In Episode 128 of Economics Explored, Philosophy Professor Deb Brown helps us explore some big questions around risk, cost-benefit analysis (CBA), and public policy, particularly relating to the pandemic. Deb also explains what was so important about the Enlightenment.
You can listen to the episode using the podcast player below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcasting apps. A transcript of the conversation is included below.
About this episode’s guest – Prof. Deb Brown
Deborah Brown is Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, Australia. During her time in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deb has coordinated a wide range of projects focusing on critical thinking. She has been instrumental in establishing connections and partnerships within the school sector, including with the Queensland Department of Education, as well as building partnerships across UQ and with international education providers.
As part of her role, Deb works to link the UQ Critical Thinking Project into relevant projects within the university to provide educators with an understanding of how to embed critical thinking in classroom practice and assessment and to maximise outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Deb has established a professional development program for educators, booster courses for school and university students and research collaborations with a diverse range of researchers from the broader UQ community.
Deb has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland and a Master of Arts and PHD from the University of Toronto.
Links relevant to the conversation
QALY Quality-Adjusted Life Year
Transcript of EP128 – Risk, Cost-benefit analysis, and the Enlightenment w/ Prof. Deb Brown
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:01
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Deb Brown 00:04
What is the Enlightenment is that the movement is about promoting intellectual autonomy, not just relying on what others or testimony or what authority tells you.
Gene Tunny 00:17
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 128, on philosophy, risk, cost-benefit analysis and the Enlightenment. This is part two of a conversation that my occasional cohost Tim Hughes and I had in January 2022, with University of Queensland philosophy professor Deb Brown. Part one of their conversation was broadcast in Episode 123, in which we chatted with Deb about truth and critical thinking. In part two, which is in this episode, we consider some big questions around risk and public policy, particularly relating to the pandemic.
Assessing government policy measures during the pandemic has been very challenging. In my view, there aren’t easy answers. Basic Facts are disputed and people are making different subjective assessments of what restrictions on our liberty are justifiable, for public health reasons. I found this conversation with Deb really helpful in clarifying some of the important issues for me. And I’ll aim to come back to the pandemic in a future episode soon with some further thoughts.
Deb also helped me understand just what is meant by that critically important period in our history known as the Enlightenment. Part of the way forward out of the mess that we’re in globally at the moment, in my view, surely has to be a greater appreciation and a recommitment to the values of the Enlightenment. Okay, please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications and abbreviations, such as QALY, Q-A-L-Y, which stands for quality adjusted life year, that’s one of the abbreviations that Deb uses in our conversation. You can find the show notes via your podcasting app, or at our website, economicsexplored.com. If you sign up as an email subscriber, you can download my new e-book, Top 10 Insights From Economics. So please consider getting on the mailing list. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, then please either record them in a message via SpeakPipe, see the link in the show notes, or email me via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Righto, now for our conversation with Professor Dave Brown on philosophy, risk, cost-benefit analysis and the Enlightenment. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts, for his assistance in producing the episode, I hope you enjoy it.
One thing that I’m always conscious of is that as economists, we do cost-benefit analysis studies. And we try to put everything in dollar terms. And we do this over the lifecycle of a project or over X number of years, 30 years. And we come to conclusions such as, well, the present value of benefits exceed the present value of costs, and therefore this is a good thing to do. But we’ve always got to bear in mind that there are some big philosophical assumptions we’re making when we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis. And in some cases, those assumptions are fine. Or if we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of a bridge or a new raw railway tunnel or a road, okay, well, then, maybe that’s okay to put everything in dollar terms. But it’s difficult in the context of the pandemic, because we’re dealing with people’s lives and you’ve got – there are all the issues of like, can you quantify that in dollar terms? And then even if you did a cost-benefit analysis, there’s a utilitarian assumption underlying cost-benefit analysis in economics is Benthamism, this Benthamied approach. And I think if you understand that, as an economist, that helps you in understanding how much you should take out of any particular bit of analysis you do. You need to be honest about what it is and you need to have an understanding of this – I think it’s David Hume, his problem.
I find I’ve been thinking a lot about that during the pandemic and I’ve been tried to be less dogmatic or less – maybe it’s making me less confident in saying that if you’ve got a particular cost-benefit analysis result and that’s the right thing. That’s a bit of a ramble. Sorry, Deb, but do you have any thoughts on that or in response?
