Hanson, Caplan, & Knight

by Don Boudreaux on November 28, 2006

in Current Affairs

Bryan Caplan links to Robin Hanson’s comparison of "the abject deference the public gives to physicists with the stubborn defiance the public gives to economists."  Robin is right-on.  His comments called to my mind this passage from Chapter I, Part I of Frank Knight‘s great 1921 book Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit:

Finally, it makes vastly more difference practically whether we
disseminate correct ideas among the people at large in the field of
human relations than is the case with mechanical problems. For good or
ill, we are committed to the policy of democratic control in the former
case, and are not likely to resort to it in the latter. As far as
material results are concerned, it is relatively unimportant whether
people generally believe in their hearts that energy can be
manufactured or that a cannon ball will sink part of the way to the
bottom of the ocean and remain suspended, or any other fundamental
misconception. We have here at least established the tradition that
knowledge and training count and have persuaded the ignorant to defer
to the judgment of the informed. In the field of natural science the
masses can and will gladly take and use and construct appliances in
regard to whose scientific basis they are as ignorant as they are
indifferent. It is usually possible to demonstrate such things on a
moderate scale, and literally to knock men down with "results." In the
field of social science, however, fortunately or unfortunately, these
things are not true. Our whole established tradition tends to the view
that "Tom, Dick, and Harry" know as much about it as any "highbrow";
the ignorant will not in general defer to the opinion of the informed,
and in the absence of voluntary deference it is usually impossible to
give an objective demonstration. If our social science is to yield
fruits in an improved quality of human life, it must for the most part
be "sold" to the masses first. The necessity of making its literature
not merely accurate and convincing, but as nearly "fool-proof " as
possible, is therefore manifest.

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Dagon November 28, 2006 at 2:00 pm

Physicists don't get much respect either. On topics so esoteric that nobody outside the field understands or cares, there's no reason to dispute an expert, but that lack of dispute doesn't indicate agreement, just indifference.

On topics that have some bearing on popular topics (say, age and origin of the universe, where it contradicts religious writings), I think you'll find that there's a lot of second-guessing by "the masses".

nunyabidness November 28, 2006 at 3:10 pm

Good gracious – talk about arrogance! Aren't you SO glad, Don, that you're one of those "fortunate highbrows", instead of someone who actually (GASP) —works— for a living. Thank God you don't have to sully your hands with real labor.

Robin Hanson November 28, 2006 at 4:32 pm

Good thing I didn't try to claim my observation was original; in this as in so many cases, I find myself in ritual rediscovery of ancient truths. :)

George November 28, 2006 at 5:56 pm

Dear Don,

Excuse me, but which economic experts am I supposed to listen to when a professor from George Mason asserts the value of a free market and a professor from Harvard asserts the superiority of socialism over the market place? One reason that social scientists have a problem is that all kinds of views seem to hold sway and no objective means seems to have arisen which adjudicates right from wrong. When there is objective evidence that can universally be shown to support one view and disprove another, then the situation will change.

Renato Drumond November 28, 2006 at 10:19 pm

I think that the great difference between social sciences and the other fields of investigation is that nobody cares if you reject or not theories about Chemistry or Astronomy.

The expansion of democracy makes the opinion of each individual about certain things important. But it is irrational: why I should know more about economics or political philosophy than the reproduction of birds?

The voter cares more about the result than pratical questions about how to attain certain goals. Maybe it's more important to convince the intelectual elite than the average joe. Consider the approach of Hayek when he founded the Mont Pelerin society.

Russell Nelson November 29, 2006 at 1:47 am

Yeah, the problem with economics is that people confuse it for finance, and … well, everybody can sum up their restaurant bill, right?

Also, economics is newer (e.g. Coasian analysis of the firm, and he's still alive) and is still actively being revised. Unfortunately, some people with PhDs in economics are not actively revising their grad-school conclusions.

delurking November 29, 2006 at 2:27 pm

Sorry, but I don't see it. The name Nuclear Magnetic Resonance was changed to Magnetic Resonance Imaging because people simply wouldn't believe physicists when they said that "nuclear" refers to atomic nuclei, which all atoms have, and not to "radioactivity". People simply would not believe that radiation from overhead power lines could not cause damage to their bodies, even though physicists told them that each photon from those power lines carries 100 BILLION times less energy that the water molecules that are bouncing around in their bodies or the air molecules bouncing off their bodies all the time. We had years of epidemiological studies, etc., wasting huge amounts of experts' time that could better have been spent elsewhere (similarly with cellphone radiation, though there the difference is "only" 10,000 times). Homeopathy gets more popular even though for most of the "remedies", the odds of there being a single molecule of active agent in the pills is less than 1 over the number of atoms in the universe. The homeopaths say "the water molecules remember the imprint of the cure", and people don't believe the physicists who tell them that water molecules don't have memory. Those are only a few examples of things that don't conflict with people's religious views. Peoples' acceptance of the results of physical science when they conflict with Revealed Truth is even more rare.

Robin Hanson picks one example that no one cares about (because string theory has no application to the material world yet), and unjustifiably extends it to all of the physical sciences.

PrestoPundit December 4, 2006 at 3:04 pm

The problem starts with a profession in denial — economists can't explain to you how or why economics is a "science". In fact, they can't even give you a coherent account of how economics explains things or produced knowledge. "Macroeconomics" is the biggest mess of all — there's no concensus and no compatibility with what economists believe when they are teaching "micro". Economists also notoriously simply ignore all of the conceptual and explanatory problems build into their "models". Consider capital theory with only one good. The examples are endless.

When economists get their own house in order perhaps they will earn more respect from those within the scientific community.

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