In my law practice I often represent charter school applicants appealing local districts’ denial of their charter applications to the Colorado State Board of Education. Some years ago in one of these appeals a local district decided to support their case for denial by hiring an infamous advocacy firm masquerading as experts in education economics to produce a report demonstrating the terrible economic threat charter schools represent to school districts. The firm produced the report and I proceeded to explode it by pointing out the tendentious assumptions upon which it was based.
The district’s decision to use the firm backfired, because their obvious bad faith probably helped me win that appeal. I was particularly pleased with one line from my brief: “Whenever the education establishment desires to cloak its prejudices in the mantle of “science,” it hires [firm X] who is always happy to oblige.”
A recent study by Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt shows that what happened in my case is actually probably the norm (on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide) in economics. Here are their findings:
Our questionnaire asked respondent economists to agree or disagree, using a seven-point Likert scale, with each of 22 positive economic statements and four normative economic statements.8 Then our questionnaire asked economists to rate on a six-point scale the moral relevance of a series of 22 propositions or factors, in order to gauge how they defined right and wrong . . .
We first found a close association between the moral values of economists and their normative economic views. Economists who believe governments should not interfere in markets to address income inequality also tended to define fairness in proportional terms (i.e., being rewarded in proportion to your contributions), rather than in terms of equality. Meanwhile, economists who did believe there should be a role for government in reducing income inequality tended to see equality as a moral imperative. This is not a surprising finding; we would expect a relationship between moral worldviews and public policy opinions. What is surprising is that we found a relationship of roughly the same magnitude between economists’ moral narratives and their empirical, technical, ‘positive’ economic theory views, too . . .
Finally, our survey data shows that responses to moral propositions can be used to predict responses to empirical (positive) economic theory propositions . . .
Collectively, this data shows that economists’ substantive conclusions about the workings of the economy are suspiciously correlated with their moral values. We cannot prove causation with our survey design, but given everything else we know about the power of motivated reasoning (Nickerson 1998; see review in Haidt 2012, ch. 4), causal effects are quite likely.
When moral positions can be used to predict empirical conclusions, the endeavor in question does not deserve the cachet associated with science.