Politicians and Professors at the Is-Ought Gap

Politicians rise to their positions because voters elect them to exercise power over public policy; academic scientists rise to theirs by being accomplished scholars. Sometimes, each craves the authority of the other and is tempted to act as if it were theirs.

That’s yours truly writing in Times Higher Education about whether politicians and academics can work together to make better public policy. The most common challenge I have observed to productive collaboration is each party assuming that they can leap the is-ought gap from one direction or other.

Scientists are experts at “is”. They have the tools and training to investigate the world and discover facts. Politicians have authority in the world of “ought”, not because they necessarily have better judgment than anyone else but because voters have entrusted them with power to shape society’s basic rules.

Partly because they often work in politically homogeneous settings, academic scientists sometimes don’t recognize the difference between is and ought. I once put up a slide with three statements at a public health conference:

1 Smoking cigarettes is bad for human health
2 Taxing cigarettes reduces smoking
3 Therefore cigarette taxes should be raised to improve human health

I asked the members of the audience to raise their hands when I read each statement if they believed it was a scientifically-established fact. Everyone raised their hands on #1 and #2 and about 75% kept them raised for #3. But #3 is an opinion on how people should live, not something that can be scientifically proven. Much of the audience struggled with the concept that #3 was not an objective fact, because they worked with colleagues who all agreed #3 was a reasonable trade off. I personally also agree that it is, but that doesn’t make it a fact, it makes it a subjective policy preference that is common among academics.

Politicians sometimes make the reverse leap, from ought to is. Having decided that it would be wrong to regulate fossil fuel emissions in order to prevent oceanic acidification (a position they are entitled to take) a politician might then pretend that this view is buttressed by scientific facts, i.e., argue that there is no evidence that the oceans are changing in any way. But whether a politician wants to respond to a problem or not is completely independent of the objective existence of that problem. The oceans are getting more acidic, and if every politician and every voter in the world decides to ignore that, the pH of the oceans will be unmoved.

If each side can get beyond the temptation to mix is and ought, there is hope of better public policy through academic-politician collaboration. That is the optimistic view I tried to convey in my op-ed, and it’s a possibility I have seen realized on numerous occasions.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.