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Ethics and economics: study on values in simulations

12/05/2014 - Computer simulations of the impacts of global trade policy, for example, generally contain ethical value assumptions. In order to make these assumptions more transparent, and to enhance our understanding of possible trade-offs, scientists have developed a novel methodological approach and applied it to agro-economic modelling of global water scarcity. Their newly released study, the result of an unusual collaboration between economists, scientists and philosophers, contends that the incorporation of value assumptions in scientific scenarios can improve the usability of those scenarios for decision-makers in politics and business.
Ethics and economics: study on values in simulations

Agricultural irrigation can contribute to water scarcity. Photo: Thinkstock

“All models contain ethical assumptions. For example, the model used for the study of agriculture-related global water scarcity has the goal of reducing agricultural production costs,” says Anne Biewald of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Together with Martin Kowarsch from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), Biewald is the lead author of the study recently published in Global Environmental Change. “From a philosophical point of view, there is no such thing as a value-free science," adds Kowarsch. "Values are not synonymous with bias or distortion. Instead, they are an unavoidable and constructively usable component of models and scenarios.” Even so-called business-as-usual scenarios contain value assumptions.

The researchers build on a policy advice approach developed by Kowarsch and Ottmar Edenhofer, PIK chief economist and director of MCC. This “pragmatic-enlightened model” holds that science should be “policy relevant, not policy prescriptive”.

"We show, using a concrete example, how researchers could make the normative assumptions in their model-based studies transparent. This would allow to shed light on the entire political solutions space, including alternative policy objectives, resources and problems that might not be evident at first sight,” says co-author Hermann Lotze-Campen, chair of the PIK research domain Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities. “This would then allow to process, for political decision-making, information in a socially useful, scientifically reliable and politically relevant way, without being policy-prescriptive.”


Article: Biewald, A., Kowarsch, M. (equal contribution), Gerten, D., Lotze-Campen, Hermann (2014): Ethical aspects in the economic modeling of water policy options. Global Environmental Change (online)

Weblink to the article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378014001824

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