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Arnold's Intriguing Idea

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Arnold has a thought-provoking new hypothesis about "Why People Hate Economics":


Paul Bloom's essay "Is God an Accident?" in the latest issue of The Atlantic, suggests that humans' belief in God, Intelligent Design, and the afterlife is an artifact of brain structure. In this essay, I am going to suggest that the same artifact that explains why people are instinctively anti-Darwin explains why they are instinctively anti-economic.

What's the connection?

The difference between analytical and social reasoning strikes me as similar to the difference that I once drew between Type C and Type M arguments. I wrote, "Type C arguments are about the consequences of policies. Type M arguments are about the alleged motives of individuals who advocate policies."

Type C arguments about policy come from the analytical brain and reflect impersonal analysis. Type M arguments come from the social brain. In my view, they inject emotion, demagoguery, and confusion into discussions of economic policy.

[...]

We need our type M brains, but in moderation. Without a type M brain, one is socially underdeveloped. In extreme cases, someone with a weak type M brain will be described by Asperger's Syndrome or autism. On the other hand, as Bloom suggests, there are many cases in which we over-use our type M brains...

Economics is an attempt to use a type C brain to understand market processes in impersonal terms. We do not assess one person's motives as better than another's. We assume that everyone is out for their own gain, and we try to predict what will happen when people trade on that basis.

Arnold concludes that economists' uphill battle against public opinion is not unique:

Paul Bloom offers extensive evidence that the majority of people do not accept the type C approach to evolution, death, and other matters. If biologists have been unable to get people to change their type M minds, then perhaps economists should not feel so bad.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
John T. Kennedy writes:

There just isn't sufficient incentive for most people to become informed about economics (or biology).

Will people get better economic policies if they learn more economics? Seems to me they get the same policies as you regardless of how much effort they put into it.

James writes:

In representative democracies learning about the consequences of economic policies becomes a public good in the sense that voters can apply that knowledge in their voting decisions. Unfortunately, being a public good, it always ends up being undersupplied. To make things worse, it has a high personal utility cost, unlike griping about motives, which most folks seem to enjoy if behavior is indicative of anything.

John P. writes:

Economics is hard to get and hard to explain, particularly when you're battling uphill against the "evil corporation" and similar mythology. Websites like this one do a great educational service, as do such books as Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist. But I wish there were an economics version of tv series like Kenneth Clark's Civilization or Bronowski's Ascent of Man.

Half Sigma writes:

How about economics based computer games? Trick teenagers into learning about economics.

Will writes:

Maybe this is off-topic...

Doesn't asking the question, "Why do people hate economics?" require a Type M response?

Unless you find a direct causal link between some physical process (e.g. the firing of cynapses in the brain), to mental states (e.g. the hating of economics), you have to speculate on the internal state of mind of the economics hater. In which case, you're a kettle calling the pot black.

A better line of inquiry would be to wonder how we might make economics more appealing to the Type M brain (or those that have more developed social brain). Medicine, for example, is a success because that field has emeshed itself into the social fabric. Everyone knows they need to wash their hands, but I suspect it has more to do with social pressures than detailed knowledge of the germ theory.

Will writes:

"how we might make economics more appealing to the Type M brain"

I guess computer games and tv shows would do this... It'd be good to read the comments before I post! :-)

Matthew Cromer writes:

Why should economists and biologists be offended that people are not willing to challenge their assumptions about markets and evolution?

Economists and biologists, for the most part, are not willing to challenge their assumptions about epistimology and consciousness.

It seems to be a nearly universal trait of human beings whether we call ourselves "type C" or not, that we tend to cling to our models of reality and filter out, ignore, or eschew inconvenient facts that contradict our assumptions.

Will writes:

Matthew-

I don't think Medical doctors had to "eschew inconvenient facts" or have their epistimology challenged to get the germ theory popularly accepted. Of course, I'm assuming that you believe popular acceptance of the germ theory has been a good thing.

Economists may be hated because they have certain assumptions (e.g. rational man) or deal with icky things (e.g. objective value in terms of dollars) but, if you believe that results from economics would be useful popular knowledge, then the question is why don't lay people know those results.

But this does point out something, at least to me. When Arnold asks "Why is economics hated?" is he asking why the method of economic inquiry is hated or is he asking why the results of economics are hated? To go back to the medicine example, I know every little about medical research (except, perhaps that there's microscopes and white lab coats involved), but I know a lot about medical results. I think knowledge of economics is reversed. Lot's about its assumptions are popularly known (and contested), but little of its results.

I'd trade hate for economic results for hate of economist any day.

