Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Science vs. politics

Ever since Paul Romer went on the attack against what he sees as the politicization of growth theory, there has been a lively Twitter discussion about whether and how politics and science should be combined. Should we try to keep politics out of science? And what does that even mean? Sociology grad student Dan Hirschman challenged me to lay out my thoughts in a blog post, so here it is.

One thing I absolutely don't mean by "separate politics and science" is that scientists should refrain from political activism. I think scientists should definitely be free to engage in any political activism they like. I just think that they should try their best to avoid incorporating their activism into their science. To make an analogy, I think particle physicists should refrain from having sex inside a particle collider (cue SMBC comic!), but that doesn't mean I want particle physicists to be celibate.

Another thing I don't mean by "separate politics and science" is to claim that it is possible to do this 100%. It is inevitable that scientists' political views will sometimes seep into their assessment of the facts. But just because it's inevitable doesn't mean it's desirable. To make an analogy, every desk has some water particles on it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't dry off your desk if you spill some water on it.

So that's what I don't mean. On to what I do mean.

I'm making a normative statement - I'm telling scientists what I think they ought to do. More specifically, I'm telling them about what they ought to try to do. I'm telling them what I think their objective function ought to be when they do science. In econ-ese, I have preferences over their preferences.

I'm assuming that there's a fundamental difference between factual assessments and desires. They affect each other, sure - no one is totally objective, and people's desires are also shaped by what they think is possible. But they aren't the same thing.

I'm saying that when doing science, people ought to try to ignore their desires and just assess facts. Basically, they should try to be as objective as they possibly can.

To be more precise, I think there ought to be an activity called "science" that consists only of people trying as hard as they can to ignore all desires and just assess facts. 

Now you might ask: "Noah, why do you think there ought to be such an activity?"

Well, I could just reply that it's purely my moral intuition, and as a Humean, I don't need any other justification. In fact, any justification I give will open itself up to questions of "But why?", until I finally just say "Because that's just how I feel", or "Oh come ON!". But just for fun, let me try to explain some of the "good" consequences I think will generally result from people following my science-and-politics norm.

Basically, I think societies where scientists obey this norm will generally be more effective - whatever their goals - then societies that don't. For example, suppose there are two societies, Raccoonia and Wombatistan, and both are suffering from lots of bacterial diseases. Both countries generally subscribe to a religion that says that invisible gnomes cause disease. But Raccoonia is committed to the norm of science that I described above, while in Wombatistan people think that politics and science should be mixed. In Raccoonia, scientists put aside their religion and discover that antibiotics fight bacterial disease, while in Wombatistan, scientists publish papers calling the Racconian papers into doubt, and arguing for gnome-based theories. Raccoonia will discover the truth more quickly and manage to save a lot of its people.

WAIT!, you say. Isn't the goal of stopping disease itself a political goal? Well, sure. There's a clear division of labor here: The politicians tell the scientists a goal ("Find the cause of disease!"), and the scientists pursue the goal (actually, the scientists could even assign themselves the goal for political reasons, then try to disregard politics while pursuing it, and they'd still be following my norm). When the scientists go into a "science mode" in which they disregard all political considerations, they are more effective in reaching the goal.

This norm I'm suggesting won't solve all of society's problems, obviously, because that depends on what you think is a problem. If you have bad politics - for example, if you think disease is a just punishment for sins and shouldn't be cured - then all the scientific discoveries in the world won't help you much (I think the Soviets kind of demonstrated this). But whatever your goals, following my norm of science will make you more effective in accomplishing them.

Now, I don't think this norm is universal and overriding. I'm a Humean, not a deontologist - I have no need to establish a priori moral axioms that encompass all situations. I can think of extreme situations where I'd violate this norm. If the Nazis tell you to build a nuke, go ahead and sabotage that project!

But I think that in the long term, the human race benefits from being able to do more things, not less. Fundamentally, that's what my science norm is all about - empowering the human species as a whole. Over the long term I trust the human species with power. Your mileage may vary.


  1. "I think the Soviets kind of demonstrated this"
    "Over the long term I trust the human species with power."
    -I don't. But I trust every other thing out there to exercise power well even less.

