Recapping: Science, Politics, and Mathiness

It might be helpful to pull back from some of the specifics in the instances of mathiness that I’ve cited in recent posts and recap the background motivation, which springs from concern about the interaction between science and politics.

I. There are two different styles of discourse–the discourse of politics and the discourse of science. They are supported by different norms about good ethical behavior and acceptable professional conduct.

A. Reputation

1. The norms of politics emphasize the importance of maintaining a reputation for winning. If it takes some deception or obfuscation to win a battle, you do what you have to do. No matter what happens, you never admit a setback. You never admit error.

2. The norms of science place the utmost emphasis on protecting a reputation for integrity and honesty. You can influence colleagues who share these norms only if they trust you.

B. Loyalty

1. The norms of politics, like the norms of battle from which they spring, place heavy emphasis on loyalty. It is more important to promote the career of a trusted member of the team than to correct a published error that this person has made.

2. The norms of science place intellectual integrity above personal loyalty. If someone who is a loyal member of a team publishes something that is false misleading, the norms of science demand that the error be exposed and corrected, regardless of the consequences for the individuals involved.

II. The way to judge the success of a science is by the progress it makes toward a broadly shared consensus.

A. In the last 2 or 3 decades, macroeconomists have not made progress toward a scientific consensus about the foundations of discovery and technological innovation.

B. This makes the theory of growth a potentially useful place to start looking for signs that the norms of politics have encroached into economics.

C. Counter-intuitively, growth theory might be a particularly good place to look because no actual political decisions turn on how economists model growth. If there are problems there, it is all the more likely that there will be problems in more politically charged work on monetary policy, countercyclical fiscal policy, or financial regulation.

III. One way to establish in a relatively objective fashion whether the norms of politics are guiding some of the participants is to look for the style that I’ve called “mathiness” in their published papers.