Deb Brown 05:01
Yeah. First of all cost-benefit analyses have their place. Sometimes I wish there were more of them driving decision making because sometimes I look at decisions and think that that isn’t even valid from a cost-benefit analysis. The fact the matter is, is that there are other considerations as well. There are considerations of ethics and equity and morality and so on. And I actually sort of do hold the view that morality has its advantages, and that we only get those advantages if we aim at morality, not if we aim at something else. And I think the problem with utilitarianism is that because it focuses on the consequences and maximising what’s perceived as utility, that other factors can be obscured in the process. So the pandemic is a good example.
I was part of a webinar series with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which included virologists from UQ, and people in the medical faculty, and as well as people who worked in biomedical ethics, which is not a specialisation of mine, so bit out of my league there. But, I was looking at these quality based arguments against lockdowns and, I actually think that… There, the argument was that you should only lock down if the quality0adjusted life years of doing so from a cost-benefit perspective outweigh not locking down. This was back in 2020, and at the time, it was relatively older people who were dying. So the quality0adjusted life years saved by locking down compared to the $11 billion a week it was costing during lockdown looked like it wasn’t justifying locking down in terms of pure monetary value. But the problem with this is that quality0based analyses and decision making, they make sense in certain contexts. So, here’s where I think that cost-benefit analyses do have a point.
So if you’re a hospital, and you’re trying to decide whether to invest in in one medical technology over another, and you’ve got information about how much QALYs each one will save, then you should go for the one that has the highest return on investment, in terms of QALYs. But the thing is, there’s an implied ceteris paribus clause there. All else being equal, if you’re choosing between A and B, and A gives you the biggest return on investment, in terms of QALY, then B should go for A.
But what was happening in the pandemic is that it wasn’t the case that all things were equal. So there were certain communities who were more durable than others. So not just the elderly, but also migrant communities in the United States. It was African American communities and indigenous communities who are being adversely affected by COVID. Often, because they’re frontline workers they’re often living in more crowded housing, and all of these different reasons contributing to them being a more vulnerable group, than say whites, or in the US, Asians. Here in Australia we were seeing that we’re certainly affecting low SES communities more, and in the UK, same deal. And also in the UK we’ve seen recently that disabled people are more adversely affected by COVID than other communities as well. And so things are not equal. So in those kinds of circumstances, you can’t just rely on the cost-benefit analysis, you have to take into account these fundamental issues of equity.
Gene Tunny 09:31
Yeah, there are all sorts of issues to take into account. Equity is important. So I’m trying to think how Gigi Foster, who is someone who came out and she was against the lockdowns because of she thought it wasn’t justified. You couldn’t justify it with a cost-benefit analysis for the reasons you were just describing before. And I think that Gigi is associated with that view. She would probably counter that, well, we could take that into account in our cost-benefit analysis with weights. We could, we could weight the loss of life for particular groups, we would provide more of a weight to that or that there’d be some way you could adjust it, I’m sure she’d say.
The problem is, what I think is incredibly difficult in analysing policy during the pandemic is we just don’t know. Early on, we just didn’t know how bad this would be. And now, the pandemic keeps surprising us with Omicron. And it’s just incredibly difficult to know what the right policy is. And we’re going to have to assess this in future decades. Well, what made sense, what didn’t?
I think we also need to take into account issues of civil liberties. And I think one of the problems with lockdown as a policy, even if you did think that in a cost-benefit sense it maybe it did make sense, o if you took into account the effects on different groups in the community, maybe you could argue it made sense. But even if it did, there are people who value those individual rights, the civil liberties, and you could argue that well, this was a breach of that this is something that really – I don’t think anyone contemplated government would do what they did during the pandemic. I think it’s quite extraordinary measures. I never thought governments would impose those lockdowns and stay at home orders that they did implement. And they saw what happened in China. That’s one view, argument, that we imported this policy of lockdown from China, which is an authoritarian regime. So depending on what your values are, you could argue against lockdown, because you think this is such a breach of our individual liberty. Am I on the right track there, Deb? Is that an important value to consider too?
