Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are sociologists more ethical than economists?

I was surprised to read in the recent debate about the economics code of ethics at the AEA meetings that the code of ethics would be modeled along the lines of (gasp!) the American Sociological Association. (See excerpt at the NYT.) Does this mean that sociologists are more ethical than us?

Like others I am skeptical that a code of ethics would do much. It’s sort of like, well, having MBA students and investment bankers take a course in ethics and then expecting them to behave, err, ethically. Unlike Lant Pritchett however, I believe that disclosure is important. (See coverage at Slate.) Pritchett believes that any argument should be able to stand on its own weight regardless of the affiliation of the person who is making them. So if Frederic Mishkin believes that the economy of Iceland is sound because of its fundamentals even if Iceland has paid him a consulting fee we should be able to evaluate Mishkin’s arguments fairly without any knowledge of this side payment.
Unfortunately in economics there are very few facts but lots of opinions and arguments and what actually constitutes facts is always debated. There is nothing more factual than a clinical trial - it is all about collecting data and running experiments. Yet would we be swayed if we knew the results of a trial was funded by the company trying to get a drug approval rather than the NIH?

Do we eat corn flakes because it is good for us or because Michael Phelps says its good for us? If eating corn flakes is good for us then we should be able to eat it without any regard for who is telling us to eat it. Likewise, an economist making an argument is just that - an economist making an argument. But if an economist is paid to make an argument or if the economist has ties to a company that may benefit from the arguments that the economist is making then the economist is doing more than making an argument. The economist is making an endorsement.

So we arrive at the question - are sociologists more ethical than economists? While both the American Economic Review and the American Sociological Review requires data sharing only the former seems to be more transparent in making the data accompanying published articles more easily available for download.

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