Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Underwater and Feeling Wet: The Limits of Economic Theory in Valuing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Underwater and Feeling Wet: The Limits of Economic Theory in Valuing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Article excerpt

We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity--whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade--is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. --Wade Davis, The Wayfinders (1)

PEOPLE LOVE TO SHARE what they know about the world. In fact, some people make normative claims incessantly: smoking is bad for you; honesty is the best policy; hard work pays off; you can't buy happiness. Citizens of the "developed" world cannot walk down the street without encountering assertions like "America runs on Dunkin"; "Jesus saves"; "Only you can prevent forest fires"; and "If you see something, say something." Yet the validity of any one of these claims depends on both the type of assertion and the intellectual community within which the speaker makes the assertion. Different communities have different rules governing the boundaries between what constitutes fact and opinion, or substantiated and unsubstantiated information. Economists are no exception, and it's time that they begin to examine the underlying assumptions that drive their policy prescriptions.


Differences in conceptual frameworks delineate what scholars refer to as "epistemic communities." (2) Evangelical Christians and evolutionary biologists exemplify two such opposing epistemic communities. But while such divisions often fall along religious, ethnic, or geographical divides, they also separate generations, political groups, and academic disciplines. Despite these significant, normative discrepancies, every epistemic community structures its mindset around self-evident truths that do not require the same type of proof as other claims within the same system. Some claims are explicit--God made the earth in seven days--and some are implicit--the scientific method leads to the most accurate understanding of the world. Academics refer to these axiomatic statements as "higher order knowledge claims." (3) Higher order knowledge claims derive power from two sources: their invisibility and their unassailability. Individuals submerged in cultural norms often have trouble recognizing their own group's higher order knowledge claims: someone completely underwater does not feel wet. This means that people in insular epistemic communities can go through their lives without ever recognizing--let alone questioning--the assumptions underpinning their worldviews. Along with this, the axiomatic nature of higher order claims leaves these tenets impervious to refutation. No type of evidence can disprove a higher order claim--not even the type of evidence required to substantiate or disprove lower order claims within the same system.

For example, a religion does not employ randomized control trials to prove the existence of its God; God's existence constitutes the irrefutable truth upon which that religion rests. (4)

The power of higher order knowledge claims plays an important role in governing interactions between these different epistemic communities. The consolidation of political and economic power in the modern era occurred alongside a division of worldviews into different modes of inquiry. A single unified mindset no longer allowed humans to engage with the "primal questions of the seen and unseen, the known and un known." (5) Over time, Western powerbrokers came to privilege certain types of knowledge claims over others, championing their own preferred epistemological frameworks.

In the realm of policy, the social sciences, especially economics and econometrics, gained near monopoly status in determining what counted as substantiated truth, forming the foundation of modern economic development logic. As Harvard public policy lecturer Michael Woolcock puts it, "Modernity is about shrinking this epistemic space and testing the truth or falseness of everything on empirical grounds. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.