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Scientific epistemology is a serious business in economics—as it is in any science. Not surprisingly, therefore, discussions about value-ladeness tend to focus on theoretical and methodological issues within the discipline, while the question of the social consequences of science is approached with more reservation. And for many good reasons, one may say, because it is not entirely up to scientists how will the scientific product be disseminated and interpreted in society, or how will it be used by policy makers. Or, that’s not the job of the scientist, one could reason, to determine and be ready for all possible applicative scenarios.

Since the last few decades, research practices have undergone a far-reaching transformation at the interface between science, policy and society. It involves an increased engagement of science in problem solving and policy advice, and the enhancing role of participatory research methods in problem-based approaches. The social consequences of science become therefore more readily visible, opening up new perspectives on debates about facts and values dichotomy, or the relationship between knowledge, truth, and values (cf. Kitcher, 2001). One way of looking at the transformation of scientific practices focuses on the criteria of scientific rationality with regard to scientific knowledge and the very process of knowledge production, echoing a Weberian contrast between instrumental and axiological rationality of social action (Weber 1968). Specifically, the scientific rationality criteria have been extended in the process from purely (i) internal rationality, that can be defined as a conventional scientific rationality approach focused on disciplinary epistemology and methodology, to (ii) external rationality that pertains to axiological, ethical, and societal elements of knowledge and its production (Kiepas, 2006). 

There are many reasons for including external rationality in scientific practices. For one thing, all applied sciences can be considered as value-laden in virtue of their goal-oriented values (Pullin, 2002). Furthermore, many contemporary problems, as subjects of research, are radically complex. They are laden with systemic uncertainties, meaning that “the problem is concerned not only with the discovery of a particular fact (as in traditional research), but with the comprehension or management of a reality that has irreducible complexities or uncertainties” (see more in Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1994, p. 1882). They also pose future incalculable risks in an unprecedented scope. For example, in the context of complex, adaptive problems such as climate change, uncertainty in science follows (Brown, 2013). Scientific uncertainty regarding the severity and scope of the problem fuels general disagreement about the appropriate actions to undertake. Attempts to accurately assess all the possible climate change impacts and to exhaustingly assign an economic value to alternative courses of action are bound to fail (Jamieson, 2010). That being the case, the policy-relevance of standard economic analysis as the sole knowledge-base for environmental decision making is limited.

In case of economics, the shift in approaches to rationality can be seen in debates about reflexivity in economics, bounded rationality, or performativity of economic models, to name a few topics. But for the most part, ethical- and value-neutrality continue to feature much of economic research, such as in standard normative theories of decision making under uncertainty and risk. The burgeoning of economics as a separate discipline, accompanied by distancing from philosophy, build up strong methodological foundations to prevent any extra-scientific elements to interfere in its analysis (cf. Hausman, 1992).

The classic conceptualisation of uncertainty and risk in economics is very specific and differs from the above-mentioned, sociologically incrusted understanding. Following the paradigmatic distinction formulated by Knight (1921), uncertainty refers to situations of radical uncertainty that cannot be expressed as sets of probabilities, whereas risk is related to situations in which actions do not lead with certitude to specific outcomes, but the alternative outcomes and their probabilities can be discerned. 

The categories of uncertainty and risk, as considered here, lend themselves to complexity of many policy issues, and are associated with the transformation of postmodern societies due to technology, consequences of globalisation, and environmental crises that follow (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1990). These circumstances, “external” to standard methodological practices, motivate the extension of scientific rationality criteria and rethinking the role of science by researchers themselves. An example of this transformative process is the so-called advocacy science for environmental justice. It represents a socially engaged, multidisciplinary research approach that emerged in response to environmental toxicity movements, and developed an alternative epidemiological paradigm based on participatory research methods (see, e.g., Ottinger & Cohen, 2011).

With regard to the interface between science, policy, and society and the extra-scientific aspects of uncertainty and risk, one can note that the assessment and acceptance of risk are not purely a matter of data analysis or applying the “right” indicators. The perception and interpretation of uncertainty and risk are influenced by a mixture of social, political, and scientific processes that interact with each other. Consider the relationship between environmental pollution and risk. While pollution appears to be solely as a matter of scientific measures, the question of what is an acceptable level of pollution and its risk for a given society, and whether there are cases of unacceptable risks, involves our pre-conceptions and assumptions about what constitutes a good quality of life, wellbeing, and sustainable development (cf. Evernden, 1999).

