Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Freakonomics and Professor Nutt

Being, in general, unable to listen to myself on radio, I didn't hear last night's Night Waves. As a result, I don't know how much of the conversation I recorded earlier with Steve 'Freakonomics' Levitt was broadcast. Anyway, the first thing I did was pick him up on a line in Superfreakonomics - 'Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work - whereas economics represents how it actually does work.' I said such statements made me reach for my revolver. He reeled at this slightly so I modified 'revolver' to 'water pistol'. The point was lost until, later, I brought it up again and explained what I meant. He had the grace to agree it was a fair point. What I meant was that economics, like any other discipline, is not how the world works, it is a view of how it works. Relegating morality - or art or religion or philosophy or psychology or biology or any number of things - to some secondary category which is, somehow, less real is absurd. These are as much facts in the world as financial transactions or particle colliders.
That is why I'm on the side of Alan Johnson in the Nutt affair. Being preoccupied, I paid no attention to this flurry beyond noting that nice Mr Johnson finally seemed to have acquired a spinal column. I know the legal status of drugs is important, but it is an issue that has never grabbed me.
Then I saw Professor Nutt on television saying something about scientists providing the facts, implying that politicians dealt in some lesser currency. I fumbled for my revolver before remembering, once again, I do not own one. Nutt, who seems to be a hard case, appears to think that there is a realm of 'facts' to which only science has access and conclusions drawn from this realm should be unquestioningly obeyed. He is confused.
Science is a very specialised undertaking. Its methods do, indeed, provide privileged access to certain kinds of knowledge. But they do so by limiting the scope of that knowledge. If the Large Hadron Collider throws up a Higgs Boson, it will be a great and fascinating triumph. However, I don't expect it to have any impact whatsoever on how I shall vote at the next election. In the human sciences, perversely perhaps, I expect even less. Freakonomics is a brilliant and entertaining discipline and that tells much better and more persuasive stories than macroeconomics, but it suffers from the same embarrassing problem. It cannot, as Levitt acknowledged, make reliable or useable predictions. It must, therefore, restrict itself to being a commentary on the world competing with many others.
Nutt's facts may be a slightly different matter, perhaps a touch more exact. They may play a large part in political decision making. But they must compete with other facts that, for the moment and, perhaps, for ever, cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. Facts also happen outside the lab and resigning scientists may be a sign that even this government is, occasionally, capable of governing.


  1. Good points. It's been a long time since I mentioned global warming. OK, I'm done.

    P.S. Isn't it time we had a whip-round to get you that revolver?

  2. I thought the whole appeal of the Freakonomics stories is that they give us a glimpse of how limited our understanding of the world is - ie. that everything is much more complicatedly interlinked than we think and eveything has unexpected consequences and causes. I didn't think you were supposed to take Freakonomics stories as being the real truth.

  3. That observation about science getting traction by narrowing is well said.

    To be fair to Nutt, I think he always accepted that politicians decide. He was saying that if they set up a committee to look into the issues and make recommendations then the committee should be allowed to make its recommendations before politicians make up their mind and the committee should be allowed to look into the issue without having to factor in the political problems of those taking the advice.

    It was a row about politics not science. Johnson wanted Nutt to not remind people of what the science is saying (no doubt mixed in with some of his own opinions) while he was employed as an advisor to Johnson.

    I think Johnson has indeed a point. But I also think Nutt has a point. Much of our drug policy is and always has been bonkers so as not to upset a politically influential sector of society that has nothing to do with recreational drugs or the massive costs of proscribing it.

    To the people looking at this mess--and the drugs committee is about much more than the science--those who don't have to deal with the noisy ignorant mob, this is profoundly frustrating.

    Nutt and Johnson, both, have my sympathy.

    (This is not to say that drugs should be legalised but it would be good if we could have an informed, rational debate--but it never happens.)

  4. But perhaps you should step back from pointing out how much more sophisticated you are than these experts, and remember the old adage about having your opinions but not your own facts.

    It is well known that Nutt's classification scheme includes social harm as a key component. This is an explicit acknowledgement that non-scientific factors should be taken into account. Glib comments like "facts also happen outside the lab" suggest no respect for the the most basic aspects of the advisory council's work. Using the sterile, subterranean hadron collider as an analogy is a gross misrepresentation not worthy of a failing philosophy student.

    You seem to also miss the point that economists such as Levitt will admit that their representations of reality are just that (i.e. not precise depictions), without likewise conceding his entirely valid point that many moral arguments are indeed based on wishful thinking. This can also cause more harm than good.

    Once you get past the laughably easy task of pointing out that humans are fallible, even if they are scientists, you can get to the actual substance of the matter. Alan Johnson might as well have said, "whoever advises this government has best never make a single impolitic comment, for they will be summarily dismissed with all due contempt. We expect our highly respected, successful experts to have no ego whatsoever". A terrible approach to good governance.

    If a Home Secretary lacks the confidence and political skills to handle an occasionally bolshy advisor, they should consider giving their post up. In a world of transparency and easy communications, it is overly paranoid for my liking to expect reknowned experts in a given field to also be political experts.

