Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Simplistic Silos

Silos can be really useful for storing product and developing academic concepts but there can also be huge value in "breaking down the silos", which is business jargon for "bringing disciplines together for a common purpose". In the context of public policy making, the excessive simplification of silo thinking is particularly dangerous.

We expect simplistic views from simpletons but not from educated professionals. Sadly though, some people do emerge from higher education without a rounded picture of the way other disciplines add value, so they simplistically over-state the role of their own discipline and pay only lip service to others.

New words are needed to describe and counter the influence of such people and their non-specialist followers. Here are a couple to get started with.

Economists are prone to economisticism, the excessive focus on a narrow concept of economics. For me as an economist the most glaring involve tribal demarcations within the discipline, where there is plenty of contrary evidence and reason but it is ignored. Two examples will suffice.
These count as economisticism because in neither view can be supported without narrowly restricting the set of things that can and should influence public policy.  

Scientisticism is also a thing. I'm no scientist, just an interested observer and user of science outputs in our farming efforts. However I know enough to recognise scientistic thinkers: people who place excessive reliance on science. Mainstream agronomy offers lots of examples but I've flogged that enough lately, so let's return to the skeptics.
  • Alternative health remedies are scorned by skeptics to the point where they reckon one's own personal experiences should not be quoted to friends. To be fair, the NZ group is mostly into fighting the really fringe stuff which is fine by me. But they also have a broader antagonism toward traditional/natural/folk medicines and when they start down this track they sound like doctors that are thoroughly versed in pharmacology but not much else. 
  • They're really keen on GMOs, I think because they're seen as scientific outputs. That would be fine if they didn't also ignore, downplay and/or ridicule contrary views that derive from other disciplines. But they do. Consumer views, which are relevant to the economics of GMOs, are written off as ignorance, contrary science is attacked, and statistical risk assessments are criticised for lacking empirics.
When I chaired a university economics department I resisted the business school concept of breaking down silos because I was defending a really strong economics research group. I still see some merit in such silos, but when it comes to public policy making they're like lawyers: needing adult supervision. 

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