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The Norms of Science: Extract from Paul Romer

July 1, 2018 - 18:23 -- Admin

I was looking for something on economic method, and found this section of Paul Romer’s “The Trouble with Macroeconomics” which I thought was worth posting.

Some of the economists who agree about the state of macro in private conversations will not say so in public. This is consistent with the explanation based on different prices. Yet some of them also discourage me from disagreeing openly, which calls for some other explanation.

They may feel that they will pay a price too if they have to witness the unpleasant reaction that criticism of a revered leader provokes. There is no question that the emotions are intense. After I criticized a paper by Lucas, I had a chance encounter with someone who was so angry that at first he could not speak. Eventually, he told me, “You are killing Bob.”

But my sense is that the problem goes even deeper that avoidance. Several economists I know seem to have assimilated a norm that the post-real macroeconomists actively promote – that it is an extremely serious violation of some honor code for anyone to criticize openly a revered authority figure – and that neither facts that are false, nor predictions that are wrong, nor models that make no sense matter enough to worry about.

A norm that places an authority above criticism helps people cooperate as members of a belief field that pursues political, moral, or religious objectives. As Jonathan Haidt (2012) observes, this type of norm had survival value because it helped members of one group mount a coordinated defense when they were attacked by another group. It is supported by two innate moral senses, one that encourages us to defer to authority, another which compels self-sacrifice to defend the purity of the sacred.

Science, and all the other research fields spawned by the enlightenment, survive by “turning the dial to zero” on these innate moral senses. Members cultivate the conviction that nothing is sacred and that authority should always be challenged. In this sense, Voltaire is more important to the intellectual foundation of the research fields of the enlightenment than Descartes or Newton.

By rejecting any reliance on central authority, the members of a research field can coordinate their independent efforts only by maintaining an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth, established imperfectly, via the rough consensus that emerges from many independent assessments of publicly disclosed facts and logic; assessments that are made by people who honor clearly stated disagreement, who accept their own fallibility, and relish the chance to subvert any claim of authority, not to mention any claim of infallibility.

Even when it works well, science is not perfect. Nothing that involves people ever is. Scientists commit to the pursuit of truth even though they realize that absolute truth is never revealed. All they can hope for is a consensus that establishes the truth of an assertion in the same loose sense that the stock market establishes the value of a firm. It can go astray, perhaps for long stretches of time. But eventually, it is yanked back to reality by insurgents who are free to challenge the consensus and supporters of the consensus who still think that getting the facts right matters.

Despite its evident flaws, science has been remarkably good at producing useful knowledge. It is also a uniquely benign way to coordinate the beliefs of large numbers of people, the only one that has ever established a consensus that extends to millions or billions without the use of coercion.