Why would an individual economist care about the science-policy interface, or about considering extra-scientific elements of her research practice? There are several reasons to seriously reflect on this question. For one thing, transparency about the value content of specific research programs may translate into more careful and accountable approach to complex problems of public policy and the remedying capacity of science and technological progress. Furthermore, Söderbaum (2000) argues that economics should be more properly approached as political economics to make clear the fact that each scientist, as the discipline itself, has an ideological orientation (in the sense of means-ends philosophy) that plays out in the problem-framing, and reflects on the performative features of economic expertise. To the latter point, the analyst’s conclusion that reduces the extra-monetary aspects of a given problem to monetary ones is not without policy consequences; it suggests certain framings and solution-imageries to economic agents and decision makers. Besides, academia itself is not free of subjective interests and rent seeking. But—I haste to add—this does not undermine the value of scientific expertise per se. Neither does it suggest that citizens and policy makers are passive or unreflective recipients of scientific knowledge. It rather suggests a double-edge approach to science that recognises the subjective, cultural, and societal components in scientific practices on the one hand, and the aspiration of scientific community to reach objectivity (understood broadly as a normative objective) on the other hand. Although scientific practices are saturated with theoretical pre-conceptions and cultural perspectives, it does not immediately follow that science has nothing to do with truth and objectivity (a subject that deserves a separate discussion). 

The double-edge approach to science calls for more explicit discussions about the social consequences of science and scientific literacy in society:

  • Concerns about the role of science and scientific expertise in society may facilitate disciplinary reflexivity. It may also feed into methodological approaches. In case of economics, instead of focusing only on expanding the standard framework of economic analysis onto new subjects, concerns about the social consequences of science create a platform for a more direct consideration of methodological alternatives. Especially for contexts in which standard economic tools of analysis display some limits (e.g., cost-benefit analysis in sustainable development planning), alternative approaches that directly accommodate non-monetary impacts and justice concerns are needed (Brown et al., 2017). 
  • According to a political scientist Frank Fischer, in face of technical and social complexity that characterises most of policy issues, citizens and politicians need to display a good level of competence (2009, 1). In this context, an urgent question arises: how to democratise science on the one hand, and how to prevent populism and the spread of fake facts to take the provenience of science (as a source of information about the world) on the other hand? While the aspiration of science to be the absolute truth holder has been widely challenged, it does not immediately follow that there is nothing to scientific knowledge that would make it somehow different from other forms of knowledge. No differentiation at all can give way to anti-science of dangerous kind, in which “facts” are matters of preferences or interests. A caveat here is in order: such differentiation does not imply that scientific knowledge is inherently better than any other form of knowledge.

Certainly there are many challenges to balancing the double-edge approach to science both within and outside of the scientific community, as there are multiple philosophical framings of the role and status of scientific expertise in society. To be continued!

References

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Brown, J. Söderbaum, P. & Dereniowska, M. (2017). Positional Analysis for Sustainable Development: Reconsidering Policy, Economics and Accounting. London: Routledge. 

Evernden, N. (1992). The Social Creation of Nature. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.

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

Fischer, Frank (2009). Democracy & Expertise. Reorienting Policy Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Funtowicz, S. O. & Ravetz, J. R. (1994). Uncertainty, Complexity and Post-normal Science. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 13(2), 1881-1885. 

Jamieson, D. (2010). Ethics, Public Policy, and Global Warming. In S. M. Gardiner, S. Caney, D. Jamieson & Henry Shoue (Eds), Climate Ethics. Essential Readings (pp. 77-86). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kiepas, A. (2006). Ethics as the Eco-development Factor in Science and Technology. Problems of Eco-development 1(2), 77–86.

Kitcher, P. (2001). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York. 

Knight, F. H. (1921). Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ottinger, G. & Cohen, B. R. (Eds). (2011). Technoscience and Environmental Justice. Expert Cultures in Grassroots Movement. Cambridge: the MIT Press.