Deb Brown 11:52
Well, certainly liberty is an important value, but the concept of liberty and the , associated concept of a right is not unqualified or unconditional. So from the earliest discussions of rights, take for example, John Stuart Mill back in the 19th century, so, you only have a right, if the exercise of that right does not interfere with the liberty or rights of others. Okay, so this is often referred to as Mill’s harm principle. So I don’t have a right, I don’t have a right to drive on whatever side of the road I like, because that will deprive you of your freedom of movement and your right to life. So that’s always been a constraint on the notion of freedom and the notion of freedoms and rights is that you just do not have a right to something, if that right is going to deprive somebody else of their rights and their liberties.
The interesting thing to me about this whole discussion around lockdowns is that we accept all sorts of curtailments of our freedom big so as to avoid harming others, right. I don’t remember this kind of stink about not allowing people to smoke in public places. Right? So we ban smoking in bars and clubs and public places and buildings and so on. And we’ve all just sat that out, because, and the argument was, is that people are exercising their right to smoke whenever they like actually causes harm through secondhand smoking to others. And so it can interfere with the exercise of their rights, their right to health and life and so on. And the kind of mask mandates lockdowns whatever might be our infringement on what you might think of as our freedoms, but we don’t have the liberty to harm others. And that’s the justification for those kind of mandates.
Now, it doesn’t mean when you when you curtail somebody’s freedom or their rights, it doesn’t mean that you are you are not respecting the concept of a right or a freedom. Right. But as I say, right, it has to be measured against what are the foreseeable harms here. I think that’s very different from embracing authoritarianism and I think we need to keep a distinction there. Not every curtailment of our freedom means that we’re subject to authoritarian control, right.
But it was interesting. I don’t know whether either of you saw this this wonderful publication pre 2020 by the Rockefeller Institute. They do this scenario kind of planning. And, and one of the scenarios that that they discussed is called Lockstep and they anticipate a global pandemic, and, and what sort of behaviours it will drive. And one of the things that that they envisage there is that in some countries, it will drive authority an acceptance of authoritarian control, and it predicts that those countries will do better in terms of managing the managing the pandemic, but at considerable costs to the liberty of citizens or subjects in those countries. Right. And that that may have long term consequences that are not justified by the authoritarian control. It also predicted that there would be anti-authoritarian movements. So, you can read this document and think, oh, my gosh, they were reading the tea leaves on the pandemic, because all of those sort of anti-authoritarian anti Vax movements are also predicted as well where people , do feel that they are suddenly being thrust under authoritarian control. And that’s why it’s very important to distinguish between authoritarianism to not sort of operate with extremes, to not just think because we have to wear masks in public spaces we’re heading in the direction of an authoritarian regime. No, it’s more subtle and complicated than that.
Gene Tunny 16:38
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Gene Tunny 17:13
Now back to the show. Did you have any thoughts, Tim?
Tim Hughes 17:18
Actually there’s so much involved in this whole in this whole talk. Could go on for hours. I’m cool with that. For instance, with the authoritarian lockdowns, etc. it is a very effective way of treating with contagious diseases and everything. So it’s been around for centuries that that whole thing. It’s an authoritarian measure, but it’s still very effective in locking down or containing contagious diseases.
Gene Tunny 17:52
I think quarantine or cordoning off particular areas.
Tim Hughes 17:56
Gene Tunny 17:57
Where there is infection. Yeah.
Tim Hughes 17:58
As far as measures go, it was a predictable measure that was going to come in. But I understand and agree. There’s this lively debate around how long and if it was the right thing to do, etc. I just hope that we get good modelling from this for whatever comes next, because who knows what may come in the future, but hopefully, we’ll be better prepared for it for what we’ve gone through with this.
Gene Tunny 18:26
Oh, absolutely. Let’s hope. We certainly will be. We’ll be talking about this and analysing this for decades. Deb, I was just thinking, this point about how we, you’re right, we don’t have a right to harm others, that’s right. The issue is what level of harm or risk or probability of harm, what’s the threshold, because every time we go out into the community, there’s a risk that we could be involved in a traffic accident, say, and we could harm someone else so there’s a level of risk that’s assumed, but this may be too big a question to deal with. This is where I think this whole issue of the lockdowns, that’s what annoys people. Some libertarians are thinking well, okay, well, what’s really the risk? I guess that the argument is that each person, anyone breaking the rules could actually start off a cluster and then that could grow in numbers. This is not relevant now in Australia, because it’s gotten out of control and it’s out there so that we’re not going to have any more lockdowns so there’s probably no point. But in the early days, the argument was that anyone doing the wrong thing could actually start off a cluster and so therefore, yeah, that could affect everyone else. Maybe I can see the logic there but that’s what I’ve been struggling with, what’s that level of risk to others in the community that would justify a restriction on liberties. And I don’t think we’ve got an answer to that. Has anyone been doing any thinking on that?
