Thursday, August 16, 2007

Word of the Day

Agnotology, which I discovered reading this article in Inside Higher Ed (with possibly the best headline since "Headless Body In Topless Bar") on a discussion of academic freedom at the American Sociological Association meetings. The worry is that political pressure is causing academics to avoid certain topics, or at least disguise what they are doing:
...Epstein cited the work of Robert Proctor, a Stanford University historian of science, who studies “agnotology” — the production of ignorance, or a field to contrast with epistemology. “What we are seeing is the construction of non-knowledge,” Epstein said.

There are those who just move into other research areas. But Epstein also asked about those who leave certain words out of their projects’ names or descriptions. “If you leave out the key words, people may not find your work,” he said, and more non-knowledge may have been created.

So far, I haven't had any problems with social conservatives objecting to my work on adjustment costs and exchange rate volatility. Though I don't see the same problems with academic freedom in economics as the sociologists are having (yet) - there seems to be plenty of agnotology going on in economic policy discussions. The first example that comes to mind is the persistent lie that tax cuts increase tax revenues - on this subject, see Matthew Yglesias on Giuliani and the press and this post at Economist's View. If I was feeling "fair and balanced" I could no doubt easily find some example left-wing economic agnotology, too (perhaps an exaggerated analysis of the "job losses" from free trade, for example).

The problem is that there are plenty of people with vested interests in promoting bad, intellectually dishonest "economic analysis," to support their political positions. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems easy to fool - or at least confuse - the public and the press. This is where academics have a role to play by (i) helping our students become more critical consumers of information and (ii) putting forward honest, rigorous and objective research which can be the basis for better policy choices.

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