died in office, 1989. Rest in piss, asshole.

I made a snarky comment referencing him over at Protein Wisdom, and commenter “mcgruder”, who declares himself a member of the Press, asked

Proxmire was most famous for the Golden Fleece awards highliting absurd government spending. It was shocking because of the useless crap our morons in Congress allocated and because he was a Democrat.
Did he do something stoogelike elsewhere, or were the Golden Fleece’s nonsense?[1]

Proxmire was an ass who did stoogelike things everywhere he went, much like J. Hairplugs the VP, but yes, most of the Golden Fleece awards were nonsense, especially coming from somebody who spilled more on bars than the poor schlubs who got the awards were “wasting”. Just about everybody in R&D, military, civilian, or academic, had a side-project going to develop a way to assassinate the grandstanding dickweed without jeapordizing their lives or their main work, because he specialized in ridiculing researchers whose work hadn’t panned out.

The nasty thing about real science, rather than the sort of thing that plays well on teevee, is that most research doesn’t pan out. There is more genuine heartbreak and pathos in the CONCLUSIONS section of most scientific papers than in the first chapters of any ten romance novels put together, if you know the code, and Proxmire’s schtick was making it worse. The one I remember best was Frisbees™.

Practically everybody who’s ever played with a Frisbee™ has wondered if it could be used for something else, and some guys got a DARPA grant to see if that was the case. They spent a year trying things out, working at it fairly exhaustively, and reported a totally negative result, with experiments and equations and data and graphs: No, you can’t use Frisbees™ to deliver the mail, or for flare carriers, or as an adjunct to parachutists, or as extra-maneuverable drone aircraft, or… it’s a toy, with no profitable or military use whatever. They did a lot of good work, and the fact that they had fun, too, shouldn’t count against them. Note, too, that this isn’t a case of research “not panning out”. They were tasked with finding the answer to a question, and they asked it, and got a solid, dependable “No!” with clear evidence to back it up. (IIRC — I’ve long since lost my copy of the paper — they did note that it made a field-expedient dish for watering the dog after a long session of chase-the-disk.) Proxmire gave them a Golden Fleece award accompanied by a nicely snarky speech, and the Press ate it up.

Now, the thing is — negative results are just as valuable as positive ones, sometimes more so; if you can establish, certainly, once and for all, that something isn’t possible and/or worthwhile, nobody after that has to waste time or resources on it. That result probably saves the Government, especially DOD and NASA, a couple grand a year. That doesn’t seem like much, but it means that since the Seventies it’s paid for itself long since, just by enabling suggestion screeners to dismiss some of the cleverer and more plausible cranks (of which there are a LOT, in case you didn’t know). But it made a great headline for Proxmire to preen on.

That, along with a number of similar incidents, is one of the bases of the present-day relationship between scientists and the Press, which is piss-poor. Media guys loved him and printed all his bullshit, because he put on a great show; scientists learned, by observation (a scientific procedure), that Teh Press were too ignorant to pound sand and were happy to make fun of people who were trying to figure it out, and that they could be conned into going along with any sufficiently gaudy and noisy medicine-wagon. Therefore we have scientists who hate to make their work public, to the detriment of any real science, and won’t come forward when they should, and showboat scams like “Global Warming”. The pennies Proxmire may have saved — I’m not sure he actually saved a cent, but allow for lightning to strike — have cost a lot in the long run.

And writing that up reminded me of something from long ago: I was listening to a bar-based bull session one night, the basic subject of which was untraceable ways to off Proxmire. Somebody suggested that they ought to go after the reporters, too, but one guy rejected the notion. “Look, I’d shoot Fidel without a second thought,” he said[2], “but I wouldn’t shoot his dog.” [cue 30 sec. of “maniacal laugh” track]


[1] (sic) Give the guy a break. He’s used to having a copy editor.
[2] Well, I said it was a long time ago. It was in the South to boot.

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