Scientists as advocates … and humility around value judgments

I keep seeing tweets like this – like multiple times a day for several weeks now:

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:

  1. Are transparent about the ethical assumptions embodied in what they are saying
  2. Accept that others can have different ethical assumptions – and they can’t trump with authority in this dimension.
  3. 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!

5 replies
  1. VMC
    VMC says:

    Hard to argue that anyone should be prevented from advocating from policies they believe in. And I am not sure why scientists or economists would have to be anymore transparent than anyone else?

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      Indeed everyone should try to be transparent. However, both scientists and economists can (and do) call on authority to argue for their conclusions. While there is nothing inherently wrong with such persuasion when it is credible – but I think it implies that both disciplines have a responsibility to make their arguments transparent, to avoid us hiding our value judgments behind our authority.

      • VMC
        VMC says:

        I tend to distinguish two types of expert comment – those where the expert is speaking within their realm of expertise, and then when they talk on other stuff. I suppose a famous example of the second was Linus Pauling – amn who won a Nobel prize for his work on chemical bonds. But he was probably much more famous for advocating mega-doses of vitamin C, an area well outside his expertise. And people who became his followers were fond of saying ‘well, if a nobel prize winner thinks this… then it must be right’. But if an expert talks about something in their field, then maybe we should listen. Your tweet example – it was not clear really what Nicola wanted the scientists she was badgering to say – i suspect she wanted them to agree with her!

        • Matt Nolan
          Matt Nolan says:

          She was quoting from a post of someone else, which was pointing out that scientists shouldn’t have to feel that they need to “shut up” due to their position – which is fair enough. I was just adding the flip side where disciplines that have authority in the public eye do need to be careful regarding construction arguments/models of communication.

          It is fascinating stuff, I really should have finished off my English degree and then I might know what I’m talking about 😉

          • Luc Hansen
            Luc Hansen says:

            “…I really should have finished off my English degree and then I might know what I’m talking about”

            Dunno about that. After three years of at least two economics papers every year I still don’t know what I’m talking about, at least according to the people who disagree with me 🙂

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