Scientists vs. Economists – I

Leafing through some back issues of New Scientist recently I stumbled across this excellent special report from October 2008 (How our economy is killing the Earth) that challenges the assumption that limitless growth is a good thing, and looks at the environmental costs of economic growth.


It includes an essay by Herman Daly, one of the strongest voices against the growth dogma in recent times, and a vision of what the world would look like in 2020 with a sustainable, “steady state” economy. This is the essence of the vision:

In our society [of 2020], scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable – and if they’re not sure they work out a cautious estimate. Then it’s up to the economists to work out how to achieve those limits, and how to encourage innovation so we extract as much as possible from every scrap of natural resource we use.

I’ll return to the question of whether growth is good or not in future posts. For now I want to pick up on the issue of the roles of scientists and economists in setting the levers of policy.

The vision of society presented in the quote above is an interesting idea, but it reads a little bit too much like a scientist’s wet dream. The obvious problem is getting scientists to agree on anything so important. Despite massive amounts of research and an unprecedented amount of collaboration and peer review, there is still no scientific consensus on the level of atmospheric CO2 we should aim for. A review of recent climate science by the journal Nature found estimates of between 350 and 550 ppm – a big difference when it comes to making policy.

There is a very good reason for such a high level of uncertainty, of course – climate change is a massively complex process, and we may not fully understand it until it is too late. Moreover, the scientific process, by tradition and (perhaps) by necessity, is inherently reductionist; that is, it takes a problem and divides it into smaller and smaller chunks until they reach a size that can be understood and studied in isolation. You then combine all the little bits that you have learned into a coherent model that is, hopefully, a reasonably accurate representation of the whole system.

The problem with complex systems, however, is that the whole can be quite different from the sum of the parts. So even if we understand the sub-processes involved in climate change perfectly (which currently, we don’t), we are still a long way from having a overall model that we can rely on.

So science, in its current form, is limited. Although it can be enormously successful as an explanatory tool, when it comes to predicting the future, it is no more powerful than economics was at predicting the current financial crisis.

Of course that does not mean that we should ignore or disregard the science – far from it. There absolutely must be a better connection between science and policy; economists have claimed a monopoly on policy making for far too long. My point is only that a political system where “scientists set the rules”, as proposed by the New Scientist article, is an interesting idea, but is not likely to be effective, workable, or even desirable.

“So,” you might ask, “what’s your brilliant solution then?”. The truth is I don’t know.


One Response to “Scientists vs. Economists – I”

  1. Scientists vs Economists - II « Everything is changing Says:

    […] Scientists vs Economists – II Two opinion pieces in today’s Guardian promoted me to revisit the science vs economics face-off (a thread I began here). […]

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