Most Economists Welcome Ideological Openness

By Klein, Daniel B.; Davis, William L. et al. | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Most Economists Welcome Ideological Openness


Klein, Daniel B., Davis, William L., Figgins, Bob G., Hedengren, David, Independent Review


With Adam Smith, political economy emerged as part of moral philosophy. From the early 1800s, however, writers have considered whether economics as a science can be demarcated from morals and politics. Can economics be value free? Even if it can be, should it be? During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there were strong movements toward demarcation and separation of economics from moral, cultural, and political judgment.

Someone who moves in the world of academic economics now is likely to detect something of an official orthodoxy that economic science should be "positive" and not "normative." In this view, economists should be factual, analytical, and "objective," and they should keep their value judgments out of the research.

In March 2010, we conducted a major survey of economics professors in the United States. (1) We asked the respondents whether, when reading or listening to an economist, they welcomed his disclosure of his ideological proclivities. We anticipated that most economists would say they do not like it. The survey was completed by 299 economics professors in the United States, yielding a response rate of 15.2 percent. The results surprised us.

The survey, which was mailed with a postage-paid return envelope, contained a wide range of questions. (2) The results for questions about favorite economists, journals, and blogs are reported in Davis et al. 2011, which also details the survey method. We refrain from repeating the methodology, noting only that despite the lackluster response rate of 15.2 percent, the 299 respondents' sex ratio is quite close to that of the survey group, which itself is a random sample of economics professors, and their political-party ratios are well aligned to what we know for economists generally (Davis et al. 2011, 128).

Question 4 of the survey appeared as follows:

Some economists, such as Frank D. Graham and Gunnar Myrdal, have suggested that when an economist addresses major social issues, he or she ought to disclose his or her own ideological proclivities, or where he/she "is coming from."

Suppose you are reading or listening to an economist, and he discloses his own ideological proclivities. Which best represents your attitude toward his doing so:

--A. I welcome it.

--B. I am indifferent.

--C. I dislike it.

--D. I'm not sure.

One might argue that the preliminary sentence, mentioning Graham and Myrdal, commits the foul of leading the respondent. That may be, but it does not seem to us that it would be very influential. At any rate, the results are shown in table 1. Not only did a clear majority say they welcome ideological disclosure, but only 10 percent said they dislike it!

We have noted the possibility that the preliminary sentence led the respondent. Another possible reason to discount our findings is the suspicion that a preference for natural discourse makes one both more likely to favor ideological openness and to complete and return a survey. We have no gauge of this possible response bias. Our intuition is that there may well be something to it. But we also think it unlikely that the two possible biases are significant enough to undo the broad conclusion that a large portion, if not "most," economics professors welcome ideological openness.

A follow-on question was directed to those who said they welcome disclosure: "If you chose A, please check any of the following reasons for why you welcome it." Table 2 shows that of the 188 respondents who said they welcome disclosure, 72.3 percent marked that it "alerts the reader to possible author bias." The respondent was permitted to check multiple reasons, and the next two reasons listed in the table also gained the allegiance of a clear majority of respondents who welcome disclosure: self-disclosure "helps one understand how the author sees the matter," and it "gives the discourse a more candid and open ethic. …

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