I keep seeing tweets like this – like multiple times a day for several weeks now:
— Nicola Gaston (@nicgaston) September 29, 2014
So I thought I should provide my thoughts.
I agree. Scientists are people and should be able to say what they believe in … as long as they:
- Are transparent about the ethical assumptions embodied in what they are saying
- Accept that others can have different ethical assumptions – and they can’t trump with authority in this dimension.
- Accept that there may be accepted assumptions within their analytical framework which seem appropriate for investigation, but are fundamentally inappropriate when it comes to policy questions.
Science gives us some knowledge about “what is”. Scientists can speak with authority here, and appeals to authority should be persuasive (hopefully) given their credibility. However, policy conclusions require ethical choices – questions of “what ought to be” – which are not so easily answered (contrary to all types of common sense arguments that are whipped out). Furthermore, there are some “what is” statements that are in fact unknowable/unmeasurable – and that we in turn have to make assumptions about which may seem appropriate in our “group” but may seem inappropriate outside the discipline. Ought and debatable is statements need to be transparent.
This is precisely the same standard I hold economists to, where they create knowledge about trade-offs.
The issue that crops up is that scientists and economists, through their focus on problem solving, can have an inflated belief about the importance – and “truth” – of their own value judgments. Such a tyranny of technocrats is not a good thing.
As a result, although I agree completely that scientists (and economists) should be able to push for policies they believe in – I ask for them to do it transparently, and to recognise that they aren’t doing it with the same “authority” they have when discussing well defined “what is” questions. My experience with economists and scientists is that, when it comes to discussing policy, these important points get downplayed.
I am sorry if you find that offensive, as it certainly isn’t meant to be given how wicked cool I think scientists and the knowledge they provide are! Instead think of making your assumptions clear and your arguments able to be criticised by as wide an audience as possible as part of what being a good scientist/economist is. Communication and accepting that even a well communicated policy argument can be disagreed with when values differ is key if you truly want to do what is “right”.
Leaning into a fantasy world where we know what is “objectively right” in terms of value judgments is frankly absurd, whether from an economist, scientist, or lay person. We can’t let the habits we use (appropriately) when applying analytical methods filter into our views of what is right or wrong for others to do – this is part of the reason economics is designed how it is. We can’t let the language of economists and scientists, which is used to describe precise and measurable things, turn into a rhetoric that obfuscates and hides value judgments.
Scientists, and economists, are better than that. And as people we should respect our fellow citizens enough to accept that our democratic rights involve having a voice – not using that voice to silence others. Inappropriate use of appeal to authority without transparency on ethical assumptions does just that!