Deb Brown 20:07
I don’t know, although I think you’re exactly right, that we really need to, we really need to think about risks here, because you’re right, that there’s all sorts of things that we do. We assume normal risks, because the benefits of taking those risks warrant the risk. As you say, every time we get in the car there’s a risk that we could lose our lives, or suffer serious bodily harm. But overall, people agree to those risks, because driving has benefits, let’s say. Maybe less so as climate as climate change takes off. But for a long time, that’s what really justified people in assuming a level in that level of risks. And so then the question there’s been a lot of discussion.
I think, actually, Robert Nozick had something to say about this, and there were economists that he was drawing on as well, about the difference between a normal risk and an abnormal risk. Right. So we allow certain levels of normal risk in a society but we don’t allow, for example, people to play Russian roulette, right not for any amount of money, not for any benefit, right. And we regard that as, as an abnormal risk, it’s not justified and so on. And so the question is, like, where at various stages of the panic of the pandemic, … Panic pandemic, that’s interesting. Where at various stages of the pandemic, what kinds of risks are we actually facing here? And I think I think that underlying a lot of the policy changes that we’re seeing recently is just the assumption that we are moving more into that normal risk space. And because I’ve sort of gotten tired of hearing about sheer numbers of people with COVID. The relevant data is numbers of hospitalizations, numbers of deaths. Deaths and hospitalizations, per capita, those are the relevant figures. If it’s true, I think it’s probably too early to say, but if, if we are moving more with the kind of vaccination regime into to having fewer hospitalizations, per capita from the pandemic, then that will sort of shift the balance. And lockdowns won’t be as justified as they were when the risks were much higher, when it was a bit like playing Russian roulette in terms of number of people dying from the from the pandemic. So I’m not myself a risk analyst. And you in your field you’re kind of masters of risk analysis. So I would have to learn from you here. But conceptually, it seems to me that’s the sort of space we need to be in.
Gene Tunny 23:10
Absolutely. I haven’t seen an authoritative analysis along those lines yet, for the pandemic. Hopefully. I’m sure economists will be turning their minds to that. There have been some. Judy Foster’s done a cost-benefit analysis of a sort for Victoria. She presented that to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry. Gigi and some of her colleagues have written a book on the great panic. You could consider it polemical, in a way, but we do need to have some sort of authoritative analysis along those lines, because these are big questions about just how do we manage these things and what regulations are acceptable, what level of risk are we willing to bear. I’m going to have to look up that, that work by Nozick. It seems to ring a bell, but I’ll look it up, the normal risk versus abnormal risk. That looks like it could be highly relevant.
Deb Brown 24:14
Yeah. It’s a chapter in Anarchy, State and Utopia. as I as I recall, though it’s been a while since I looked at it.
Gene Tunny 24:24
Okay, I’ll I’ll look that up.
Deb Brown 24:28
I’m trying to remember the name of the economist, whether it was French or something beginning with F. I’m not sure. Yeah, there was an economist on whom he was, I think drawing in terms of that risk. He was sort of particularly interested in compensation, so when is compensation warranted for risky behaviour? And of course, being very interested in… He’s a libertarian right. So he’s sort of interested in in when is it ever justified to restrict people’s freedom to take certain kinds of risks, and when is compensation warranted and so on. That’s what I recall from that.
Gene Tunny 25:07
Okay. Oh, yeah, I’ll look it up. But that may be of interest. I may try and cover that on the podcast in the future. We’ll probably have to wrap up soon, given how much of your time we’ve taken, Deb. Sorry.
Deb Brown 25:18
No, I’m having a ball.