    Public debate I don't mind. Servile advisors and heavy handed politicians however make my skin crawl.

  5. I actually thought the way Bryan interweaved Freakonomics and Nutt to make a wider point was rather good, Jon. If you prefer a narrower debate repeating the obvious sides of the argument ad nauseam your best bet is the BBC or Guardian 'have your say' ten billion comment jobs.

  6. Bryan - the story isn't "Scientist thinks science trumps politics"? The story is "Politician sacks scientist for doing science".

    Nutt didn't resign because he was a spoilt child not getting his own way (in which case your analysis would have been completely on the money). He was sacked because he presented his views publicly.

  7. He was sacked because he presented his views publicly.

    Therein lies the problem. Civil servants have had tight restrictions on their right to express their views publically since the year dot. In fact their silence is a basic consitutional principle and only becomes hazy on the boundaries of legality. But as Bryan points out, Nutt seems to see his "views" not at all as views in the sense of opinions, Heaven forbid, but as some timeless, value-free, objective truths floating around in the ether. I suspect he sees himself as nothing but a humble messenger spreading enlightenment for the good of us all. There's a lot of that going around these days.

  8. Not sure about that, Peter. I've had a look on the web and I can't find a quote from Nutt to the effect that science provides timeless unchallengeable truths.

    But then I didn't see the television interview that Bryan saw. So it is entirely possible that Nutt is one of those crazy positivists who believe that science proceeds by the accretion of certain truths rather than by, say, the open testing and criticism that Popper describes.

    Nevertheless, I'm going to run the risk of getting on the wrong side of Brit's bat (is there a right side?) by agreeing with Jon's "narrow" point that, pace Bryan's post, this particular case doesn't seem to me to be illustrating science trumpeting an alleged priority but rather something like the opposite: Politics is asserting its priority in the sense that offering a view based on empirical evidence is taken as a political campaign if it appears to question government policy, at least in relation to drugs issues.

  9. LW:

    I was talking about a general mindset rather than trying to pin Nutt specifically to the wall, and I certainly wouldn't have expected him to use precisely those words. But why is Nutt's case any different that that of an Assistant Director, Strategic Planning, Inland Revenue who runs to the press to complain how stupid the budget is.

  10. Peter, ok fair enough about the mindset.

    Some of the differences between the scientific adviser in this case and the hypothetical assistant director are...

    1. The scientific adviser's hypothetical value is in the quality and independence of his scientific views. The assistant director's value is presumably in running things.

    2. Some of the scientific adviser's views could be expressed in private; but he couldn't in principle do his day job as a scientist without putting forward his views in scientific circles. The views and the evidence produced in support must be open to criticism in public forums such as journals and seminars. The assistant director should be offering views internally, while representing the official line externally.

    3. The scientific adviser doesn't get paid for being an adviser. The assistant director does. However each must adhere to a code of conduct appropriate to the role, so perhaps this difference is over-stated.

    4. The scientific adviser should not feel inhibited about giving an honest scientific opinion to the minister, even if that opinion is outweighed in the decision-making by other factors (such as morality, public opinion, advice from another branch of science, a manifesto promise, lack of evidence, costs, and critical arguments). The assistant director might be obliged not to say anything that counters the views of higher-ranking officials.

  11. LW:

    I worked for several years in government some years ago and dealt with a fair number of scientific advisors in several ministries because of the nature of my brief. Your image of them as akin to scholars sitting alone in an office waiting for the phone to ring to answer someone's question on the second law of thermodynamics wasn't born out by my experience, which is that they naturally gravitate to advocacy roles and become heavily involved in interdepartmental competition and pushing policies up the line. Indeed, many of them will say they left academia or research "to make a difference".

    I appreciate there are limits here. A dietary advisor is in a tough position if the government publishes "healthy food guidelines" that suggest four deep-fried Mars bars a day. But drugs are not simply a scientific question and there is not even a scientific consensus on the dangers or addiction potentials. Some experts see pot as more benign than alcohol, others see it as an anti-social first step to more serious habits. I don't know all the details of this matter, but, but to the extent that he used his expertise card to trump his duty to support his minister, he's no hero.

  12. Peter,

    Hmmm.... this is interesting. Particularly the observation about scientific advisers tending to gravitate to advocacy and inter-departmental rivalries. This is an area I know very little about, and it sounds an interesting psychological trajectory.

    I suppose I do have a rather idealised image of the scientific adviser being beholden to no-one except to whatever independent committee they chair, and even then their duty is simply to represent the collective view in a fair-minded manner. And that doesn't sound at all like the reality.

    But I do think we have now strayed into the danger zone of Brit's bat... ;-)

  13. Don't mind me, LW. I wield my bat in anger only at intelligent design theorists, agnostic bus drivers, transhumanists, chippy northern autodidacts and swinging dicks.

  14. LW:

    Actually, I'm coming around to the view that few modern social and political issues today can be properly understood without considering the roles of computers and bureaucracy. Also to the view that Brit could do with more sleep :-)