    Overall, I agree with this assessment of mixing politics and science (mixing leftism into sociology has been a disaster, and I've seen firsthand how Austrians viewing every bit of evidence through an ideological lens has damaged their prospects for becoming ascendant in economics). Narrow ideological frameworks have generally been disastrous wherever and whenever applied. However, I always feel thrust into becoming ideological by The Other Side Doing It. So, so much.

    1. I thought the issue for the Soviets is more the Wombatistan problem (hello Lysenko!).

    2. Anonymous10:43 AM

      "...mixing leftism into sociology has been a disaster..."



  2. So, let's take as given that economics is a science. What's economic science about? It could be that we that an individual just wants to learn something for herself or himself. But I don't see many economists doing that. What are they doing? They are out trying to persuade other people - other economists, lay people, people with the power to make decisions - to do something. What is political activity? That's trying to persuade some other people to do something. So how are economic science and political activity different? How can we separate the two? Why would we want to?


    2. A paper by Uncle Miltie isn't an answer. It's an argument. No one gets in arguments about whether chemistry is a science. Enjoy your career.

    3. Pedro6:48 AM

      I'll bite, Ghirlandaio, and say that chemistry isn't a science, just like engineering isn't a science, because both are merely applied physics.

      ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

    4. You can't separate the positive from the normative any more than you can separate the politics from the science. You didn't answer my questions.

    5. Stephen: this is strange question to ask. Replace "economics" with "physics" or "math" and you have the same thing.

      You can ask economists different questions. For instance "How will government get most money auctioning frequency spectrum for mobile operators?". Or you can ask "Will price control on wheat help people to be better off"? There difinitelly are many questions where economists agree. Then you can have harder questions like impact of minimum wage increase on unemployment of low wage earners or impact of lowering interest rates on inflation. Sometimes it is questions that are incorrect, not the answers.

      But I think the similar issues are on fringe of what we call hard sciences as well. There is a lot of discussions where proponents and opponents try hard to persuade politicians and general public to steer more resources into whatever they think makes more sense. These may be actually quite a good questions. Will category theory supersede set theory as foundation of mathematics and is it worth the costs? Is string theory just complete waste of time and resources? Should we spend billions and decades to build workable fission reactor or should we focus on different energy sources instead? There are dozens similar examples.

    6. J.V.:

      What I'm getting at is that Noah's post, and your comment, are far too abstract. Look at how ideas actually are adopted within a scientific field, and how those ideas are applied. A whole lot of group dynamics goes into that. This is hardly the dispassionate picture of: Scientist A does experiment B: All the other scientists look at B and determine that, oh yes, we have scientific progress. Then the group of scientists tell the world about it and we're done.

    7. Stephen:

      An important part of science is that individuals share ideas and the total amount of knowledge grows over time. Maybe an economist doesn't like taxes for a moral reason, so she writes down a model that produces a new way in which taxes reduce output and employment. If she is clear and, once she begins writing her paper, is a "scientist" rather than a "political activist", then she has produced something of value that all economists and others can learn from. Her model may say something useful about reality regardless of her biased intentions. But, if she intentionally writes her paper in a misleading way and obfuscates assumptions that others would find unreasonable, then she is not only letting politics guide her interests, but also her development of knowledge. In this case, her paper may destroy value rather than create value. I believe this is what Noah and Paul are talking about and I believe this answers your question of why we would want to separate, to some extent, politics and science.

    8. What I'm thinking is that actual scientific progress is a messy thing. There is competition for ideas, and given that these are human beings competing, passion is going to come into play. People are jealous; people are bullies; people lie and cheat; people steal the ideas of others and claim them as their own; people misrepresent the ideas of their competitors. Sounds like politics, right? The difference between science and politics, however, is that within a scientific discipline there are rules (sometimes implicit) of the game, and interaction among scientists takes place in controlled settings. In economics, people ask questions in the seminar room and at conferences; the conferences are set up sometimes to juxtapose competing ideas to help us sort these things out; there is peer review - we submit papers for publication and those papers are refereed and edited. So, there is plenty of opportunity to weed out bad behavior - lying, cheating, theft of ideas, whatever.

