women. Any minority tends to drink more, especially gay men, who in my day led a double life….thus the more drinking.
    I don’t think whatever the result would be in this research would help improve anything. Many people, gay/straight, are closet drinkers.
    Conclusion: A stupid waste of time and money.

  6. Chase Davidson

    On the subject of irresponsible government research grants, I think there is another factor you should have mentioned, which is that the government has a responsibility to ensure that what they fund at least has some chance of producing something useful. Much like how the patent office will grant patents for things that are, if you’ll pardon a pun, patently ridiculous, the government has been known, on many occasions, to dump large amounts of money into studies that would be deemed pointless and silly by most scientists – like ‘alternative’ medicine (the NIH is very bad about this), ESP, et cetera.

    • pennagain

      studies that would be deemed pointless and silly by most scientists – like ‘alternative’ medicine (the NIH is very bad about this)

      Really? Most people who use what you call “alternative” (complementing or integrative) medicines use them along with conventional treatments. The NIH is currently studying non-mainstream approaches to pain management therapies and medication for military personnel and veterans, and also relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors. Who do you think is going to do this? Or do you seriously believe that the pharmaceutical corporations competing for a share in consumer profits would be looking at other medicines, therapies or ways of coping?

      Are you aware that if the NIH had not done their “alternative” studies, we would still have people overdosing on vitamins A and D? That overdoses of iron can be fatal? That Dr. Spock’s mega-dose vitamin C was bogus; as a placebo it could be outranked as a huge waste of money? Did you know your one-a-day “complex,” mandatory even for children in most U.S. households, could be completely unnecessary … barring what is specifically deemed helpful by a medically diagnosed problem? Most vitamins and minerals are best absorbed by a normal balanced diet. (all the “D” needs is a bit of sunshine!).

      Did you know 75-84% (comparative studies) show that Americans use at least one form of complementing herb or body-tweaking or stress reduction technique? The NIH studies both their effectiveness AND their safety. And we’d better hope they go on doing so.

      Meanwhile, think thrice about buying that professionally produced and marketed supplement, sleep-aid, tooth-whitener, laxative, antacid or anything else OTC (over the counter). In fact, start questioning whether you need to keep on taking whatever is in your medicine cabinet used, f or instance, to treat the common cold (rest and clear liquids not enough?), or any other ailments you self-prescribe for. See how the label “pointless and silly” fits those.

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