Thursday, January 3, 2013

Normative questions are not scientific questions

A commenter on my last post mentions an October post from Yglesias on different policy views of male and female economists. I'm not sure if I linked to this at the time (I do remember seeing it), but he really botches the distinction between normative and positive claims:
"...even though I bet male chemists and female chemists have different perceptions of gender dynamics in the chemistry profession, I doubt that there are systematic gender-linked perception gaps in the content of chemistry. But male economists and female economists have systematically different views about economics-related policy topics:

— Health insurance. Female economists thought employers should be required to provide health insurance for full-time workers: 40 percent in favor to 37 percent against, with the rest offering no opinion. By contrast, men were strongly against the idea: 21 percent in favor and 52 percent against

— Education. Females narrowly opposed taxpayer-funded vouchers that parents could use for tuition at a public or private school of their choice. Male economists love the idea: 61 percent to 14 percent.

— Labor standards. Females believe 48 percent to 33 percent that trade policy should be linked to labor standards in foreign counties. Males disagreed: 60 percent to 23 percent.

That's a sign, I think, of the fairly rudimentary state of economics knowledge as well as of the underlying gender dynamics."
How does he get that? How is disagreeing with each other on policy questions an indication at all of economic knowledge? To come back to his discussion of chemists, do you think all chemists are going to agree on every piece of environmental or food legislation that deals with chemical compounds? Of course not! In fact you're probably going to see some of the same gender divisions that you see among male and female economists on economic policy! That hardly suggests that our knowledge of chemistry is rudimentary!

And the responses to the one semi-positively phrased question (although it's kind of loaded in how they ask it) is telling:
"But there is agreement about a few things. Economists in the survey of all genders agree that the United States spends too much on the military and also "that Wal-Mart is good for society" (which I think is a weird way of putting it but basically correct)."
Lo and behold when you stop talking about policy decisions and normative issues and start asking about things like the gains from trade, economists agree! The wording of the Wal-Mart question is odd because you could personally value things about personalized mom and pop shops in tight knit communities or consumerism and maybe come up with something else. But generally speaking I think the reason why there's consensus on this is because it's a positive question and economic knowledge is not rudimentary.


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  3. Do you actually think that there is such a thing as a purely "scientific" claim? Even something like gains from trade is couched in a normative framework.

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  4. Daniel,

    This is unrelated to this post, but here is the precise quotation from Alvin A. Hansen predicting the post-1945 boom (as related to the discussion over at "Free Advice"):

  5. "Normative questions are not scientific questions."

    Are not all claims to "knowledge" or "fact" themselves normative? :)

    (What's the Rorty/Pragmatist line here?)

    (T0 be clear, I understand the constrast you are making).


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