Gene Tunny 25:19
Oh, very good. Okay. Oh, well,
Deb Brown 25:21
I was just going to talk about the media literacy issue because I think in terms of the critical thinking project, that’s, that’s a massive area. And I’ve been shocked learning from colleagues at Queensland University of Technology, and University of Western Sydney, and particularly Tanya Notley there is a specialist on youth media literacy. I’m kind of shocked at the data coming out about not just the general public, but also sort of academics capabilities, in terms of fact checking and checking the sources of media articles and being able to do lateral searches, and so on to see what different sites say about the same the same article. Then I’m also shocked that the youth, right, get most of their news entirely from social media, there’s very little engagement with mainstream media, very little engagement with credible news and media. So I think this this is another kind of – the lack of media literacy is another kind of pandemic, and it really does contribute substantially to that culture of, of confusion and mistrust.
Tim Hughes 26:45
I love you’ve said that because that was what I was going to come back to because way back and, we’ve touched on it with intention and trust. And I think it’s such a big area, and you’ve gone straight to it, which is great. And how do we trust the new sources? And this isn’t a present day problem. This has always been a thing for everyone throughout the ages. How do you how do you trust your source of any kind of news, whether it be from a person or from an agency, or whatever it may be. And so with that also comes a limited amount of time that we may have as individuals to make our minds up on these different things that come up to us where we form an opinion, and any opinion is only as good as the information it’s based on. So if we’ve got good information, we’re going to have a reasonably good opinion, the more varied information, again, better opinion. So all of these things, and like you’re touching on, for instance, people getting their information, information from just one source is going to be biased, or maybe not a full picture. There are all these different ethical sort of problems with … We form our opinions. And we find our trusted news sources. And of course, there are more and more coming out all the time. Where does this sit in with critical thinking and to try and do this in a in a reasonably quick period of time, knowing that most people only have a certain amount of time in their day to give towards forming an opinion on something in the new cycle? How can we do this better?
Deb Brown 28:31
I mentioned earlier we have this collaboration with the Impact Centre, which works with office forces and critical thinking to school students. And last year, one of my colleagues, who was the UNESCO Professor of Journalism at the University of Queensland, Peter, Greste – do you know Peter Greste, the foreign correspondent with that awful experience in in Egypt? So he approached me and he said, “I really want to work with schools to try and get a kind of journalism media literacy course going with schools. And I know you have all these collaborations with the Department of Education.” And, and he and I together, and other colleagues as well, and colleagues and the collaborators in the Impact Centre, put together this course on media literacy in journalism, and it’s offered to senior secondary students. And effectively what they’re doing is they’re learning about media literacy, but they’re also learning it in conjunction with critical thinking.
So often, when you look at the media literacy courses, they often concern tips and tricks for checking sources, right, finding out who the sponsor is of a page, doing lateral searches, but adding a layer of critical thinking over that. What you get is you get students thinking about how their thinking is framed, within, within an article. So what gets to be in the headline? The headline shapes how you’ll think about the rest of the article. How’s the information presented? What’s up front? Right? Is there an argument developed? Is there an analysis? Right? What justification is there for the things that are said in the article, so getting students to interrogate an argument, look within those practices of justification.
Then in conjunction with that media literacy course – and then there are teachers at the Impact Centre, particularly Dr. Luke Zaphir and, and Dave Thornton, who put together a fantastic course for school students, developing all those critical thinking and media literacy skills. It’s just amazing. In conjunction with that, the students also develop their own article. Sorry, they work with journalists from In Queensland, which is an independent news service in Queensland, and has a commitment to public service journalism. Journalists from In Queensland work with students in the, in the Media Academy to basically construct articles for publication in In Queensland. So if you look at the In Queensland website, they’ve got a Media Academy tab, and those are all the articles that were written by students in school. Fantastic opportunity for students to learn how journalism works, how it’s actually produced, and to think critically about the way in which information is presented in an article.
And I think , another big problem within media is that if you haven’t got a kind of blatantly biased media outlet, right, on the right, or on the left, whatever it might be, you’ve got this kind of bizarre assumption that all you need to do is to provide a balance of opinions. Right, and you’ve done your duty in critical analysis. First of all, there’s very little analysis. Often it’s just kind of putting together these polarised opinions and this assumption that as a journalist, you have to stay neutral. Neutrality will come through, if you actually do a critical analysis, right. I think that sort of presenting balanced opinions just contributes to the confusion out there, right. People think well, there’s this opinion and that opinion, and everybody has got a different opinion. So I can believe whatever I like. No.