Pullin, A. S. (2002). Conservation Biology. Cambridge & New York; Cambridge University Press. 

Söderbaum, P. (2000). Ecological Economics. A Political Economics Approach to Environment and Development. London: Earthscan/Routledge.

Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster Press.

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Something for PhD Students and early-career researchers thirsty of pluralistic education:

 

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS

Poznań Summer School in Heterodox Economics

3rd edition

12.09.2018-16.09.2018

Poznań University of Economics and Business

 

The School is intended for PhD Students and early-career researchers interested in heterodox approaches to studying complex economic phenomena. We provide an international learning environment for those interested in deepening their knowledge in heterodox economics or considering applying it to their own research area. Over five days, participants will have an opportunity of attending lectures, presenting their findings and ideas, as well as discussing them with highly competent faculty. They will also take part in workshops and seminars that will improve their analytical skills.

 

Confirmed speakers:

– MACIEJ GRODZICKI (Jagiellonian University, PL),

– PAOLO RAMAZZOTTI (University of Macerata, IT),

– LOUIS-PHILIPPE ROCHON (Laurentian University, CA),

– MARC LAVOIE (University of Ottawa, CA, University of Paris 13, FR),

– HANNA SZYMBORSKA (The Open University, UK)

– ANNA ZACHOROWSKA-MAZURKIEWICZ (Jagiellonian University, PL).

 

The School is organized by the Poznań University of Economics and Business in cooperation with Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne “Heterodox”.

The event is supported by the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy, the Review of Political Economy and the Forum for Social Economics.

 

For more information, please contact the Organizing Committee through email: heterodox.school@projekty.ue.poznan.pl or facebook.

Ongoing Recruitment – please send us an email to check if places are still available.

 

Please send your application to: heterodox.school@projekty.ue.poznan.pl

School fee: 120 euro/500 zł

Fees include lunches and coffee breaks. Budget accommodation can be provided by organizers upon request.

Deadline for payment: 15 August 2018.

 

The Organizing Committe:

Krzysztof Czarnecki (Poznań University of Economics and Business),

Marcin Czachor (Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne „Heterodox” – Publishing House „Heterodox”),

Anna Piekarska (Praktyka Teoretyczna; Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne „Heterodox” – Publishing House „Heterodox”)

Agnieszka Ziomek (Poznań University of Economics and Business).

 

Malgorzata Dereniowska: Welcome to “Dialogos: Economics Education and Pedagogy,” Peter! In this interview we will focus on the questions of institutional change in economics education system, economic pedagogy and social responsibility of universities.

Could you tell me something about your background and your professional experience as a teacher of economics?

Peter Söderbaum: As a student at Uppsala University I became interested in political science, economics and business management (or business economics). My first teaching experiences were at Uppsala University and the department of economics (course in international economics) but I later moved to the department of business management where I was teaching marketing courses and also took my PhD on Positional Analysis. Later I moved back to economics now at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, to become associate professor and lecturer in environmental and natural resource economics. 1995-2005 I was responsible for ecological economics Bachelor and Master programs at Mälardalen University in Västerås.

At an early stage Uppsala University organized an interdisciplinary course in environmental science and I became the person responsible for the environmental economics part of the course. I am referring to the 1970s and this was a time when the borders between disciplines became less respected and interdisciplinary work and courses increasingly encouraged. If I as a lecturer in marketing can learn something about consumer behavior from social psychology – why should I refrain from such learning opportunities?

Malgorzata: How did you come to appreciate pluralism and diversity in economics teaching?

Peter: It seems to me that leading actors in university departments of economics tend to think in Kuhnian ‘paradigm-shift’ terms. Either the neoclassical paradigm is correct or some other paradigm will be proven superior. If there is no other economics paradigm based on the same or similar positivistic premises then we have to accept the present monopoly position of neoclassical theory. There is not yet any alternative according to this view.

But just as there exist different disciplines that can be both complementary and competitive in relation to a particular set of phenomena (such as consumer behavior), it becomes meaningful to refer to co-existing paradigms in economics, each one having its strengths and weaknesses. ‘Paradigm coexistence’ then becomes a key concept. There may still be shift in ‘dominant paradigm’ but advocates of different paradigms should continue to respect each other and the paradigm losing its dominant position may still have something to contribute.

