Monday, June 17, 2013

98. Science and policy

Why is it so difficult to connect science and policy, as in economic and social policy, and why is there so little effective communication between the two?

The connection suffers from two related, fundamental problems. First, science is mostly connected with the Cartesian ideal of an objective observer outside the field of study, in a separation of subject and object, in ‘spectator theory’. In other words, the view that pragmatism opposes. Second, science is mostly associated with the spirit of geometry (see item 7 of this blog), in abstraction from the complexities and variability of specific conditions in which the world is observed. That is needed to argue rigorously, in deduction from premises. This also requires limitation of the range of perspectives one could take, in a specific disciplinary perspective.

Policy, by contrast, is applied in specific contexts and cannot afford all that. Universals must be embedded in specific contexts and must thereby be expanded with corresponding conditions and peculiarities that were eliminated in abstraction. It cannot afford to consider an isolated perspective but must simultaneously consider other possible and relevant perspectives. It must regard the specific context in all its richness and variability. In other words, it must exercise the spirit of finesse.

According to Blaise Pascal, the spirits of geometry and finesse cannot be mixed, like oil and water. So there lies the problem of scientific policy advice. What, then, to do? According to Pascal one can only alternate between the two. How is that to be done?

This problem is related, I believe, to the problem of incommensurability. Aristotle recognized that not all values are commensurable, cannot all be brought under a common denominator so that they may be added and subtracted, in a calculation of trade-offs. The assumption that this is always possible is an affliction of economic science. What is there to be done in such cases? All we can do is to try and clarify the contrasts among views or values in debate, with the aim to arrive at some reconciliation or some judgement of which perspective is the most relevant or valid in the case at hand. That is the job of the policy maker.

Can we find some further help, some instrument, in this process? I suggest that we can find this in multiple Aristotelian causality, discussed in preceding items in this blog. What could one say, in the particular context at hand, about the agents, means, motives, know-how, conditions and leading examples of the case at hand? Could insights from different perspectives be integrated along that scheme? Psychologists might say something useful about motives, economists or sociologists about the agents involved, economists about market conditions, sociologists about institutional conditions, social psychologists about social conditions, anthropologists about cultural conditions, sociologists about social network effects, organization scientists about organizational conditions, and engineers about technology. Would that help?

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