… is from page 34 of the 1948 printing of the second edition (1935) of Lionel Robbins’s classic 1932 tract, An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science:
It is not an exaggeration to say that, at the present day, one of the main dangers to civilisation arises from the inability of minds trained in the natural sciences to perceive the difference between the economic and the technical.
DBx: Nearly a century after Robbins wrote these words they remain true, and they are as relevant today as they were when he first penned them.
How human beings should strike each of the countless trade-offs that must be struck in our world of scarcity cannot possibly be determined by science. Science can give us information about many of the likely consequences of different choices, and we should be eager to receive and use that information. But science cannot tell us just how trade-offs ‘should’ be struck. Science cannot tell us whether or not it’s worthwhile to pay $X for Y amount of reduction in carbon emissions. Science cannot tell us if the risks that attend the development of AI are worth incurring or not. Science cannot tell us if the costs of raising the minimum wage are greater than whatever benefits might arise from doing so.
Science cannot give humanity an answer to the question: ‘When covid-26 emerges, should governments again lock societies down?’
Deferring to science for answers to questions such as these isn’t simply inadvisable; it’s impossible. Literally impossible. Decisions that appear to the naive mind – and that are portrayed to the public – to be purely the conclusions of science are unavoidably decisions driven by value judgments. These decisions might well be informed by science, but they are not – and cannot possibly be – driven exclusively by science. The scientific information must be integrated with value judgments to arrive at whatever particular choices are made.