Matthew Cromer writes:

But Will, it was medical doctors who spearheaded the resistance to germ theory, not the championing of it.

dearieme writes:

May I compliment you on a very useful distinction? I've tried to make it myself over the years but without success. I've ended up trying phrases for your M along the lines of "thinking like..." and then using nouns like "the uneducated", "women", "Latins" and other hopelessly inadequate, inaccurate characterisations. Lincoln, Mrs Thatcher, Descartes are counterexamples. Mind you, I am left to wonder whether these styles of thought do occur differentially between nations or sexes or people with different levels of education or whatnot, or whether some M thinkers are merely defter than others at hiding it. I suppose that some feminist writers have made the distinction but in a different vocabulary? And I do suspect that there is something about, say, French or Italian culture that makes people reach for explanations in terms of motive more readily than, say, many Northern Europeans. But my samples are small, M analyses may be better suited to French or Italian culture than C analyses and anyway some might suggest that my motives are suspect.

anon writes:

I also think evolutionists miss one important point, many plain folk don't really give a hoot about the "true" science of evolution. They care about life philosophy. They don't trust that scientists have their interests at heart. Many claim objectivity, but also sneak in value judgments with their science.

The unsophisticated can't make fine arguments but they can smell a rat. Cf. Dawkins and others with their claims that biology allows one to dismiss the idea of God. Or Wilson with his notions that consilience will allow science to encompass all of art and the social sciences. In that case, many would prefer their creationism straight. And if making scientific errors makes it easier to fight the culture wars so be it.

One can clearly see this at work in discussing race, or sex or economics.

We don't always make clear that economics should be about positive knowledge. Some public figures sneak in value judgments such as, "Diminishing marginal utility of money means progressive taxation is ok." All economists have heard and debated versions of this view but the common man just hears "Experts tell me that taxation is just."

Mad as I am about type M arguments, the average citizen is not crazy when he notes that bad motives have led to biased policy in the name of Science or Expertise before.

As Hayek noted, intellectuals trust Reason. The people often trust Tradition. That sound cultural norms have reasons that aren't easily articulable doesn't make them wrong. But intellectuals prefer a bad argument cleverly argued to a long-held, well-grounded, but poorly rationalzed view that has not yet been defended by a Great Mind.

If scientists kept their science separate from their policy prescriptions (Global Warming anyone?) it might be easier to win important debates on type C grounds.

Tom West writes:

Two reasons.

One, economicist, as with sociologists, like to think of themselves as sciencists, but really...

If economics could be used to predict what actually happens in the real world, as you can with physics, chemistry, etc., then you'd have a lot of very rich economists :-).

I'm not saying that economics doesn't have any merit, the predictive abililty of outcomes given incomes is a lot higher than zero, but it's a *long* way from 1. The fact that you cannot get the majority of economists to agree on even the most basic predictive elements of their field (when applied to real life) makes it clear that this is a science that is far too immature to allow for the sort of certainty that economists regularly trumpet (in different directions mind you). Witness the US dollar up/down debate.

Two, believing they have a hammer (for example, strategies to maximize growth or "implicit preference" measuring consumer wants), a lot of economists assume that everything is a nail (i.e. maximizing growth is automatically the best solution for social ills or that if people choose to do something, that's what makes them happiest.)

I suspect that these two reasons provide some of the explanation for why greater knowledge of the field of economics doesn't automatically go hand-in-hand with greater respect for the field.

Alberich writes:

Tom West,

If prediction was the measure of a science then many researchers in biology, atmospheric sciences, medicine, and just about any person dealing with a complex system would not be considered a scientist.

Economics is the study of a dynamic system with a damn infinite number of variables. Any prediction made in economics will no doubt suffer from the
Three-body problem when trying to make accurate predictions.

In my view economics is about explanation not prediction, like most sciences.

Roger M writes:

I have grave doubts about the ability to reason of anyone who would take Paul Bloom's article seriously. It's nothing but speculation, not even good science fiction. Does he offer one piece of evidence? How would you go about disproving it? You can't! He assumes that God does not exist, then uses his imagination to explain why we incorrectly assume He does. How could he know that one part of the brain developed before the other? Maybe he has it backwards? How can we know? We can't! The whole field of evolutionary psychology is a joke! Junk science at its best, but supposedly intelligent people accept it as the gospel.

Roger M writes:

If you're looking for a theory that explains why people have different ideas of what is true and what isn't, you should investigate public relations research. PR research has determined that all people (scientists and economists included) first decide what they want to be true, and emotions determine that. Then we look for evidence and rationale for our subjectively chosen truths. Evolution is a good example. If you study it's history, you'll discover that "scientists" accepted it as true long before any evidence was discovered.

If you want to know the real Truth about any issue, you have to put yourself in a frame of mind in which you don't care about the outcomes, i.e., eliminate emotional involvement. Only then can you look at evidence somewhat objectively.

Dog of Justice writes:

How about economics based computer games? Trick teenagers into learning about economics.

I suspect that such games (e.g. the SimCity and Civilization franchises) really only attract Type C-friendly people in the first place.

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