Scientist qua scientist, scientist qua citizen: Part I

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That economics is a value-laden science is not a new idea. Most of the prominent economic thinkers were also philosophers, wary of moral and philosophical content of scientific assumptions, models, and theories. That economics needs philosophy, and the separation between these two cannot be maintained any longer, is gaining recognition, and has become a subject of debates in the field of philosophy of economics that brings together (to various extends) philosophers, mainstream, and heterodox economists. For example, Daniel Hausman (1992) discusses that at an analytic level economists do successfully separate the philosophical and ethical content from economic analysis, albeit this separation is possible only at the analytic level. Karl Polanyi (1957), in his discussion on the entanglement of economic activities in the social totality, gives insights from a different perspective how considering the subject of economic study in social vacuum can in fact lead to thinking that scientific practice indeed has disentangled from society.

Today economists of both mainstream (e.g., Jean Tirole) and heterodox approaches more readily admit: economics is a moral and philosophical science. Yet the meaning and scope of the normative components of economics, the epistemic consequences of the social embeddedness of science, and the social consequences of economics are raising so far inconclusive debates. These issues constitute two-tiered dimensions of scientific rationality: external and internal ones. While the criteria of internal rationality (which constitute the standard approach to scientific rationality) refer to disciplinary epistemology and methodology, the criteria of external rationality involve the axiological, ethical, and societal elements of the process of knowledge production and the social consequences of science.

Interestingly, as Gustav Márquez (2016) points out, even in the field of philosophy of economics, the discussions are often focused on the elements of what I call here internal rationality. Márquez argues that the predominant focus on these issues characterize the mainstream philosophy of economics, while the more normatively-laden issues, such as a broader theoretical reorientation towards more responsive and socially engaged approaches (which I considered as aspects related to the external scientific rationality), are not so much a part of the dominant concerns and discourse.

Why would an external rationality matter? What is the meaning of the social consequences of economics as a science? And how the acknowledgment of the value-laden component of scientific practices plays out in research practices of the scientific community, and of an individual researcher? These questions are not easy to answer, as they involve several complex issues, such as what is the meaning of scientific truth, scientific objectivity, how to account for the normative components of science, or what are the grounds for our confidence in scientific methods and analysis—to name a few. While each of these questions opens a Pandora box by itself, my goal is to simply open up some of the ways these profound issues can be approached for a discussion. My guiding thought is that one of the elements that drastically shapes our take on these questions pertains to the context in which science and the process of knowledge production is considered.

My specific focus will be on the role of science in society and for policy making. In my next entries of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am going to consider several issues, problems, and controversies raised at the intersection of economics, society, and policy, with an eye towards their educational and pedagogical challenges. My objective is to problematize, hopefully for a broader discussion with the readers, the fact that the specific philosophical commitments (e.g. ontological and epistemological assumptions about the role of science, function of knowledge, scientific truth, etc.) bear impact on how the epistemic consequences of the value-ladedness of economics are framed, and on the acknowledgment and role assigned to the extra-scientific components of research practices.

References:

Hasuman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Márquez, Gustavo. 2016. A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics. London: College Publications.

Polanyi, Karl, [1944] 1957. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

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4 comments
  1. Ernesto Vaihinger said:

    Mi síntesis conceptual es que la economía, al momento de usar sus aspectos analíticos para proponer y evaluar impactos de acciones de politicas económicas, debe aplicar el criterio de maximización sometido al cumplimiento de condiciones que ofrezcan respuestas a valores sociales y necesidades de interés general. La maximización en la economía analítica es un juicio a priori ineludible, pero debe estar condicionado al cumplimiento de normas que interpretan juicios éticos propios de los alcances de la política económica integrada a la política general.
    Espero con interés las futuras entregas. Gracias por compartir.

    Pd. Escrito en spanish, mis disculpas por la traducción automática.

  2. David Harold Chester said:

    So many writers want macroeconomics to become more scientific, yet they have done very little or nothing to achieve this. Its hard for them because they don’t think like a scientist or an engineer. I do, and have done so in my research and at last this subject is now presentable as a true science.

    My research has culminated in a 310 page e-book “Consequential Macroeconomics–Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works”. Its rational and accurate in its logical approach to this subject. Get a copy (by writing to me at chesterdh@hotmail.com ) and share it. It will blow your mind and allow you to become properly informed about the logical way our society works and how to experiment so as to improve on it. This is not a presence, I wish for this knowledge to be spread.

  3. This article is interesting. But its basis is erroneous. It is “literally” impossible to “consider the subject of economic study in a social vacuum.” Both economic actions and economics science (whatever that is) are not embedded in society, as Polanyi suggests. They are society. Economics is society; is created and used like all other aspects of society. Einstein recognized this when he said, “Science is just enhanced common sense.” Common sense arises from out experiences in society. Science arises from society to add some new directions and forms for common sense. If you want to understand science (including economic science), then study the society where you find it.

  4. Craig said:

    Science without Wisdom (self awareness and the ethical imperative it denotes) is the orthodoxy and stupidity known as scientism. The scientific study of economics requires Wisdom no less. In fact, as it is a monetary economy and money is the product that grants freedom or enforces enslavement if not loss of life without it….it requires it even more.

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