Tim Hughes 32:52
Actually, one of the things with this, because we seem to, which isn’t a bad thing, but we look for certainty where we can. We’re always looking for definitives and absolutes. We like to know this is this is correct, and that’s wrong, etc, whereas, of course, the reality is, there’s a spectrum of likelihood or possibilities with so many things that we look at. And I love that in the article, the ABC article, you mentioned that one of the keys was being comfortable with doubt and uncertainty, and feeling free to change position if evidence or new information required it, which we touched on earlier. But it’s just such a great statement, I think, in allowing people to be okay being not so sure, this is the best yet, at the moment, this is the best information that’s out there is going to change and being open to that change and to changing opinions when things evolve now, so I think that’s a really … When we talk about polarisation, quite often, that’s because people have found a certainty maybe too soon or without researching it very much, whatever the issue may be, and, and then being sort of loyal to that certainty, regardless of what other information comes through, which of course, is a problem.
Deb Brown 34:17
I think being able to divest one’s ego from the argument of work is very, very important, but it’s very difficult for people to do because their identity is so much bound up with what they think and what they believe.
Tim Hughes 34:30
That’s right. And so to change their mind would be affecting… It’s a decision then to change their identity, or tribe, even. It can be part of the group that you’re in or the environment that you’re in, which you identify with. And so the incentive to change opinion or to change mind or to hear different views, of course, is not a welcome one.
Deb Brown 34:53
Yeah. It’s interesting that in collaborative reasoning environments, if they’re run effectively, you do see that behaviour shift, because the focus of the group is on the on the pointed issue, on the topic. And if you sort of don’t allow people to just make assertions, but to actually back that up with reasons very soon you start to see them giving and taking reasons where – not just giving out reasons, but taking them standing corrected. In children, you see that behaviour shift remarkably quickly. And then something happens to us, and we end up terrified to change our minds. Where did it all go wrong?
Tim Hughes 35:39
With this, with the critical thinking project, teachers and students, is it also open to anybody who might want to get in touch and learn from this? You might have mentioned this before, so apologies if you’ve mentioned it. But this is open to everybody? Is there something there for everyone? Because everyone I think could benefit from it.
Deb Brown 35:58
Oh do I get to do some product placement here?
Tim Hughes 36:02
You do. Well, you are God after all today.
Deb Brown 36:05
[unclear 36:05]. Of course, working with the Department of Education, that’s restricted to government schools. But we also, we also have contracts with other schools. Peter and I have both done corporate training, for example, in critical thinking. I had a wonderful time in India with fin tech capital of the Tata Group, Tata’s biggest company in India. Had a wonderful session doing critical thinking with them. It was it was really fun. Like I said, we’ve got contracts and done work with Singapore, and UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles. They actually included the media literacy and journalism course in their critical thinking summer programme last year. And it was a huge hit. And I think so I think that that course could easily be made available to anyone. And I think it should. This is not just for kids. We all need this.
Tim Hughes 36:18
Yeah, for sure.
Deb Brown 36:19
The other issue that the other issue that’s driving along misinformation is just the unavailability of peer-reviewed publication sites. So the more open source publishing, open access publishing we can do – I would love it if university libraries we’re open to the public again, not just coming onto campus, but actually the online edition, but there’s all sorts of issues there around publishing as an industry as well, right? So that’s what sort of impedes that. But the more information we can make accessible, and quality information, we can make this accessible, the better off we’d all be.
Gene Tunny 38:03
Yeah, you’ve got those big journal companies, such as Elsevier and – is it Springer, I’m trying to remember – but they make millions or hundreds of millions or whatever out of university libraries paying for subscriptions to journals. It’s, it’s a bit of a racket, arguably.
Deb Brown 38:25
It’s very strange. We do all the work, the writing, reviewing. We do all the hard yards, and then [unclear 38:33] business model that one.
