Monday, December 2, 2013

Scientific rigour and political activism

A friend of mine who has spend time doing research in Canada, in Montreal (Quebec) to be precise, told me an interesting anecdote. She attended a seminar of a researcher whose conclusions reinforced an argument of the supporters of Quebec’s independence. When my friend had to opportunity to talk to this researcher in private and raised the issue of his support to independence, the researcher said that he was surprised that my friend assumed that he was pro-independence, since this was a private issue that he completely separated from his work as a researcher. I bet that this anecdote would not have happened in Spain or Catalonia, where it is much easier to infer the political position from the statements made in research formats. There is nothing wrong in being a scientist with political positions. That is what Einstein used to do. But the theory of relativity had little to do with world peace or social justice, the ideas advocated by Einstein. It is much more difficult to separate the two spheres when you do research in social sciences, where the choice of topics and the interpretation of results is unavoidably impregnated by one’s biases, as was openly and unashamedly done by the neo-conservative members of the Mont Pelerin Society. Scientists should be modest and open-minded, and be willing to update their prior beliefs as they receive contradicting evidence. The bad thing is when someone tries to disguise his or her prejudices into science. Some of the best economists today are openly partisan (they are openly left-wing), like Stiglitz, Krugman, Bowles, Aghion, Piketty or many others: in this case their progressive values have inspired their big questions, but their answers are nuanced (at least in my biased view) enough to see that they know how to update their beliefs. I prefer these intellectuals, rather than those whose bias is to ride the wave of the moment or to look somewhere else in the face of injustice or stupidity.

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