      What Paul seems to be claiming is that this process is not working. In his view, it's not working because the profession has not weeded out ideas that compete with Romer ideas in the subfield of economic growth and innovation. I can see why Paul Romer would be better off if ideas that compete with his were relegated to the trash heap, and he's free to make the case that those other ideas are bad ones. However, what he seems to be doing is borrowing from the behavior of politicians - he's calling into question the character of his competitors. These are just dishonest people according to him. I don't think he's made his case.

    9. When an economist is found to have engaged in "bad behavior", they are punished. And the actual economist is punished, not just the specific paper. Depending on the parameters of the game, it may be sufficient just to reject the paper (if writing a paper requires a lot of effort and we catch bad papers frequently), or it may be necessary to lower the reputation of the economist as well. It seems that Paul believes the latter case holds and is simply trying to enforce the rules of the game of economic science.

      Regardless of whether you agree, you have answered your own question concerning why we want to separate economic science from political activity. One way to prevent bad behavior is with social norms. One social norm is: when you are actually writing a paper, making assumptions, choosing your language, examining data, etc., ignore politics and be a "scientist" as much as possible.

    10. Here's another norm of behavior: If you make an unsubstantiated charge of dishonesty, you get written off as a crackpot.

    11. @Stephen Williamson, you write:

      "If you make an unsubstantiated charge of dishonesty, you get written off as a crackpot."

      So are you diametrically opposed to Scott Sumner's view that you should "Shun the paper, not the person?"

    12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    13. @Stephen Williamson, you write:

      "But I don't see many economists doing that. What are they doing? They are out trying to persuade other people - other economists, lay people, people with the power to make decisions - to do something."

      Maybe that's why macro appears so messed up... it appears to me to be in the state medical science was in back in the 13th century: i.e. several centuries too early to offer any meaningful advice.

    14. Also, I'd think the main difference between scientists and politicians is crystal clear: science is set up to let the facts (i.e. reality) decide who's right. Politics depends on convincing people... and facts and reality may not have anything at all to do with that process.

    15. Anonymous9:01 PM

      What I think we are seeing is the early signs of RE being dismantled, not from without but from within. Romer sees that RE doesn't work and he is flaying about trying to find an explanation and not ready yet to front up to what the problem is. The problem with RE and the methodologies that it is wedded to is the underlying value system that has energized it. Just as Keynes fought to break himself free of the chains of the classical mindset, the New Classicals will struggle to free themselves of the ideology and value system that has clearly underpinned and perverted the development of their movement.

  3. "What is political activity? That's trying to persuade some other people to do something."

    -Really? I thought it was about trying to get people you like into power.

    Also, there's a big difference between using politics to drive one's scientific conclusions and using one's scientific conclusions to drive one's politics.

  4. As long as we are idealizing, why not wish for politicians to be scientists and go full on Noah's Republic?

    1. Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  5. Hear, hear.

    Knowledge is a part of biological fitness and as such it has a split functions between natural selection and sexual selection. The natural selection component actually makes us more functional in the world, able to make better decisions that likely have better consequences.

    The sexual selection component increases your social standing and capacity to influence others and control group resources, and, potentially at least, improve the quality and quantity of mates. As in the classic case of the peacock's tail, a lessening of "real" adaptive capacity - lugging a tail around - can accompany a heightened sexiness that gets the chicks.

    Politics is conducted in the sexual sphere, primarily, or at least too much; knowledge is kudos, a sexual ornament. The method of science aims for knowledge that is generally adaptive, in the natural selection sense. If we, as a community, select sexiness over adaptiveness I can't see how we could not lose. For the individual, the opposite may apply.

    1. Anonymous7:23 AM

      Yes, I think you're on to something new here. Sexual expectations will supplant rational expectations. Monetary policy will be devolved to the Kardashians (they just about run everything else anyway). Search and learning frictions will still need to be invoked for added realism (in a neoclassical kind of way). Real Bustiness Cycle models will come into their own, becoming the prime vehicle for exhibiting the latest Kardashian fashions.


  6. Anonymous3:03 AM

    To make economics a science you must get rid of models.

