Bryan Caplan  

Scott Adams on the Economic Way of Thinking

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Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, thinks like an economist - and wants his readers to do the same:

I studied economics in college. One thing I’ve noticed is that other people who have studied economics tend to think a similar way. Some of the similarity is probably because it takes a certain kind of person to be interested in economics in the first place. But I’m convinced that the study of economics changes brains in a way I can identify after about five minutes of conversation. In particular, I think the study of economics makes you relatively immune to cognitive dissonance...

Cognitive dissonance is, at its core, the inability to recognize and accept other explanations. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the point. The more your brain is trained for economics, the less it is susceptible to cognitive dissonance, or so it seems.

Adams' inspiration: Lomborg's appearance on Bill Maher. Lomborg...

made the following points clearly and succinctly:

1. Global warming is real, and people are a major cause.

2. When considering the problems that global warming will cause, we shouldn't ignore the benefits of global warming, such as fewer deaths from cold.

3. The oceans rose a foot in the last hundred years, and the world adapted, so the additional rise from global warming might not be as big a problem as people assume.

4. Developing economical fossil fuel alternatives is the only rational solution to global warming because countries such as China and India will use the cheapest fuel, period. If only the developed countries who can afford alternatives change their ways, it’s not enough to make a dent in the problem.

The Danish economist’s* argument doesn't fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn't denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn’t saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won’t be enough to help.

Neither Maher nor the other panelists understood Lomborg, even though, according to Adams, the transcript shows that his presentation was a model of clarity.

Maybe Adams is right about the cognitive dissonance, but I see a very different advantange of the economic way of thinking at work here: Literalism. Compared to most people, economists are very good at hearing what you said - not what you meant to say, or what the listener thinks you meant to say. In normal conversation, people focus on "what side you're taking." The neat thing about economics is that people who agree with your conclusion often heavily criticize your specific arguments.

If you want to see literalism honed to the peak of excellence, spend 15 minutes bouncing your favorite thoughts off of Robin Hanson - and say goodbye to a lot of your favorite thoughts!

* As far as I can tell, Lomborg's background is in statistics and political science. But Adams is right to see a strong influence of economics on Lomborg's work.

HT: Eric Crampton


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jadagul writes:

Along the same lines, I remember a conversation in Mankiw's comment section that really impressed me, about a year ago. Mankiw had posted something on the minimum wage, and there was a lively four-way in the comments. Someone argued that a minimum wage would be welfare-enhancing because of certain kinks in the demand curve (I'm sure you've heard the arguments before). A couple commenters argued that those kinks don't exist, others argued that they did, several papers got cited and everyone remained civil—the last two of which are enough to impress me on their own.

But what I really remember is the conclusion. The anti-minimum-wage guy said something like, "Okay, I concede a reasonable possibility that there's a welfare-enhancing minimum wage, but even if there is, public choice concerns mean that the government will always set it too high and cause trouble anyway." And the other guy answered, "I agree. I think setting a minimum wage is a horrible choice, practically; but I think the market is such that there is a welfare-enhancing wage, we just don't know what it is." He was arguing the facts, not his side of the political debate.

David writes:

I've long been a fan of Adams' approach to things, and he's underrated intellectually because he does a comic strip. But the guy has a mensa card and knows what he's talking about. His comic on the word "fungible" comes to mind. And this just amuses me:

“If you voted in the last election, your vote was drowned out by tens of millions of dolts who think the Speaker of the House is part of their Surround Sound stereo system.” - Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future

Karl Smith writes:

Still arguing that economics education doesn't change workers in any way that could enhance productivity?

See ya next wee Bryan.

Troy Camplin writes:

I've noticed in conversations with people that economic thinking is counter-intuitive, but if you can get the person to actually listen to the explanation, they end up with no choice but to agree with you. We seem to have evolved to understand the world in ways that are counterintuitive to both quantum physics and economics. The former for reasons of dealing with macroscopic reality; the latter for reasons of having evolved in small social groups. Truly economc systems evolved only in the last few thousand years, and we have not had time to evolve to them. Economic systems are complex systems with emergent properties, and we do not always fully understand such systems on an intutitive level. However, people can be educated to understand the nature of complex systems in general, and economic systems in particular -- and that is what we really need to work to do. Precisely because, though correct, economic thinking is counter-intuitive.

TGGP writes:

Karl, does the ability to understand Lomborg give Adams more "productivity"? I can see a clear link between thinking like an economist and having more sensible water-cooler conversation, but it might be the case that seeing all sides of an issue doesn't help many people all that much in their jobs. Bosses prefer overconfident managers and there could well be a good reason (depressed people have a more accurate view of the world, but are not known for their productivity).

On an unrelated note, I discussed your take on Putnam's diversity study here.

Dr. Troy Camplin writes:

Now, it depends on how you look at all sides of an issue. If you do it in a postmodern, egalitarian, dispair-that-we-can-know-anything way, then, no, you don't want him as a manager. But if you go a step beyond pomo and into integrationist, interdisciplinary thinking, wehre you can and do look at all sides of something, but then are able to quickly recognize what works and what doesn't -- meaning you do recognize better and worse, but do so integrating lots of information rather just one or two things, then you have someone who is a much better decision-maker and also still has confidence. Only, with such a person, the confidence comes from being right more often than not.

Jason Malloy writes:

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, thinks like an economist...

Uh huh. Scott Adams thinks he thinks like an economist. I'm afraid I can't jump aboard his self-congratulatory bandwagon, as I've seen how he approached the whole "Intelligent Design" issue, and was not impressed with his ability to analyze evidence and credibility. Sadly this is precisely the example he uses to demonstrate what a super economistic thinker he is.

Robert Rounthwaite writes:

2 points:
1. Just because someone (Scott Adams) doesn't always agree with you doesn't make him completely stupid. Lots of economists believe stupid things.

2. Lomborg isn't an economist, but his latest statements are based on the consensus of a set of economists (including the obligatory fraction of Nobel Prize winners) about the impact of attempting to fix many of the world's worst problems.

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