why sociology is a bit more threatening than economics: the case of fetal alcohol syndrome
Consider the following approaches to the same in issue – fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). In 2000, Elizabeth Armstrong and Ernest Abel published an article in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism arguing that fetal alcohol syndrome had become a moral panic. Even though people had become obsessed with FAS, there was actually very little evidence to suggest that moderate alcohol consumption damaged fetuses. This argument is elaborated in the 2008 book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility. In 2013, the economist Emily Oster published a book called Expecting Better, which assesses pregnancy advice with a review of the pertinent clinical evidence. Like Armstrong, Oster finds that the norm against moderate alcohol consumption is not supported by the data.
The comparison between Oster and Armstrong is revealing. For example, more people know about Expecting Better because, frankly, economists are more respected than sociologists. But there is a deeper lesson. When Oster frames her work, she presents it as a morally neutral project. Her framing is roughly: “Statistics is hard, people may not have all the facts, and you might have a mistaken belief, but as an economist, I am trained in statistics. I can help you make a better choice.” Thus, the reader is morally blameless.
In contrast, Armstrong’s approach to FAS relies on standard explanations of moral panics in sociology. It goes something like this: “The facts we believe reflect our underlying biases. These biases reflect our evaluations of certain types of people, who may not deserve that stigma.” Thus, if the reader buys FAS, they are implicated in an immoral action – unfairly exercising gender prejudice. Heck, all of society is implicated.
This is an interesting observation about the public image of disciplines. Economists may advocate unpopular policies (e.g., they are often critical of minimum wage laws) but their moral framework is fairly neutral and technocratic. If you don’t buy my policy, it’s probably because you aren’t aware of all the factors involved. You haven’t calculate the social welfare function properly! In contrast, sociologists often make arguments that implicate the moral character of the audience. And that doesn’t buy you a lot of friends.
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