Thursday, February 17, 2011

Krugman and Bias

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent column Princeton economist a regular New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claims that the economics profession--including the editors of scholarly journals and the staff at econ departments--is fraught with bias. This is a serious charge, impugning the integrity of those involved. Any scientist in any discipline who engages in biased thinking is disloyal to his oath of office, one might say.

Now if the bulk of those in a given scientific or scholarly discipline have reached conclusions in favor of certain systems or policies, this could be the result of bias but it need not be. Accordingly, the term "bias" may be severely misused by Krugman.

Suppose engineers favor lighter versus heavier materials in building skyscrapers. Would this be a bias? Only if they did so without a sound reasons. Taking a certain stance in economics need not be a bias by any means. It can be well grounded, supported by research and analysis.

All of the practical disciplines involve selectivity--e.g., in medicine safer and more effective drugs are selected over other ones. Again, only if the reason for this is unjustified would that amount to a bias. So when Kgurman advocates the injection of more stimuli into the economy this, too, need not amount to a Keynesian bias unless it is done thoughtlessly. And what other economists are doing when they defend public policies that are based on free market economic theories might but need not be a bias. It could derive from honest and competent investigation in their field of study.

But there is a difficulty about all this. Throughout the history of the social sciences there has been a problem with reaching policy conclusions, with making claims about what bureaucrats, politicians, and others who are responsible to propose what should be done ought to say and do. This is because of the powerful influence of value-free thinking in the epistemological foundations of these sciences.

The very influential 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume and later the positivist school of the philosophy of science that followed his lead insisted that no one can establish any solid foundations for what ought to or ought not to be done. As the point is often put, no “ought” can be derived from “is.” (Actually, Hume argued that none can be deduced but this has been widely misunderstood to mean that no argument can be given for normative conclusions based on observations and descriptions of facts. But that view, if true, would abolish all of the practical sciences.)

Because of the widespread acceptance of this epistemological stance, the overwhelming majority of social scientists took it as an article of proper science that all statements favoring how one ought to proceed, be this in private conduct or public policy, amounted to something unsupportable--a bias or prejudice--instead of something defensible by human reason and research.

Whether this outlook is sound is a very long story and cannot be explored in a brief discussion but it can be said that there is much debate about it. One very big problem with it is that it is self-defeating since it issues a conclusion about how scientists ought to do their work, the very thing that the position says no one can reasonably do. But, in any case, this idea that all value judgments, recommendations as to how people out to act, must amount to biases has been quite prominent.

Accordingly whether it is the free market or statism that is being defended by an economist, by the the tenets of the prominent underlying philosophy of science it will always amount to a bias. In short, no one can rationally defend some policy of action since these all involve saying what should or ought to be done.

What then is left for policy studies? Only the determination of whether a policy has widespread support. In a largely democratic society that means whether the voting public favors or opposes it. But that doesn’t do away with the theoretical problem--the majority’s choice of policy is still no more than a bias according to this view.

By now, of course, the philosophical case in favor of construing all policy proposals as expressing no more than a bias has been widely disputed but, sadly, this hasn’t had a major impact on how many social scientists think. Some tend to sense that there is something amiss with the idea but that doesn’t mean they have come up with a cogent alternative.

In any case, what Krugman is doing in labeling the free market stance a bias is either saying something that is obvious since all policy positions are biases from his perspective; or he is begging the question, which is a serious logical fallacy. He would need to show that the free market stance is unjustified, flawed, and advocated only as a matter of a personal prejudice, which of course he has not done.

So what Krugman has done instead is distort the meaning of “bias” to serve his own ideological opposition to--we could call it his own “bias” against--the free market.

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