The tree of knowledge

Input from academic associations gives lawmakers better information about the policies they consider enacting

According to a recent article in The Chronicle, “The American Economic Association has never taken a position on any public policy issue.” President of the association William D. Nordhaus said in an interview with The Chronicle that the organization is proud of its policy of segregating itself from political affairs, that it has, “served [them] well.”

The question of what degree of involvement (if any) academic associations should have in political issues will be answered differently by scholars in different disciplines. The American Anthropology Association frequently takes stances on political issues. The American Society of Historians has taken stances, but proceeds cautiously. They recently created a set of guidelines for when it is appropriate to take a stance and when it is not.

There is something to be said for the argument that organizations devoted to academia should maintain objectivity, since a large part of their role is conducting research. Nordhaus said that the AEA will take “no partisan attitude, or commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.” But this statement makes the assumption that partisanship necessarily precedes opinions, which is not always, and in most cases should not be the case.

In our American two-party political system, we always want to see issues in black and white — or rather, red and blue. We are expected to adopt either a liberal or a conservative identity, and people with our shared political identity pressure us to agree with the majority opinion on every issue. Outliers are punished, especially within the governing bodies of representatives.

There is therefore legitimate concern that taking a stance on an issue could lead to pressure to keep up with that stance further down the road, or lead to bias before making a decision about what position to adopt on a different issue. But for an academic association to completely isolate itself from the political world may result in a less informed population of voters and legislators. The question here is not whether academia and politics should be separated, it is whether they can be. A decision cannot be made without knowledge, and research helps us to acquire that knowledge, which is necessary for informed debate and discourse among political actors and the citizens they represent.

In 2010 the American Psychological Association reiterated its support for civil marriage for gay couples, arguing that marriage offers psychological health benefits, and that children raised by gay couples are equally well-off as children raised by straight couples. This kind of information should be used in making policy decisions. The binary structure of our political system may dissuade academics from taking stances in it, but the system does not benefit from their non-participation. In fact, it probably suffers.

Academics should be encouraged to offer advice on political issues. The Chronicle raises the problem in their article that a resolution passed by an academic association may only be voted on by a small percentage of members, so the stance they take is not necessarily representative of the entire body. But this problem can be remedied by establishing a minimum participation percentage within the body.

Policy decisions can suffer from a dearth of information. According to the International Business Times, about 80 percent of the United States Congress does not have an academic background in economics or business. This is not the say that we need a Congress full of people with doctorates in economics. Rather, it indicates that legislatures are making decisions that involve a certain amount of knowledge which they may not necessarily possess. In order to make up for this lack of knowledge within the legislative body, lawmakers can turn to opinions from major academic associations. Political decisions should be inherently connected to the breadth of knowledge we have available to us. To divorce them will likely lead to missteps.

Published February 18, 2014 in Opinion

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