Arnold Kling  

Preferring Ignorance

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My latest essay says,


Imagine what might happen if one were to run a controlled experiment, pooling a group of students and randomly assigning them to different schools. Would the "good" suburban school really do better than the "failing" urban school, once the population of students is similar?

...For the most part, consumers and taxpayers would rather not know whether education, health care, and foreign aid are cost-effective. Instead, people would rather "trust the experts" and attribute high skill levels to educators, doctors, and aid agencies. And, of course, the experts would like us to continue to pay their salaries without questioning their results. As on many other issues, in seeking cost-benefit analysis economists are fighting an uphill battle.

UPDATE: a reader thinks that the preference for ignorance is related to the Seersucker Theory of J. Scott Armstrong.


People are willing to pay heavily for expert advice. Economists are consulted to tell us how the economy will change, stock analysts are paid large salaries to forecast the earnings of various companies, and political experts command large fees to tell our leaders what the future holds. The available evidence, however, implies that this money is poorly spent. But because few people pay attention to this evidence, I have come up with what I call the "seersucker theory": "No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers."



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

These are very deep and pregnant observations. Whoever puts together satisfactory models to explain them will have a serious jump on the economics of the twenty-first century.

Fritz writes:

I don't think people want to be ignorant. How information is presented breeds ignorance. Take a recent University of Chicago study on Chicago public high schools (CPHS). The reporter took the liberty to present as fact that colleges had looked further than ACT scores for admission even-though such standardized tests is the current focus in education. What the report actually said, was that the CPHS's failed to provide the necessary skill sets that were necessary to score higher on the ACT. Admissions personnel would grant hard working students, (good grades) consideration, recommending remedial coursework as a requirement for admission. The study was critical of CPHS that denied hard working students skills they needed to perform in college. The Suntimes reporter placed her anti-Bush standardized testing bias into the story to make it appear that the ACT was a misguided measurement.

mobile writes:

Wasn't the forced bussing in many American cities after Brown v. Board of Education almost exactly the kind of controlled experiment that Arnold is looking for? How'd that turn out?

spencer writes:

Since the primary determinate of how a student does in school is their family income and parents education the answer to your question is self evident.

But, before WW II about 25% of the population graduated from high school and now well over 90% of the population graduates from high school.

So we use to have a system when we educated the
portion of the population that was most likely to succeed and told the rest to go to work.
Now we try to educate those we use to neglect.
Yet we still use essentially the same methodology
to teach the lower three-quarters that we use to use to educate only the top quarter and claim the system is failing because it does not get the same results. Of course we do not get the same results and I suspect the top quarter is actually getting a better education then it use to. Obviously, since the bottom three-quarters use to get zero education they are now getting a better education.

But why should any rational person expect a student with an average or below average IQ from a poor environment to do as well or respond to the same incentives or educational methods that a student with a superior IQ and an enriched home environment?

Yet your entire critism of public education seemed to be based on that premise.

So you are still promising a free lunch by claiming that just shifting the inferior students to private schools with the same resources and methods will suddenly solve the problems.

Kent Gatewood writes:

In my mind a poor school is an unsafe school.

My old high school was "good" and safe. After integration it was unsafe, it hasn't been viewed as "good" since then.

The "bad", unsafe inner city schools in Oklahoma get more money than the "good", safe suburban schools.

James writes:

Spencer,

Two issues:

First, I observe that you are comparing benefits without regard to cost. Do you believe that this is the appropriate way to do policy analysis?

Second, the problems with our existing educational system are symptoms of something bigger, the public goods problem inherent in collectivist arrangements. Why should anyone expend the effort to petition the central planning board for improvements? The person gets a tiny benefit (just a marginal change in the probability of improvement) and bears the entire cost of monitoring the central planning board and communicating with them.

Let me offer an example that might provide some intuition. Suppose that everyone in the WalMart nearest your house is informed that they will not be able to individually choose what bundle of products they get. Instead, they should all vote for a planner or five who will decide what bundle of goods they should get and how to allocate the costs. In this example, the quality of the products is held constant, but no one would claim that this would be better than individual choice for groceries. Why shouldn't the same logic apply to schools?

spencer writes:

No James -- my point is exactly the opposite.

If you are going to educate the lower three-quarters of the population it has to be more expensive then educating the top quarter of the population.

My complain is the liberaterian claim that private schools can do this with fewer resources then public schools. But I have seen no evidence that this is true. The best evidence I've seen is that if private schools select their student body to exclude the worse student they can get the same results with the same resources.

Your comments on choice is completely irrelevent.

Even private schools present a pre-selected course of study with limited selection, especially at the lower levels.

A school's role is to teach you to read, write,
do math and other logical reasonings. Comparing this to whether you buy corn flakes or grits is really, really, really a completely irrelevent comparison.

James writes:

Spencer,

Yes, educating more people probably costs more money than educating less people. And the number of in school stabbings per student is higher now than it was in 1920. I bet if we could pick and choose the variables to measure, we could make a case for almost any policy.

