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Kian Mintz-Woo

I love this series of posts, Eric! One thought on your second of four theses: "policy apt context one can never assume what one may call a free market in ideas, or perfect communicative rationality, which is nearly always tacitly assumed by philosophers of science when discussing scientific controversy... (i) some of the experts are not free to judge or free to say what they think even though they have highly salient expertise. Government scientists may well have gag orders of various kinds... (ii) Governments always have an incentive to withhold inconvenient facts or to nudge scientists in a certain direction"--While I agree with the other three claims, this doesn't seem so much of an issue to me.

The way I see policy-makers most often appealing to arguments from academics is picking and choosing--in most policy-apt contexts, there are a variety of academics making various claims and, when they are apprised of arguments that support pre-established policies, the policy-makers cite those arguments. I think this is the usual way that policy-makers use work by academics. In this context, it is not an issue for policy-makers to manipulate (in the social choice sense) the academics' work; the work is already there. Let us call this the 'pick-and-choose' model.

However, there is a considerably smaller number of cases where the arguments change minds. I take it that the early piece by Neil Ferguson et al. changed minds in Whitehall and the White House. However, once again this is not a place for policy-makers to manipulate the work---they are responding to information they didn't have and are changing their policy preferences. Call this the 'shock-and-awe' model.

There might be some cases where the government is manipulating scientific discussion, but I don't think it fits in either of these models and, to be honest, I think these models constitute the vast majority of interaction between governments and policy-apt academic work.

Eric Schliesser

Hi Kian,
Thank you for your comments. Let me first focus on a point of agreement: the demand side matters. And, second, this indeed entails that often science functions as legitimation for pre-existing policy in your pick-and-choose sense. (I use legitimation because I think your focus on 'arguments' is not quite right.) These cases are prevalent, especially, when outcome patterns are already politicized (or where the incentives/consequences are well understood by political agents).
Third, even in such cases one can't assume a free market in ideas, because political agents will also help shape scientific structure (through grants and appointments). And it matters whether the scientists are bureaucrats, academics, in industry, etc.
Fourth, finally, in contexts of genuine uncertainty (like our pandemic), policy agents are also unclear about consequences; and so pick-and-choose is not as attractive. Different kind of aggregators will help shape policy and public debate.

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