Friday 25 May 2012

Science Experts

Yesterday's budget included a rather large increase in tobacco excise along with a promise to keep increasing excise over the next few years. So, who does the New Zealand Science Media Centre go to for expert commentary on excise tax increases? You'd expect to see a mix of economists (tax experts, health economists) and a few of the healthists, right? Sorry.

First there's Otago's Professor of Marketing Janet Hoek. She's an expert on smoking as she was lead author on a study that drew strong policy conclusions from a sample of 13 Facebook users.

Next, there's Otago Public Health Senior Research Fellow George Thomson. Thomson coauthored a report on the social costs of smoking with health economist Des O'Dea, so that's only one degree of separation. Thomson mixes some reasonable commentary on the effects of price rises on consumption with scientific discussion of the ethics of "imposing extra costs on addicted individuals."

At least they link to the Treasury RIS.

It's pretty reasonable to conclude that, as far as the Science Media Centre is concerned, economics doesn't make the cut. At least given this reply when I asked why they didn't think of asking economists about a tax question.
NZ Drug read their response the same way I did:
The Science Media Centre is an arm of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Odd that the Royal Society admitted economist Les Oxley as Fellow if economics isn't a science. And even odder that the Science Media Centre went to a Prof of Marketing when I (quite properly) can't find a single reference to a marketing academic in the Royal Society of New Zealand's roster. Economics degrees are awarded in Faculties of Science around the world; I'm not sure if you could find a single Marketing department able to award Science degrees. [I had mistakenly thought Marketing was exceedingly uncommon in Faculties of Science; turns out, there are more than a few around. Just not in New Zealand or Canada, the two systems with which I'm most familiar. Marketing, done properly like Google's ad placement work, is very much science. I'm less sure that NZ offers that kind of marketing degree. Thanks to Phil, in comments, for correction.]

Last time I wondered about the Science Media Centre's going to healthists rather than economists to ask questions about the GST, they claimed they couldn't find an economist ready to comment. Now they say instead that economics isn't a science. Lovely.


  1. I'd put it down to the fact that they don't understand what economics is - after all, you hardly need to be a rocket scientist to understand that it is useful to talk to experts on "the allocation of resources under scarcity" when talking about the allocation of resources.

    But when they're more interested in ideology than science I guess they don't have to think - of course they should really pretend to be scientists then.

    1. Matt

      Just how many non-economists think of economics as the study of "the allocation of resources under scarcity"? I'm sure you know the reaction you get when you try telling people this. Most people think economics is about "money". Try explaining to people that prices in microeconomics are real or relative prices and not money prices. I wonder if we just don't so a good enough job of explaining what economics really is about.

    2. Its a bit like finance and accounting, right?

  2. Hi Eric,

    Bloody Twitter eh?

    The point I was trying to make, which obviously didn't translate very well on Twitter (!) is that as a tiny unit, our priority is to go to the public health researchers, clinical researchers, lab-based scientists etc.

    Economists are actually widely used by the media as it is, so the need for our input on their behalf isn't as great.

    Believe me, I'm not implying that economics isn't science. At the Science Media Centre we quote economists all the time, including Prof Les Oxley. We've had him in one of our media briefings and quote him regularly.

    We also went to Prof Oxley for comment last night on the Budget and science funding, but he wasn't able to get commentary back to us in time. i've also invited you in the past to provide commentary on issues in your field of research and the offer still stands...

    Peter Griffin

    1. You should look a bit harder. I have an MSc in marketing from the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

    2. @Peter: I replied on Twitter with my email address this morning; we need to have a chat. The combination of having public health as go-to for SMC, combined with effectively zero econ on SciBlogs, is something that can be fixed.

      @Phil: No way! I need to fix that then. Thanks!

  3. Eric.

    Alan Bollard is also a Fellow, as is Roger Bowden.

  4. its all very amazing and frightening, this last two years I managed to put on 8kg, and I expect to become the next target of considered scientific drivel, smokers and overweight people lets put them on an island and go away, social fascism for modern liberal scientists

    "Is there is a possibility that increasing prices will lead to homegrown tobacco becoming more widely used and a black market emerging?:

    yes of course. God in heaven. I am going into business now up north. Just follow the ugly trail of booze prohibition and cannabis prohibition