Thinking Critically about Research

Sometimes what we want to be true gets in our way of knowing what is true. For example, last year an association of physicists invited its members to engage in a debate concerning the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) conclusion regarding man made global warming. In inviting articles for its professional journal, the association said, “We will not publish articles that are political or polemical in nature. Stick to the science!”

It is no secret that what passes for policy debate today is too often little more than ad hominem attacks, obfuscation, and the like. But when even physicists need to be reminded to stick to the substance, and at a time when many are asserting that scientific research will play a bigger role in the policy process, perhaps we should remind ourselves what we mean by research.

Research on public utilities can be characterized as positive or normative. Positive research describes what is. If positive research is empirical, then the study either applies statistical analyses to explain how something has happened, or applies simulations to predict what will happen. This empirical research will stand or fall on the validity of its inputs and the soundness of its quantitative techniques. If the research is theoretical, the researcher uses a set of presuppositions and logical steps to reach a conclusion, and the study will stand or fall based on the validity of those assumptions and the soundness of its reasoning.

In contrast, normative research argues for what should be, relying on a set of objectives, assumptions, and logical steps. Normative research stands or falls based on the applicability of the goals the author embraces, the validity of its assumptions, and the soundness of its logic.

There is a pattern here. All research can be validated or refuted based on the quality of inputs, presuppositions, and analytical techniques. The only time the researcher’s personal preferences should matter is when he or she advocates a particular policy. For example, economists often support policies that maximize efficiency, but as one of my professors emphasized very strongly when I was an undergraduate, a college degree doesn’t improve one’s values: An average citizen’s preference for stability is just as important as reducing costs.

Generally research contains both positive and normative elements. For example a recent PURC project surveyed Floridians about their telecommunications use and participation in the Lifeline program, that offers low income households price discounts on their telephone service. The research was largely positive, focusing on what people told us, but it also had a normative element in that we made suggestions about what policy makers might do as a result of our findings.

What does this mean for the ways in which research can inform policy? First, it clarifies what are appropriate practices for challenging research, namely, that positive conclusions of research are by definition true if the data/inputs/assumptions are valid, and the logic/quantitative techniques are sound.

Second it helps us put criticisms in context. Recently, the head of an institute stated publicly that policy makers should listen to him because he is more trustworthy than others. In another meeting, a scientist dismissed those who disagreed with him as “jokers” and “not serious” without once pointing to any flaws in their work. Such personal attacks raise a red flag that perhaps either something in the work being supported cannot stand up to scrutiny, or that the work that is being dismissed has merit and is a threat to the policies advocated.

Where does this leave our physicist friends? Hopefully, they will clearly distinguish between their “what-is” research from their “what-we-want” advocacy. Utility policy could benefit from clarity such as this.