    Models from the very start are political.

    1. Anonymous3:59 AM

      To make ^Anonymous smart you must get rid of ^Anonymous, because he is dumb.

    2. If you get rid of models, it's not science. Science is exactly about (a) constructing models of the world; (b) testing them, and (c) using the results to improve the correlation between model and world. The non-science part of economics stems from difficulties in achieving (b) and -- for some -- deficiencies in the desire to do (c).

    3. The main issue that Economics has with models, is that you may be able to reject them, but it's often very hard to work out whether that model was the only way you'd get that particular empirical result (I've forgotten the correct terms - I think the first is falsifiability but can't remember the second sorry).

      This is way I like the reduced form approach (or as I've seen it somewhere "ad hoc empiricism") which is more just trying to work out if there is a causal relationship and if so what size. It tells us a lot less about the world, but what it does tell us seems to be more robust (depending on the strength of your empirical identification strategy of course). But this might also be because I'm too thick to properly understand how to solve most structural models.

    4. I've forgotten the correct terms

      Possibly, the term you have forgotten is "identifiability". Technically, this refers to distinguishing between parameterizations of a given model; but in an extended sense it could refer to distinguishing between models. And sometimes, it is a matter of taste whether one considers two things to be different "models" or different "parameterizations".

    5. Anonymous9:32 AM

      No, models aren't necessarily political. Models are useful, but they have to be used and interpreted carefully. You have to state upfront what all the assumptions are that have gone into the model - which not everyone does.

      Models can very easily be abused by those with a political agenda to promote. This happens often, not just in economics, but social science and climate science too.


  7. "'Science' ... consists only of people trying as hard as they can to ignore all desires and just assess facts."

    Do these people have a desire that their statements shall be in conformity with the facts? Should they ignore this desire?

    It is clear that Romer, for example, has not read (with understanding) any recent literature on the philosophy, history, or sociology of science. I get the point in the questions above from Hilary Putnam's argument about how facts and values are intertwined in economics.

    I think Romer should try to reword whatever he writes to remove all uses of the word science - I do not see what it adds to his claims. And he should stop talking about Joan Robinson, since he clearly does not know much about what she was about. And he should not write about the history of economics before about, oh 1970.

    1. "Do these people have a desire that their statements shall be in conformity with the facts? Should they ignore this desire?"

      Yes, the first 5 years of a PhD are an assignment to a Buddhist monastery.

    2. Anonymous3:27 PM

      So are you agreeing that there is something wrong with Noah's characterization of science?

  8. marcel proust8:01 AM

    Both countries generally subscribe to a religion that says that invisible gnomes cause disease.

    Whereas, in our country, we believe that disease are caused by invisible genomes, eh?

  9. From my reading of Gunnar Myrdal's perspective on economic science, I would posit he might disagree somewhat with the possibility of objective economic science. In particular, his approach was to make a statement of his value premises before approaching his arguments on a matter. Professor Krugman, on the other hand has at least discussed the position of trying to resist the urge to believe in relationships that are very convenient for one's own political belief system unless there is compelling evidence. Ideally, obviously, we would hope that everyone would be pursuing truth in a rigorous way, checking and double-checking each assumption and fact. My position is probably more along the line that one should take, as a starting point, those facts that are generally agreed are settled or at least have a near consensus and limit the scope of your inquiry to the topic at hand and approach the facts with the presumption that your hypothesis is wrong and test with such methods as would be able to allow one to at least falsify some level of the relationship hypothesized. Sometimes I have seen econbloggers talk about hypothesis testing and they treat their own position as the benchmark case and any alternative model as a hypothesis to be proven. All I can do is try to not despair. Eventually, sufficiently precise data should be developed and sufficiently accurate theory established that much which is subject to dispute today should be distinguished as (more or less) proven or falsified.

