Arnold Kling  

Which Economists to Trust?

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In a new econtalk podcast, David Henderson and Russ Roberts discuss the issue of how a layman should deal with economic expertise. They mention the problem that the press will seek out "balance" when in fact one side is represented only by highly suspect spokesmen for lobbying organizations. They mention the problem that economists have an incentive to take strong ideological positions in order to get attention. So how can a layman decide who to trust?

I talked about that issue in this essay. With one exception, I think there is nothing that the public can look for in terms of a signal about economists. The best thing is to force economists to explain their arguments clearly in layman's terms, and then to evaluate the arguments on their merits. That means you have to know enough about economics to be able to distinguish a compelling economic argument from demagoguery.

The exception is this: when an economist known for one ideological leaning makes an argument that favors a different persuasion, that in itself should lend credibility to the case. For example, when relatively liberal (in the modern sense) Brad DeLong takes the pro-free-trade position in a debate, that deserves attention. By the same token, when conservative Greg Mankiw has nothing nice to say about the tax treatment of carried interest, that is a sign that those conservatives who want to retain the tax break are on shaky ground.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (4 to date)
M. Hodak writes:

"that is a sign that those conservatives who want to retain the tax break are on shaky ground"

That's overstating the case. It may be a sign that an economist like Mankiw is arguing without ideological blinders, but that's far from saying that it's a sign that the other side is wrong.

One thing I look out for are economists who overstate their case. :)

Bruce G Charlton writes:

This has long been a topic in medical science - and reams have been written about how the public might be educated to differentiate between scare stories and solid science. But none of it really seems to work.

We all indulge a fantasy of being some kind of un-foolable renaissance man who can evaluate every field of knowledge: sniffing out the bogus and homing-in on the nuggets of genuine wisdom.

But it is just a fantasy. The modern world is a world of specialized, inaccessible knowledge, and gets more-so every year. This means that no generalist can evaluate specific knowledge claims.

What a generalist *can* do is evaluate fields of knowledge as a whole - and whether they have in the past on-the-whole made predictions which have come true - or whether they have served a useful function.

This is imprecise, but I think it is all that can be done. And it needs to be done. So we can, in this way, reject (as whole sciences) astrology, homoeopathy, Freudian psychoanalyisis, or Marxist economics. What we are really saying is not that these things were totally wrong, but that we have other rival systems of knowledge that - on the whole - are clearly superior.

In a nutshell - it is something of a waste of time for 'outsiders' to debate the specifics of specialists claims in economics or elsewhere - but they can, must and should legitimately decide which specialisms should be accorded authority in which domains.

8 writes:

I prefer to look at the long term picture, therefore I trust the dead economists.

J. Goard writes:

Excellent point, Bruce. However, doesn't it strike you that much bad science flouts basic principles of statistics, bias-control, and sometimes even formal logic, easily within the grasp of a moderately intelligent layperson? I may not be able to evaluate an isolated claim in, say, medicine, but I can certainly identify many cases of sketchy data-collection methods or profoundly insufficent sample size.

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