At the mentioned agricultural university there was a period in the early 1990s when students had a choice between neoclassical environmental economics and institutional version referred to as ‘ecological economics’. This idea of separate courses and separate supervisors in thesis projects became a success at least as I saw it. (I am inclined to say that it became too successful for the neoclassical department leadership to accept.)

The big issue here is about values and ideology. Neoclassical economists tend to assume that ‘value-neutrality’ is possible while I as an institutional economist argue with Gunnar Myrdal (1978) that “values are always with us”. Neoclassical theory is science but at the same time values and ideology and the same holds for institutional theory of a particular kind. In a democratic society we need to refer to more than one economic theory to match reasonably well the different ideological orientations in a particular community. In ideological terms, neoclassical theory is close to neoliberalism, I.e. extreme beliefs in markets, monetary profits in business and economic growth in GDP-terms. Today we are instead expected to relate to 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) where economic growth plays a more modest role and other dimensions are emphasized.

Malgorzata: Why do you think pluralism is important from a pedagogical point of view?

Peter:As already indicated I believe that there is often a complementary relationship between two conceptual frameworks and paradigms where one paradigm can add to the understanding offered by another. Pluralism also adds to the freedom of choice for the scholar scientifically and ideologically.

I also feel that comparing one conceptual and theoretical framework with another is an excellent way of learning or doing research. If you want to understand neoclassical theory you may need to compare it with some other theory or perspective.

Malgorzata: In your work you repeatedly emphasize the importance of democracy as both a subject and method in economics research and teaching. You point to the fact that in economic textbooks the term democracy can be searched in vein. How do you see the connection between democracy and economics?

Economics is ideology as I have argued and limiting education to one single paradigm such as neoclassical theory at university departments of economics means that such departments become centers of political propaganda for the ideology built into neoclassical theory. Neoclassical Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), an analysis focusing on the monetary dimension, is an extreme case of how economists as experts dictate correct market values for purposes of decision-making at the level of society. Methods that are more open in ideological terms are very much needed.

In my recent writings I am even arguing that economics as a discipline needs to be redefined as “multidimensional management of resources in a democratic society”. One-dimensional monetary analysis of resources does not go well with the multidimensional complexities of the real world and we need to take ideological options seriously if we want to deal with present unsustainable development.

Malgorzata: Why does democracy matter in economics curriculum and pedagogy? 

Peter: As I said, present development is unsustainable in many ways. As many other ecological economists I believe that the monopoly of neoclassical theory has a role in this fact. In attempts to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and inequality for that matter, we cannot limit debate to one scientific and ideological perspective.

Students need to face courses and textbooks in the history of economic thought and they should learn about essentials of some versions of heterodox economics. Dialogue between professors who differ in their scientific and ideological preferences should be encouraged rather than avoided.

Malgorzata: Why, in your opinion, there is so much reluctance to open up the issues of democracy and democratization of economics within the discipline?

Peter: I can of course only speculate about this. I think professors of economics and many of their students like to see themselves as experts in an extreme sense. Admitting that there are competing conceptual frameworks and theories may imply uncertainty and confusion for students while protecting neoclassical theory is expected to strengthen the profession.

Actually, neoclassical public choice theory may have something to offer by understanding professors of economics as a relatively homogeneous rent-seeking category. If they cooperate, they can become successful in terms of salaries and otherwise. Fortunately, there is some remaining heterogeneity among neoclassical economists that in the future may open the door for tolerance and democracy.

Malgorzata: Do you think that something can be done about this situation now, given the current institutional settings and existing power relationships between the actors at the higher education institutions?

Peter: What can be done now? We should of course not exclude the possibility that an increasing number of neoclassical economists become more open-minded. I believe however that this tendency to hide behind positivism, mathematical modelling etc. has to be dealt with also at the university level and the political level more generally. The leadership of universities need to understand that there is no value-free economics and that from that follows that reliance on one single paradigm is a mistake. The existence of more schools of thought than one in economics is a fact of life and this has to be reflected in curriculum and pedagogy.