Gene Tunny 38:35
Yeah, that’s true. Okay, I think we’re gonna have to wrap up at a minute. This has been great. I did have one question. We’re hearing a lot about the need for these Enlightenment values. More people are talking about the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, because there’s this recognition that we’ve, maybe we’ve lost touch with that. And then I know you’re an expert on Descartes. And he’s associated with rationalism. Is rationalism, like, how does that fit in with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reasons. Is the Age of Reason the same as the Enlightenment? Is rationalism – is that a very specific part of the Age of Reason? Is that just a hyper or a total reliance on reason, or is the Enlightenment something broader? Is there a way for us to understand this, Deborah, or is it just such a big question that it’s not really answerable in this context in this podcast?
Deb Brown 39:29
No, it’s a great question. And I’m all for a renaissance in the Age of Reason. So I think those terms are often used interchangeably, Age of Reason and Enlightenment. And a lot of people trace the Enlightenment as beginning really with Descartes, the publication in 1637 of his Discourse on Method, which really was sort of that introduction to the new method of relying on reason and needing yourself to be intellectually autonomous, as opposed to intellectually heteronomous, where you’re relying on authority.
The Enlightenment was connected up with this metaphor of light that permeates discussions in the, the 17th and 18th century. So Descartes appeals to the natural light, and distinguishes that from the teachings of nature, right? Nature might teach you that things are hot and cold. But if you examine them from a scientific point of view, it’s more likely that that heat is certain motion of molecules, and cold is nothing at all.
So the light of reason will revise what nature teaches you, if you like, and one should be guided by the light of reason, not by what seems to want to be true on the basis of sensory apprehension. The light metaphor was common. So you get lumiere in French, and you get aufklaren, which means sort of clarity or light in German, as being in opposition to Aristotelian scholastic philosophy, which dominated philosophy, particularly in the schools and universities, up to the end of the 16th century. And it was perceived as being doctrinaire and authoritarian so, even though a lot of original work went on in the Middle Ages, there was always this deference to authorities as Aristotle said, as Augustine said, and so on. And with the advent of the scientific revolution, that begins in the late 16th century, with people like Copernicus, and Kepler, and Galileo sort of developing a heliocentric view of the universe and really starting to develop this new mechanical, scientific theory and doing a lot more sort of experimental work and observational work using telescopes and so on. That all sort of doctrinaire, the categories of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy were thought to be mysterious, occult and didn’t fit with the new science.
Also coming into the 17th century, you’ve got] the European humanist tradition, right, this reclamation of ancient texts, particularly the Stoics, but also the sceptics as well. And both Latin and Greek texts, and that revival of kind of classical as opposed to Scholastic philosophy. All that sort of feeds into the 17th century.
And then you get Descartes who thinks that we can’t just keep going with philosophy has to kind of catch up with these revolutions in science and also in engineering as well. And it needs a nice new face, and it needs a new message, right? And it needs to be grounded in reason, because only that will sort of, in a way fit the kind of mechanical mathematical science that that is really taking over the whole scientific space. And Descartes, of course, is also motivated to ground that new science in a system of philosophy that’s not antithetical to religion, but is really basing his connection to religion on reason, right? And I think when people talk about the Age of Reason, this is what they mean is they mean a sort of rational foundation for religion as opposed to faith, right.
And that goes all the way through to Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, which is really like a rationalist kind of attempt to sort of ground religion on reason, as well. But yeah, so the Enlightenment is sort of set in opposition to the so-called Dark Ages, which is a term that seems to be coined by Petrarch, who’s one of these European humanists in the 14th century, even though he’s embedded in that mediaeval context, but he’s sort of arguing against this kind of authoritarian aspect of philosophy in that period.
And so when you get to the 17th and 18th century, you’ve got a new method, you’ve got this method of doubt, you’ve got scepticism being taken seriously again, and that scepticism becomes part of the message. Again, that’s just subjecting what you believe to doubt and upholding the highest standards of reasoning and evidence. It wasn’t as if it was all rationalist. I don’t actually like the division between rationalism and empiricism myself because the so-called rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza and the Leibniz, Newton, these are often [unclear 45:06] people are doing experimental philosophy, and often the empiricists so the people like Barclay and Locke and Hume and so on, are often relying on philosophical reasoning as well, not just sort of observation and induction. And, of course, Hume famously problematizes the very inductive method of science anyway, so those kind of binary categories are not really helpful.
