Nancy Cartwright: Wiser Use of Science, Wiser Wishes, Wiser Policies

Nancy Cartwright

Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Jonsson Performance Hall
Admission: Free
Season: 2011-12

This public lecture is free and open to the public. You are also invited to join the Center for Values Fellows for this lecture for $45. Center for Values Fellows will have reserved priority seating, will receive the speaker's recent book in advance, and will be invited to an exclusive reception and book signing after the lecture. Sign up for this lecture or you can sign up for the entire series.

In 2004 in the London Borough of Haringey, a 17-month-old child died from injuries inflicted by his mother, her boyfriend and his brother. The head of Haringey Children’s Services defended herself and her team: ‘We should not be into blame’; it does not produce ‘anything productive’ and obscures ‘the bigger picture’. Others disagreed: If nobody accepts the blame,  ‘…how can we stop this from happening again?’ Blame is one issue. Another is the expectation that our system can protect every child. Both depend on assumptions about the kinds of knowledge that social science can deliver and the kinds of social engineering that can be successful. These assumptions are for the most part unsupportable.

The rhetoric of blame and accountability marches hand-in-hand with calls for objective measures, manuals of rules about what constitutes best practice, and the insistence on implementing only policies that work. This is a dangerous and misguided coalition. We may want to protect every child, but our efforts to do so may create greater harm. We may want value-free measures but then end up measuring all the wrong things. We may want only policies that ‘work’, but this does not mean they will work for us, and supposing it does leads to damaging program failures. A partnership of a more realistic reliance on social science and wiser wishes can produce far more beneficial policies.

Nancy Cartwright has worked on philosophy and history of physics and economics, and evidence and objectivity in science and policy. She is currently engaged in a project on evaluating and predicting effectiveness of interventions to lessen the effects of climate change. A Fellow of the British Academy, and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Cartwright has the forthcoming book on Evidence-based Policy: Doing It Better. A Practical Guide to Predicting if a Policy Will Work For You (Oxford University Press). She is Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method in the London School of Economics and Political Science; she is also Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. 

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