Bryan Caplan  

Who to Trust?

PRINT
Conventional Reflections... Discover Your Inner Literalist...

Arnold writes:

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.
But he gives up too easily. Besides the heuristic Arnold mentions (seeing whether people break ranks with their own ideology), there are several others:
  • Compare credentials. If the advocate of X teaches at Harvard, and the opponent of X teaches at a community college, this raises the probability that X is true. (And yes, this means that all else equal, you should side with Dani Rodrik against me. Fortunately, all else is not equal).
  • Adjust for social sanction. If X is a popular, crowd-pleasing conclusion, you should expect this to make smart defenders of X more abundant - regardless of the truth of X. You should therefore hold the defenders of such views to higher standards.
  • Check the bets. If only one side is willing to bet hard cash, that side is probably right.
  • You don't have to take a side. If you really have no idea who to believe, remain agnostic. In fact, it would be much better for the world if the less-informed practiced Swiss neutrality, leaving the well-informed to guide policy.
I could go on. None of these heuristics is perfect, but they're all better than nothing. Who's got some more?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (8 to date)
Kimmitt writes:

Do not forget to advocate for your own interests. If the economist says, "on the balance," or "in the long term," that doesn't mean that it's good for you, necessarily.

If other economists don't rush to a given economist's defense when he or she is called a partisan hack -- and by "other economists," I mean "basically the entire profession" -- he or she is a partisan hack and can be ignored.

If an economist has published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the signal/noise ratio is too low.

If an economist has published in Slate, check for contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism.

If an economist doesn't address the issue of enforcement for a new policy, he or she isn't really working at it.

aje writes:

Demand full disclosure, but realise that "independence" does not mean "publicly funded".

David Thomson writes:

"If the advocate of X teaches at Harvard, and the opponent of X teaches at a community college, this raises the probability that X is true."

OK, I will go along with that. A Harvard professor should be more brilliant than one teaching at a community college. Still, we know that the less than brilliant John Kenneth Galbraith dominated its campus. There are obviously a number of exceptions.

Once at Harvard writes:

[Comment deleted for supplying false email address. A valid email address is a requirement to post comments on EconLog. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment.--Econlib Ed.]

James McWilliams writes:

A rash of bad ideas have come out the Ivies over the past two and a half centuries, Harvard included. There's a real danger in automatically trusting the Harvard opinion over the community college opinion, and that is that so many Harvard ideas do not get properly scrutinized because, well, they came from Harvard. I think there's a knee-jerk reverence among the majority of educated people for Harvard that ultimately damages Harvard, allowing the lazier elements within to rest on laurels rather than push the boundaries with well-buttressed ideas. I've often fantasized about writing a book called "How Harvard and Yale Screwed Up the World," but I fear the fallout.

Robert Speirs writes:

Is Brian's post trustworthy? Let's see:

1. Credentials: No

2. Social sanctions: Yes. Or at least I haven't seen any evidence of great popularity that would incline me to mistrust these heuristics.

3. Bets. No. But how would you lay down cash on whether these heuristics are worthy of trust?

4. Taking a side. Well, yes, Caplan does require you to take a side (these are better than nothing) so, no, you can't be neutral on whether they are or are not better than nothing.

And what the heck, throw in Kling's heuristic (going against the grain). It's a "no". Nothing in this post surprises particularly.

So four no's and one yes. So the proposition fails using its own metrics.

DaWun writes:
Compare credentials. If the advocate of X teaches at Harvard, and the opponent of X teaches at a community college, this raises the probability that X is true. (And yes, this means that all else equal, you should side with Dani Rodrik against me. Fortunately, all else is not

This doesn't seem to follow. Simply because one teaches at a more prestigious school, it doesn't automatically increase the probability that the position(s) they advocate is true, all else being equal. There needs to be another assumption that strongly connects academic prestige to the truth of beliefs. That is, one must illustrate that beliefs advocated at 'better' schools are more true, etc. Anecdotally, I wouldn't think that is the case...but I could be wrong.

c&d writes:

"If only one side is willing to bet hard cash, that side is probably right."
Not necessarily. People that have a great deal of faith or commitment to a position will struggle with honestly evaluating new information. If there is new information that socialized medicine is good for society or bad for society the best people to evaluate the new situation are those who are not already ideologically committed to a position. Its a reason I am skeptical of the authors of this blog: they appear too committed to their worldview.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top