"My complain is the liberaterian claim that private schools can do this with fewer resources then public schools. But I have seen no evidence that this is true."

I'm wondering where you've looked, but I'll assume you've been exhaustive. Are you one of those people who assumes by default that things should be centrally planned unless someone can mount an argument that private choice works better?

What are my comments on choice irrelevant to? I think they are quite relevant in considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of individual vs. collective decision making.

"A school's role is to teach you to read, write, do math and other logical reasonings."

That would be my preference too, more or less. I also have my own ideas as to how these skills are best taught. But I wouldn't be willing to impose them on others.

Steve Sailer writes:

Everybody knows perfectly well in their private life that a "bad school" is really just one with bad students. That's why there's a huge price premium for a home in a public school district with good students.

The problem is that people won't tell the truth in public about what they know perfectly well in private. A clear example are all the people who wouldn't ever let kids go to schools with large numbers of illegal immigrants' kids, but are perfectly willing to claim in public that anybody who points out that the most obvious thing we can do to improve schooling in the U.S. is to stop letting in so many uneducated people from Mexico is a horrible bigot.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Yeah, that seersucker thing is pretty close to what I was thinking: people generally want some person in charge so they can hold them responsible. FEMA is great, because it had Brownie Mikee Brown or whatever his name was to hold responsible for Hurricane Katrina.

Sen. Joe "Friend of Indians Everywhere" Biden was in Iowa this week pitching national health care, a solution truly looking for a problem these days. The message appeals to people I guess because they see someone as "in charge". There is no evidence they'd get anything better than the market delivers today. Look at car insurance in California. The past 20 years have been referendum after referendum designed to give more control to the insurance commissioner, and more and more costs pushed off on responsible, good drivers to subsidize a lot of people who maybe should be taking the bus for all of our safety! It is funny that insurance commissioners have been unable to use the powerful position as a springboard to governator or senator, suggesting to me that the people wanted a powerful position, not person.

tdl writes:

It might not be as simple as people just wanting someone in charge, but that people might just be too lazy (or rather prefer to spend their time on other things) to engage in any critical thinking about certain topics. Health care, education, the environment, security, economics, science, etc. require time and effort to understand. Many people might be unwilling to spend the time or effort on these topics. It is far easier to get an expert opinion then do it on your own. Also, as already alluded, when something goes wrong we can always blame the expert.

As far as private education; privatizing the entire education system will allow for hundreds (if not thousands) of various experiments as to what the most effective manner of educating is (I would guess that there are multiple approaches.) Furthermore, it will allow for various price points for various types of services. Also, privatized education will be more responsive to local conditions (and the actual customers) and would not succumb to the political agendas of unaccountable bureaucrats and mendacious politicians (as well as naive "do gooders".)

Regards,
TDL

Mark Horn writes:

What is the distinction between a preference for ignorance and a making use of comparative advantage?

I am almost completely ignorant of the plumbing in my house. It's not that I lack the mental capacity to learn it. It's that it's not an effective use of my time. It's much more cost effective for me to hire a professional plumber to fix any issues that come up than for me to learn how to fix it and remain compliant with various codes.

How do I classify the situation in the previous paragraph? Do I have a preference for ignorance of plumbing, or am I making use of a plumber's comparative advantage?

If you can classify the situation in healthcare, education and foriegn aid as a preference for ignorance, can't you also classify it as a desire to rely on someone else's comparative advantage? I can't know everything. Don't I have incentive to rely on an expert in just about every area of life outside of my own specialization?

What am I missing?

tdl writes:

Mr. Horn,
That is a good point. The problem here is that there is much interference in the trading process. We are not able to interact directly with the relevant professionals like we would with a plumber. What happens in the contemporary environment is that much of our decisions are made by those who interests are not necessarily aligned with our own. We can not hire our fire teachers for their successes or failures, we are limited to which health professionals we can see according to the limitations of our health plans. If a diplomat brokers a deal that is contrary to our interests we have no power to penalize them. In short, the relationship is not as direct as it is with a plumber; the decision makers are few and powerful, if they make a mistake we suffer for it and are unable to correct the problem in a timely fashion (as we could with a bad plumber.)

Regards,
TDL

P.S. By "us" I mean individuals or small groups who are adversely affected by policies and whose recourse is extremely limited.

Mark Horn writes:

TDL,

I don't disagree with the distinction that you made. I'm just suggesting an explanation as to why we prefer ignorance in those areas. It's because we prefer ignorance in just about every area, and many of us have not yet made the distinction that you make.

Cheers
- Mark

Robert Allen Leeper writes:

Arnold Kling A Preference for Ignorance

You observe a result (lack of good studies) and infer causation (preference for ignorance). Your guess may be largely right, but I think a better guess is that some people, while they may very much prefer to be informed, are motivated by the desire to keep their ideological opponents ignorant and are willing to pay the price of being ignorant themselves.

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