Experts: scientists and economists

Here’s a little bit of irony:

According to BBC business correspondent Hugh Pym, the report will carry weight because Sir Nicholas, a former World Bank economist, is seen as a neutral figure.

Unlike earlier reports, his conclusions are likely to be seen as objective and based on cold, hard economic fact, our correspondent said.

The idea that economists are more objective than scientists is a very difficult one for me to swallow. While scientific theories are pretty much all testable on the basis of observations, economic theories are much more abstract. Indeed, when people have actually gone and empirically examined economic theories, they have often been found to be lacking.

Part of the problem may be the insistence of media sources in finding the 0.5% of scientists who hold the opposite view from the other 99.5%. While balance is certainly important in reporting, ignoring relative weights of opinion is misleading. In a study published in Science, Naomi Oreskes from the University of California, San Diego examined 10% of all peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate change from the previous ten years (n=928).1 In that set, three quarters discussed the causes of climate change. Among those, all of them agreed that human-induced CO2 emissions are the prime culprit. 53% of 636 articles in the mainstream press, from the same period, expressed doubts about the antropogenic nature of climate change.

I suppose this says something about the relative levels of trust assigned to different expert groups. Economists study money, so they naturally must know what they are talking about.

[Update: 25 February 2007] I recently saw Nicholas Stern speak about his report. My entry about it contains a link to detailed notes on the wiki.

[1] Oreskes, Naomi. “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Science 3 December 2004: Vol. 306. no. 5702, p. 1686. (Oxford full text / Google Scholar)

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Experts: scientists and economists”

  1. R. P. Wolff on the demands of autonomy and responsibility:

    “The contemporary American citizen, for example, has an obligation to master enough modern science to enable him to follow debates about nuclear policy and come to an independent conclusion”

    In Defense of Anarchism p.17

  2. Science & Technology
    Nation’s Experts Give Up
    ‘From Now On, You’re On Your Own,’ Say Experts

    June 16, 1999 | Issue 35•23

    WASHINGTON, DC—Citing years of frustration over their advice being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored, America’s foremost experts in every field collectively tendered their resignation Monday.

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