Bryan Caplan  

Difference in Deference

The Stern Swindle... Why Oh Why Can't the Media Dis...

Over at Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson amusingly contrasts the abject deference the public gives to physicists with the stubborn defiance the public gives to economists:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying "Isn't that cool!" But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to "balance" their story.

I see the same pattern with my students - they'll easily believe physics claims, but are very reluctant to entertain standard economics claims. They come to class with strong incorrect preconceptions about the social world. As Caplan emphasizes, the publics' problem with economics is not the things they don't know, it is the things they know that ain't so; they act not ignorant but cocksure of error.

I wonder what Jeff Friedman would say...

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The author at Cafe Hayek in a related article titled Hanson, Caplan, writes:
    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 [Tracked on November 28, 2006 1:25 PM]
The author at Economist's View in a related article titled Higher Powered Economics writes:
    Stephen Gordon at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative offers an explanation for why explaining economics to non-economists is as difficult - and as frustrating - as explaining the theory of evolution to creationists: The Intelligent Design theory of economi... [Tracked on November 29, 2006 1:07 AM]
COMMENTS (25 to date)
talboito writes:

Maybe the problem is with Economics and not with the public?

Bob Hawkins writes:

I can tell you from experience, students come to physics class with incorrect preconceptions about physics, and it is not easy to correct them. They may be more likely to copy down the correct information without complaining, but as soon as they have to apply it, they're off down the dirt road of ignorance.

Timothy writes:

I think the problem is that to even have an opinion on physics you need to have a pretty technical education, but the concepts in economics are easy to understand and seen every everyone has an opinion.

Nat writes:

The publics skepticism of economic theory stems from the fact that economic theory tends to have a greater effect on policy making than physics.

Well, speaking as someone with a foot in both worlds, I don't think you can really compare physics and economics.

Physics makes specific, quantifiable predictions which can be verified through direct experiments--some of which you can do at home. Only the most cutting-edge theory remains untested or untestable: the vast majority of everyday physics has been well established for centuries.

In contrast, by the standards of the physical sciences many of the predictions of economic theory are conjecture (at best), and only a handful even rise to the level of being loose statistical correlations. Confounding variables often make meaningful economic predictions impossible, and large-scale controlled experiments present huge problems.

So you shouldn't be surprised that physics theories are treated with more deference than economic theories. It simply reflects the relative state of the two fields, and inherent difficulties in testing the theories.

Lots of people are disrespectful of physicists. We can start with anti-nuclear-power activists and continue through young-Earth creationists, astrologers, people who think that quantum mechanics means that refusing to perceive something means it doesn't exist...

Jake writes:

Physics has fundamental postulates that do not depend much on human interpretation. For instance, f=ma. Economics has no equivalent.

Fabio writes:

You know, another logical response is to be equally skeptical of physicists as we are of economists. The core of knowledge is skepticism, not deference.

Offtopic: Brian, do you know if immigrants are, on average, any more economically ignorant/irrational than natives? Are they systematically biased in different ways than natives?

Horatio writes:

"...the publics' problem with economics is not the things they don't know, it is the things they know that ain't so..."

You hit the nail right on the head. The average person thinks they know economics. FDR saved capitalism from itself. Raising the minimum wage helps the economy. Gas prices go up before a hurricane because of greedy station owners. It goes on and on. Conversely, the average person KNOWS they don't know physics. It's hard to trick yourself into thinking you understand physics.

I have a B.S. in chemistry and a B.S. in physics. Currently, I am working towards my Ph.D. in physics at a top university. My friends take anything I say about the physical sciences as gospel. However, they will argue with me to no end about economics, even when I pull out a textbook and show them the very thing I'm trying to convince them of. I can pull up a clip on YouTube of Milton Friedman explaining the same thing and they still fight it.

Alex L writes:

I agree with Timothy. Economics is something more accessable to everybody and thus it is easier to either find or to make up your own opinion on the subject. Also, economics is something which is very close to the pocket, unlike the great science of physics. Who really cares if the speed of light has been changed? But once the minimum wage has been changed the social implications are far reaching...

Barkley Rosser writes:

People may like nukes, but they respect the fact that physicists produced them and also rockets to the moon, etc. Economists mostly appear to produce bad advice (and when it is good, well, it is not as dramatically so as nukes and rockets). As a result, Phil Mirowski has wise cracked that economists have "physics envy."

OTOH, we now have "econophysics," which is physicists doing economics using physics models. Rocket scientists on Wall Street, making lots of money. These folks have some respect for economics, even if they think they can do it better (and some of them can).

Bill Kruse writes:

It's odd that Robin Hanson should give as an example the impact of a minimum wage increase when 600+ "economists" just signed a statement favoring a 40 percent increase. People are skeptical of many things economists say because all too often economists let politics get in the way and it's obvious. Physicists and other scientists let politics get in the way too (e.g., global warming), but less so, I think.