  10. I always felt like there was a secondary division past the normative and positive division. In positive economics one can have a theoretical claim about some model or decision's optimality that is not normative with unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour but because the aim is not descriptive science non-economists (and some heterodox economists get confused) use some pejorative to say economists are out of this world. The other positive claim that is tradition is mostly descriptive and mostly empirical. Even though Friedman's methodology paper's intuition is understood by economists, I have found other disciplines (who don't understand the details of positive economics itself) have a hard time understanding it. Leading to a lot of assumptions about the politics of economics, when there are none to be found except for those that are conjured up. Or confusing Friedman, Stiglitz or Krugman's other public opinions for academic ones. A few novel examples of economists being political in academia shouldn't be focused on, similar to psychologists who p-hack, so to speak.

  11. Blatant self-plug: I once wrote an essay on this, from the perspective of an astrophysicist. It's here:

  12. Great post Noah. I think you made your case very effectively.

    1. However messy science may be... filled with all kinds of unsavory human motivations and bad behaviors (as Stephen Williamson points out)... in the end science boils down to repeatedly asking reality the question "Are we wrong about this?" ... to which reality either responds "yes" or is silent.

      IMO, it's possible even sociopaths can make valuable contributions to science within this framework because if they have even half a brain, they know the structure of the (flawed, but functional) institution itself will eventually expose sociopathic ways (lying, cheating, falsifying, etc). In the end "you can't fool mother nature." And thus if they want to stick around, they know they'll have to curb the bulk of their fraudulent impulses.

      Whereas in politics, religion, business and many other fields, sociopathic ways are not reliably attenuated by the institutional structure, and in fact are instead often handsomely rewarded. This is because those other institutions don't have at their core an "objective reality check." Often a lucrative life long career can be made from fraud and dishonesty.

      That's my impression anyway.

  13. Your post made me think of something in Mariana Mazzucato's feature in the FT:

    "One thing that strikes me is how often the word “mission” crops up in our conversation. At one point, Mazzucato describes herself as a revolutionary, who believes academics have a duty to use their expertise to challenge false political narratives. She herself is determined to bust some prevailing economic “myths” and change the way we think and talk about the roles of the public and private sectors in our age of austerity."

    Noah, do you think academics (having done their research in an as unbiased as possible manner) have any duty to dispel false political narratives, even if they don't go so far to present their own narratives? Is there a contradiction between being a good researcher and having a "mission" that cannot be separated from politics?

    My freshman year I asked a panel of history professors whether they felt any duty to criticize false narratives. I phrased the question terribly, and one of the professors certainly didn't like the politicization of academia I had implied. In the end I got a non-answer, but what I took from it was that those historians, as social scientists, didn't believe one could combine political activity with doing the best research. Is econ different?

    - a Cal UG

  14. Anonymous7:07 PM

    Romer's attempt at econoclasm is terribly misguided. I think his problem is not with mathiness or science but with ideology. In attacking Lucas' and Sargent's mathiness he is avoiding attacking their ideological proclivities. Why? Because his ideological proclivities are aligned with theirs. He just doesn't quite get it or won't admit it. Lucas' and Sargent's approach to economics is given by their values.

    Noah is struggling with the same kind of problem. Science driven by values is no longer pure science. When values intrude on the formulation of hypotheses and their underpinning assumptions, the scientific method is corrupted.


  15. I find this brief quote (starting here and going for about 20 seconds) really highlights the huge chasm between science and economics as it now stands: this physicist thinks the standard model of particle physics is the "greatest intellectual edifice that humans have ever created" and that the Higgs boson was a "central part" of that, but he WANTED the search for it at the LHC to fail, because it would have been "more interesting" that way! More "new directions" would have been possible. Spoken like a true lover of puzzle solving,

    Imagine an economist wanting his favorite theory to fail because it would be more interesting that way. It seems to me that mostly economists spend their time looking for evidence to support their favorite theories and 0% of their time trying to test them in a way that would definitively prove them wrong (if they were indeed wrong). Are economists truly lovers of puzzle solving? Or do they prefer to bloviate about why the puzzle has already been solved (when clearly it hasn't, else they'd all agree).

  16. Anonymous4:29 AM


    It appears to me that you claim to have left studying science and now mostly practice a form of politics online.

    "In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion." (1987) -- Carl Sagan

  17. "When an economist is found to have engaged in "bad behavior", they are punished. And the actual economist is punished, not just the specific paper. "

    You were sayin'