Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:27 am