Matt writes:

The problem with economics is that like physics, the laboratory is the real world. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig. There were economists who predicted the failure of communism and socialism, but it took actually seeing the Soviet Union collapse for most people to believe it.

Actually now that I think about it, physics and economics are similar. They both suffer from the Uncertainty pricipal- in the case of humans, unpredictable free will.

Eric Crampton writes:

Jake: MV=PQ!

MK writes:

Prof. Caplan,

The reason why your students, and for that matter everybody else, have a hard time understanding your point that minimum wages raises unemployment is that in some cases there is a huge gap between what theory teaches us in this regard and what we see in the real world. I wish to call your attention to the fact that part of the reason why economists lose their credibility so often and are misunderstood so much is because they are full of paradoxes. Take this: every day you teach your students how the world is not black and white, but rather a nuanced, complex, and multidimensional landscape. Yet, at the same time you turn around five minutes later when someone challenges your biases and tell everybody that 'hey when it comes to what I believe, the world loses its layers and everything turns into black and white form. The theory that raising minimum wage will result in higher unemployment is the best reminder that even multidimensional economists will fall into the trap of 'black and white' world, which they so forcefully try to avoid.

How on earth do you explain the following: The state of Oregon increased its minimum wage in 2002, and since then non-farm payrolls are up 8%, state's unemployment rate has fallen to 5.4 % from 7.6 what it was in 2002. here is a link where you can read more about it:

And you wonder: why are people, so people, you know, so stupid? Or are they?

Drtaxsacto writes:

I recently completed War and Peace. The last epilogue - where Tolstoy tries to lay out a coherent theory of the linkage between necessity and free will - informs your discussion a bit. Tolstoy argues that for all the immutablity of the rules that scientists offer - they may or may not be useful for understanding our world.

Omer K writes:

Physics doesnt directly affect their lives. But people use money and interact in the economy everyday.

That alone should explain the difference.

Sam Koritz writes:

Human intuition re economics & finance tends to be anti-foreign & excessively loss averse. This is understandable since our instincts were formed in environments of tribal competition & scarcity. So how did market institutions rise at all if they're counterintuitive? Perhaps groups in which market institutions randomly arose out-competed others. If so, then surviving institutions are likely to be more efficient than those that would be created from scratch, even assuming a relatively well-meaning creation committee.

Monte writes:

The “difference in deference” is completely explained by the fact that economics is often regarded as something of a Sokal's Hoax. Unlike the natural sciences, its laws are mutable. It suffers from an abysmal track record of forecasting and prediction and relies too heavily on theory and supposition. What other science can boast a Nobel that was jointly awarded to two of its best and brightest for enunciating divergent concepts in their study of interdependent phenomena as it relates to the theory of money and economic fluctuations (Mydral/Hayak)?

Deirdre McCloskey is famous/infamous for his/her critique of economics as a study in contradictions. How fitting…

RogerM writes:

Joseph Hertzlinger: Lots of people are disrespectful of physicists. We can start with anti-nuclear-power activists and continue through young-Earth creationists

Young-earth creationists don't disrespect physics. You're showing your ignorance of the movement. We hold physics in higher regard than most physicists. The difference is that we emphasize evidence-based science and not groundless speculation. Several of the professors at the Institute for Creation Research ( are physicists, one of whom had worked at the Sandia Labs for many years.

RogerM writes:

Public relations research sheds some light on why people respect physics more than economics, and several posters have already touched on it. PR research shows that most people rely on their own judgment on matters that affect them directly, while resorting to experts on other matters.

But in another vein, can you blame people for being skeptical of economics after 50 years of Keynes' nonsense shoved down their throats?

aaron writes:

Maybe the jobs lost just aren't important to the ecomomy. Perhaps putting a few people out of work is not as important as increasing the discressionary income of the group.(No, I don't actually believe this, it's just a possibility.)

Ned Ilincic writes:

I believe the reason people distrust economists and not physicists is the emotional pull of many of the (wrong) answers to economics questions. A lot of people consider that if something feels good (rising the minimum wage to aleviate povery), it must be true - therefore they believe they already know the right answer, and anybody trying to persuade them otherwise must have an ulterior motive. Questions of physics, such as how many quarks does the proton consist of, carry no emotional weight.

Fazal Majid writes:

People mistrust economists not because they don't understand economics, but rather because they have an excellent understanding of the power of incentives. Namely, the fact that many (most?) economists making public policy recommendations hold jobs financed by institutions that have a vested interest in promoting this or that position. Unlike journalists, most economists don't even have the elementary decency of disclosing their conflicts of interest.

It's little surprise that the general public mostly disregards economists' pronouncements (except when they confirm their own prejudices). In that sense, economists as a group probably have even less credibility than politicians, as the assumption of venality is almost automatic for an economist, whereas it is suspected of pols but the latter sometimes get the benefit of doubt, specially when they are young and handsome.

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