Something is “already” happening at the level of students in economics with their calls for change and networks. We are now waiting for response to these calls from university administrations, ministries of education and other concerned actors. We should encourage politicians and political parties to act. The idea that universities and professors are ideologically neutral persons has to be abandoned. Good science has to become compatible with democracy in addition to other qualitative indicators.

Malgorzata: How would you diagnose the current state of economics education, and how do you perceive the role of pedagogy in this system?

Peter: When looking for a more pluralist economics I think that it is more meaningful to focus on developments outside economics departments. While many actors in the latter departments are rather narrow-minded something happens at university departments of economic history, department of management science and departments of political science. Students have after all some chances to choose disciplines with interdisciplinary openings.

Another possibility is to continue debate about the “Bank of Sweden prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel”. This prize was perhaps less of a problem in its early stages but tends now to be part of the protection of neoclassical theory and a neoliberal ideology. Today we need to ask questions about the present global and national institutional framework but neoclassical theory only contributes to a protection of the status quo.

Malgorzata: In your work on sustainable development, you raise the need for wide-range institutional change processes. These institutional changes are meant to counteract the current unsustainable trends that endanger the future possibility for economic growth and human development. Another target of sustainability transformation pertains to the current lack of accountability of individual and collective actors. Since education plays a role in these processes, how do you envision the needed institutional change in economics education?

Peter: In neoclassical theory consumers and firms are understood as mechanistic entities. Instead we need to look upon individuals and organizations as actors guided by an ideological orientation or mission and with responsibilities in a democratic society. Institutional change can be a result of social movements and initiatives by individuals as actors.

There are (unfortunately) many candidates for institutional change if we want to move away from one-dimensional monetary thinking in business or if we want to see global trade relations in new light. Joint stock companies and WTO are thus institutions that deserve consideration. Even UN institutions such as UNEP and UNEP are heavily influenced by and limited to mainstream neoclassical theory. Behind a reluctance to discuss institutional change is of course present power positions and relationships where business interests play a role.

Malgorzata: You tend to emphasize the manifold role of economics professors: as researchers, as teachers, and as citizens, viewing them as agents who exercise, to various degrees, social responsibility in their various roles. This outlook promotes a certain philosophy of education and pedagogy. For example, you seem to be distanced from the view of economics as a purely objective science, and a resulting image of economics teaching as a process that produces experts-analysts, leaving aside the considerations about their role in society and the social consequences of their work. How would you define the basic tenets of your philosophy of teaching? In your view, what is the role of economics teachers, and how do you see the potential of economics students?

Peter: Here we are back to the ideas of positivism and the tendency to hide behind ideas of value-neutrality. Instead we need engaged professors that are capable of extending their views beyond self-interest. Conceptual frameworks and theories should be seen in the light of their ideological implications and each narrative should be contested rather than protected. Incentive systems for professors and students should facilitate an open debate about our common future.

Malgorzata: You promote the idea of University Social Responsibility. Can you tell something more about it?

Peter: Yes, I have suggested that just as some business actors refer to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) we need a similar debate about University Social Responsibility (USR). Some would say that this is a non-issue. Actors within universities are always doing the right thing, searching the truth about various phenomena. My experience of many years of teaching and doing research in ecological or sustainability economics suggest that research and education is not only influenced by a desire to deal with contemporary problems in society but also with the protection of self-interests and personal career opportunities.

Thank you!


Peter Soderbaum-214x267Our guest, Peter Söderbaum, is a professor emeritus in ecological economics at Mälardalen University, Västerås, Sweden. His books include Ecological Economics. A political economics approach to environment and development (Earthscan, 2000), Understanding Sustainability Economics. Towards pluralism in economics (Earthscan, 2008), Economics, ideological orientation and democracy for sustainable development (World Economics Association Books, 2016), and Positional Analysis for Sustainable Development. Reconsidering Policy, Economics and Accounting (2017) co-authored with Judy Brown and Małgorzata Dereniowska. He has written numerous chapters in other books and articles and is member of the editorial advisory board of Ecological Economics and International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education.

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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.