Please turn on JavaScript

Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Scientists as Experts

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scientists as Experts

I do not believe that scientists should ever exaggerate the threat of policy action or inaction. It threatens our credibility as scientists, yet it is all too common a practice and too often condoned. In "Economists as Experts: Would an Expert Exaggerate?," I quote Nobel laureate, Thomas Schelling, who believes that exaggeration may be necessary to sell legislation on climate change to the taxpayers because beneficiaries are not yet born and will probably not live in the United States.

Using an example from trade, Paul Krugman weighs in on exaggeration in his brilliant book, "Pop Internationalism" that is a must read for anybody interested in any type of international relations.
Many people who know that "competitiveness" is a largely meaningless concept have been willing to indulge competitive rhetoric precisely because they believe they can harness it in the service of good policies. An overblown fear of the Soviet Union was used in the 1950s to justify the building of the interstate highway system and the expansion of math and science education. Cannot the unjustified fears about foreign competition similarly be turned to good, used to justify serious efforts to reduce the budget deficit, rebuild infrastructure, and so on?

A few years ago this was a reasonable hope. At this point, however, the obsession with competitiveness has reached the point where it has already begun dangerously to distort economic policies.
I can think of a few reasons scientists might exaggerate a scientific claim to see a policy enacted. None are flattering. They may believe that they are smarter than the general electorate which needs a push to support the correct policy. They may want to secure a place in history. Their motive might be as simple as supporting a winning policy. Any thoughts?

Replace this text with...


  1. Hunter Tunmire10/11/09 5:30 PM

    I believe exaggeration is necessary to convince the masses. For example, take the senators and politicians at large that refuse to take action on a subject because their personal beliefs stand in the way, regardless of any data persented. But if you tell them that they are in imminent threat of becoming extinct, then they will be more open to the scientists.

  2. Jonathan Diep10/11/09 10:29 PM

    Although exaggeration of the truth isn't what an expert should do, sometimes exaggeration is unavoidable. For example, certain issues, such as global warming, need to be exaggerated to grab the public's attention and cause the public to be more aware about their environment.

  3. Kyle Kennedy16/11/09 11:24 PM

    Exaggeration is used to emphasize a subject or bring attention to an event. I believe scientest exaggerate to get their point across or to bring consideration to the people their directing information to. Although sometimes it seems unprofessional, I think depending on the situations it is necessary.

  4. Ryan hecker18/11/09 9:34 PM

    i think you dont think you want scientists as experts because they will exaggeration for their own personal gain. For example if a medical company paid a well know doctor to promote their medications then the doctor might endorce it for the wrong reason.

  5. Cameron Dorsett19/11/09 7:26 AM

    I believe only the straightforward truth should be involved when attempting to enact legislation. The credibility of many powerful people and our democracy come into question. Although truth is fairly hard to come by these days, it's my opinion that it should be the number one goal from the start.