Arnold Kling  

My Proposal for a Code of Ethics for Economists

Health Care: Costs, Spending, ... Labor Market Commentary...

There has been much discussion of late of a code of ethics for economists, with a focus on disclosing personal interests. I would go in a different direction. My code of ethics would consist of one line:

Take into account the possibility that you may be wrong.

If that one-line code of ethics becomes popular, call it the Saffran Rule, since it reminds me of the late Bernie Saffran, who would frequently say, in the midst of making an argument, "I'm willing to be wrong, but...."

I have nothing against disclosure of personal interests, but it is always going to be selective. If you are funded by a government grant, should you disclose that? If your research serves to raise the status of your previous research, or that of your allies in the profession, should you disclose that?

Speaking of government funding, my reaction to George Will's column calling for more government funding of science and engineering was to think that there could be a down side. Whoever controls the government funding then sets the direction of science. The inevitable result is to define as "unscientific" any theory that deviates too much from mainstream thinking. Is that what we want to reinforce? Watch this Gary Taubes video and listen to him describe a scientific monoculture.

Anyway, in the blogosphere, I am ready to be done with people who do not follow the Saffran Rule. I can have all the disagreements I need with people who are able to argue respectfully. As for the other types, who are more focused on egos than ideas, the phrase "Don't feed the trolls" is your best guide.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

COMMENTS (13 to date)
velocity bounded writes:

Regardless of whatever ethical rules you wish to impose on economists (e.g., no intentional misrepresentations or omissions in rendering professional views, requirement to disclose financial interests, etc), please describe the mechanism to enforce the rule, and the sort of punishments you would impose for violating the rules.

E.g., temporary or permanent suspension of right to render professional views on economics? Fines?

E.g., enforcment by state attorneys general?

In Bayesian statistics, Cromwell's Rule is based on a phrase from Oliver Cromwell that's very similar to your proposed ethical code: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."

Steve Sailer writes:

Let's consider a relevant example: Andrei Shleifer of Harvard, winner of the 1999 John Bates Clark medal. His scam in Russia in the 1990s wound up costing Harvard many millions, and contributed to the faculty uprising against his best friend Larry Summers. Harvard stripped him of his honorary title of Whipple V.N. Jones Professor of Economics.

Has the economics profession, however, done anything to shame Shleifer? I don't know. David Warsh wrote a long series of columns on Shleifer complaining that economists weren't. I don't know if anything has happened since then -- economists mostly don't seem to want to talk about it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

How do you determine who is generally following the Saffran rule, though? I find that people often accuse others of violating such a rule simply because they are frustrated that they are not convinced by their arguments.

As a rule of personal ethics I think it is excellent, but it's a very hard rule to impose in interactions in the blogosphere. Which isn't to say that there aren't some people that are just going to be a waste of time - but I think identifying violators of this rule is going to end up being pretty hard.

Chris T writes:

Take into account the possibility that you may be wrong.

This is hardly limited to economics; it's disheartening to see how many scientists will cling to personal theories even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Hyena writes:

Government funding of science would seem to have a more subtle impact in that it would give the false perception that a research paradigm is sustainable because it always meets the standard for government funding even though it is failing to generate new insight or even refine older ones.

ajb writes:

Most can't respond to Shleifer because Harvard kept him on. This makes him powerful and no rational economist would endanger his career by angering Shleifer publicly. His co-author Lopez de Silanes could be punished because Princeton had the cojones to fire him thus setting a precedent other schools could follow. Still Lopez landed on his feet with a cushy job in Europe and still some influence in journals.

Richard writes:

Your rule is really interesting. In fact, it applies to all kind of professions. Acknowledging that as an economic advisor one can be wrong may be an important step to prevent fraud and scams.

hhoran writes:

Arnold is fundamentally wrong on this one.

"Consider you might be wrong" is a wise and humane sentiment but useless in this discussion of professional norms/requirements. Human nature being what it is, a significant portion of those active in professional debates will not exercise the humility and openness to contrary arguments that Arnold's bromide implies. As the authors and most readers of this blog should surely realize, those with tangible financial incentives to push a given argument will be the least likely to be humble and open.

The "problem" is that the norms of economic debate presume that everyone with credentials that publish arguments is (or has the same incentives as) an ivory tower academic, where in fact there's a lot of work directly sponsored by corporate interests who stand to gain by misrepresenting findings as the result of dispassionate independent research. Most academic departments, journals and "reputable" publications make no serious effort to help users distinguish between "independent" analysis and the various forms/degrees of corporate advocacy.

More complete disclosure of an author's economic incentives gives the reader potentially useful information and makes crude misrepresentation a tad harder. It also gives others within the professional community an additional weapon to attack paid advocacy arguments that they don't have today. Perhaps not much changes, but there's absolutely no downside to the disclosure requirement.

I agree with Arnold completely. I am reminded of a story recited by Prof. Daniel N. Robinson (Georgetown University, emeritus). It goes something like this.

On a day when you are particularly satisfied and impressed with the depth and breadth of your knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, stand in front of a mirror. Gazing intently, say aloud, "I may be wrong," and in that, you may very well be right.

Words to live by, especially for those of us entrusted to teach others.

Chris Future writes:

By that code, Paul Krugman could no longer call himself an economist, right?

Joseph P. Martino writes:

In my book SCIENCE FUNDING: POLITICS AND PORKBARREL (Transaction Press, 1992), I concluded that Federal funding of science had corrupted the scientific enterprise in America. My observations since then have led me to believe the situation has become even worse than when I wrote the book.

Far from increasing science funding, it's time to cut it back. With over one-third of all published scientific papers never being cited by another paper, it's clear there's a lot of trivial research, and even junk science, being paid for with our tax money.

John Fast writes:

@velocity bounded How about removing their tenure or actually dismissing them from their position, and/or denying them government funding?

@Daniel Kuehn I completely agree. So, @Arnold Kling what is the standard for testing whether someone is complying with or violating the Saffran Rule? How can one tell whether I am arguing respectfully? Can I get away with simply mouthing the words "Of course, I might be wrong" at the end of every article, even if I don't mean it and don't otherwise act like it?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top