But I think in a way, Kant kind of encapsulates in his essay what is the Enlightenment, is that the movement is about promoting intellectual autonomy, right? Not just relying on what others or testimony or what authority tells you, but applying the the methods of reasoning and analysis, so that your own beliefs on the securest foundation they can possibly be.
Gene Tunny 45:57
Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s a great explanation of that, Deb, I was just thinking, not trusting, don’t necessarily trust authority. And this is where we’re getting into problems nowadays, because we’ve got people who are thinking, oh, well, I’m doing my own research. Fauci says this, but I’m doing my own research, but often it’s on the internet. It’s on the net, and the source might not be that accurate. And you could argue that maybe they haven’t thought enough about the reliability of what they’re looking at, to justify their dismissal of what the certain authorities such as the CDC, or in our country, what different state chief health officers are saying.
I guess this is where it’s challenging, because there is value in being sceptical. And this is an important part of, of scientific method is being sceptical. Then the challenge is, sometimes there is something valid being said by some of these authorities, and you can take that scepticism too far. Particularly if you’re not relying on , good information, if you’re not, if you’re not fully embracing that critical thinking and you’re thinking critically about the information you’re getting and the points of view you’re putting across. So that that just occurred to me, then when you talked about the importance of being sceptical and not necessarily deferring to authority. I thought that was a really good point.
Deb Brown 47:36
Yes, it’s interesting. My husband and I spend each morning looking at World Metre. That’s what passes for fun nowadays. Let’s have a cup of tea and see how the virus is doing, darling. In general, I’m a little frustrated, just that you often can’t get the data. I think there’s an issue that maybe a lot of people are not going to be able to even interpret the data. And that’s certainly a problem. And that’s why everybody needs some training and statistics and critical thinking. But there’s a lot of data that you just can’t get like this data, I want to know, hospitalizations, I want to know deaths. Then there’s also this issue about how much of this is being reported. Make more data, make more information available. That’s sort of one thing.
And then there is also this question of trust. So who can you trust in this in this context? And one of the I guess the most important questions to ask is who has a vested interest in a certain kind of outcome being reported? I’m happy to trust Fauci because I don’t think that he has any vested interest in this. I’m less inclined to trust somebody who I think is spinning a yarn, because they’re only interested in being reelected or making their political party look good. Right. That’s an important question to always ask about any source. Then you do have to do those lateral searches, right, how is this being reported by these different organisations, what are their interests, who’s sponsoring this page and so on. You’re right, it’s a minefield, and the more information that there is out there that is just sort of polarised and politicised and all that, it just noise that interferes with being able to give an accurate assessment of the situation.
Gene Tunny 49:52
Absolutely. Okay. Deb, that’s been great. I think we’ve got to wrap up there. We’ve taken so much of your time. I’ve got so much tape here. I’ll have to think about whether release it as a whole episode or Imight have to split it up in two.
Tim Hughes 50:08
Six parts. Six-part series.
Deb Brown 50:12
Gene Tunny 50:14
Not at all.
Deb Brown 50:15
I’m just not getting out enough. This constitutes as getting out. I’m just so excited, I got a bit carried away.
Tim Hughes 50:21
Not at all.
Gene Tunny 50:22
Tim Hughes 50:23
We could completely carry on because it is fascinating. And they are very big topics. So really appreciate the care you’ve put into the responses there, Deb.
Gene Tunny 50:34
Yeah, thanks so much. Deb, really enjoyed chatting with you. And I’ll put links to as much of the material that you mentioned in the show notes so people can find that. Really valued your perspectives and your great knowledge of philosophy, which it’s given us a lot, given me a lot to think about, and a lot for Tim and me. I’m sure we’ll be chatting about this a lot in the future, these issues that came up today.
Tim Hughes 51:06
That’s the thing. They’re big issues that remain big no matter where you are in history, and important questions.
Deb Brown 51:18
Thank you. I really enjoyed your questions, and it was such a great conversation. Thanks for having me.
Gene Tunny 51:24
It’s a pleasure. Professor Deb Brown from University of Queensland. Thanks so much.
Tim Hughes 51:29
Deb Brown 51:28
Thank you. Bye-bye.
Tim Hughes 51:29
Gene Tunny 51:31
Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to email@example.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.
Thanks to Deb Brown and Tim Hughes for their great conversation and insights, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode.
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