Author Bonnie Nardi writes A Brief Lesson in American History, or Why ‘World of Warcraft’ Matters

by University of Michigan Press on December 23, 2010

Nardi thumb [Editor’s note: U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, recently singled out the research of Bonnie Nardi, author of the new book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, in his “Wastebook 2010: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending of 2010” report. The book is based on Nardi’s research on the social culture of online gaming, as paid for by a National Science Foundation grant.

Her response follows.]

Many readers are probably too young too remember Senator William Proxmire. I am sorry to say he served in the US Senate from 1957 to 1989. Despite some good works, Senator Proxmire’s lasting legacy has been as an enemy of science.

In 1975 he established the Golden Fleece Award for government projects he deemed wasteful. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Park Service, and other agencies received these awards. One of my professors, an anthropologist, was nominated for one, for a study of the Ghanaian economy. She is now an eminent anthropologist who has made significant contributions throughout her career.

Proxmire’s attack on science created a dangerous precedent and normalized the idea that people who don’t know beans about science can, by reading the title of a grant application, criticize specific scientists.

Recently my own work came under the modern version of Proxmire’s “awards,” in the form of scrutiny for funding I received from the National Science Foundation. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) judged my research on World of Warcraft wasteful. The work concerned WoW play in North America and China.

In a nice bit of irony, when I went to China to study video gaming, I was appalled to learn that Chinese scientists cannot start academic journals without the permission of the central government. I have been in a huff about this abuse of freedom of speech and thought ever since I was in China in 2007, considering it a huge waste of the many fine scientific minds that must exist in China.

But as I have personally experienced, we have our own variations on the same theme. If Senators—agents of our central government—who know nothing of social science, or any of the other sciences over which they sit in judgment, disparage scientific work on the basis of personal political agendas, that constitutes an abuse of freedom and a denigration of the scientific enterprise.

Science has been a jewel of Western civilization since the Enlightenment, and it is grievously stupid for ignorant government officials to meddle in it. In China it is so difficult to obtain government permission to start a journal that most scientists simply do not try. I am proud that in America any of us could start a scientific journal in the next five minutes if we wanted to!

You cannot create or sustain a thriving scientific establishment if scientists cannot freely organize themselves to share information.  No one should interfere with any aspect of this process of information sharing. They especially should not interfere through uninformed commentary and cheap media grandstanding, and through the control of a central government that does not know what it is talking about.

So okay, Coburn is a long way from stifling all forms of scientific expression. But if he were, as he should be, a conscientious Senator who cared about this country, he would be finding ways to support science, not casting aspersions on things he does not understand.

Science is the lifeblood of America’s cultural and economic life. It is what we are good at. We are good at it because we don’t try to tell scientists what to do (like they do in China where they have a weak scientific establishment). We let our scientists figure things out for themselves, and that yields results.

I am very much in favor of keeping it this way. As I discuss in my book My Life as a Night Elf Priest, popular culture (rock music and video games in particular) periodically come under assault from the right wing.

These little spasms are annoying, but are not, in my opinion, as dangerous as pointed attacks on specific pieces of scientific research.  Those attacks reek of witchhunting. They presume that it is the government’s job to oversee science by trolling through the names of government grants and picking those with media punch to skewer.

Luckily my research is significantly lower on the media punch scale than the grant given to UC Santa Cruz for their Grateful Dead archive, and they took the hit, or at least most of it, for the rest of us, providing the fodder for the big media stories. (Although, wait a moment, do I detect a pattern here—rock music and video games? )

Scientists have created a careful process of broad-based peer review to assess how tax monies are spent. If you have ever served on a National Science Foundation review panel you know how much thought, preparation, and consideration go into evaluating where government money should be spent. There is a finely tuned process of oversight in place, designed and staffed by scientists who understand research and the meaning of science. Quite frankly, Senator Coburn’s little sideshow is the waste of government money. By paying his Senate salary, we taxpayers are footing the bill for a bunch of egregious nonsense.

How come I never see these fear mongers who rant about video games or the Grateful Dead complain about the insane amount of government funds expended bailing out companies whose poor management practices cost workers their livelihoods, or the millions needed to prosecute people like Bernie Ebbers and his despicable crew at Enron, or the fantastically expensive environmental clean ups necessary because American corporations dumped poisons into our soil and water? Now we are talking real money, not a paltry half a mil for a musical archive here and there.

Why don’t people who worry about government waste worry when huge sums of tax payer dollars are drained through avoidable actions on the part of large corporations? Coburn does not care a fig about waste; he is staging the same sorry stunt Proxmire did—a bit of bargain basement demagoguery. At least Proxmire thought of it first. Coburn is just a cheesy clone.

In another bit of irony, a paper based on the very World of Warcraft research funded by the National Science Foundation was nominated for a Best Paper Award at the Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work which will take place in March 2011. A group of scientists evaluated the work. Having actually read it, they thought it was pretty good!

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