Bryan Caplan  

The Learning of the Wise

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Non-economists often advertise their ignorance of economics.  Debate opponent Ron Unz is the latest to cross my path:
Now, you know, I'm laboring under a disadvantage in this debate because not only am I not a trained economist, I've never even taken a class in economics.

I've never even opened an economics textbook. I personally don't claim to really understand most economics. I'm not convinced everybody else understands economics that well either.
The subtext is that Unz had better things to do than study yet another dubious subject.  Many of my fellow economists would have jumped on his admission: "Unz begins by telling us that he knows nothing about economics - and then proceeds to prove it."  But we economists should be more circumspect.  Most of us ignore psychology, sociology, political science, history, education, philosophy and other subject matters relevant to our research.  Some economists even revel in their ignorance; they can't pronounce the words "psychology" or "sociology" without scare quotes or sneer italics.

If pressed, most of these monodisciplinary economists would echo Unz: They don't study other subjects because their time is valuable, and the expected value of broadening their horizons is low.  If other subjects had useful lessons to teach, economists would have already heard about them, right?

The obvious retort to such economists is: Do psychologists and sociologists have little learn from us?  Every self-respecting economist must respond, "Bite your tongue; psychologists and sociologists have plenty to learn from economics."  Once you admit that every field other than economics suffers from complacent groupthink, though, you really have to ask yourself, "Is economics any better?"

How would you find out?  There are two obvious routes.

1. Seek out other economists who have seriously explored other fields.  Yes, this suffers from selection bias - the economists who seriously explore other fields tend to be sympathetic to those fields.  But such explorers remain useful guides.  When you visit France, you want the author of your tourist book to be a Francophile.

2. See for yourself.  Branch out to other subjects and see what you learn.

My claim: Both of these routes will quickly reveal ideas worthy of your consideration.  Forty hours of reading - one week's work - will suffice.  You'll encounter a lot of junk along the way.  But you won't return to your intellectual home territory empty-handed.  You will learn a lot even if you study subjects that seem phony and corrupt.  Why?  Because in the midst of phoniness and corruption, there are always dissident voices eager to speak out.  Seek them and you shall find them.  Once you give the dissidents a fair hearing, of course, you may start to see their targets in a more sympathetic light.

Anyone can say, "I never studied X because I wasn't convinced it would be worth my time."  If someone genuinely seeks wisdom, though, they will set a much lower bar.  Like: "I studied X because I wasn't convinced that it wasn't worth my time."  Or: "I studied X because I thought there was a 10% chance X was right."  Or: "I studied X because I was mortally afraid of overlooking whatever nuggets of truth X contains."  If you really want to understand the world, you have to value your time less and your learning more.  Study every subject that seems vaguely relevant.  If a field has a bad reputation, see for yourself whether its reputation is deserved.  And even if a field deserves its bad reputation, seek out honorable exceptions. 

Should everyone adopt this demanding standards?  Of course not.  But if you're a consumer of ideas, you need not settle for thinkers who proudly declare that they have better things to do than become deeply knowledgeable about the topics they discuss.  Wisdom does not come cheap, but the marketplace of ideas is full of thinkers who eagerly pay the full price.  Such thinkers will often freely admit that they've spent years of their lives studying ideas of little value.  (I know I have!)  If you're a consumer of ideas, however, you shouldn't worry about how much time the wise have wasted, but how much the wise have learned.



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Jim Rose writes:

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Kyle Walter writes:

To answer a question posed by Mr. Mingardi a few months ago on this site:
Yes liberty does require polymaths.
Wisdom itself requires curiosity about a wide variety of fields because all the fields of human knowledge are connected. If you go back just a few centuries you'll find that the philosophers (lovers of wisdom) were interested in a lot more subjects than you would be taught in a modern philosophy course. Take for example Descartes or Newton with his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Brad writes:

And we should emphasize that watching 24 hour cable news shows isn't exactly learning. Those shows are peddling a product, namely entertainment sprinkled with a hint of authenticity. People watch them and suddenly think they're "informed" or "learned".

We need another Milton Friedman to make learning about econ and capitalism "cool" again.

john hare writes:

@Jim,
It takes less time than most think to survey other fields a bit. Reading an interesting book on a subject often puts one ahead of the information curve compared to those that don't try.

If you entertain yourself by reading, then your leisure time can easily make you better informed on multiple subjects than some of the practitioners in that field. Many apparent experts in any field have been along for the ride for years or decades, which leaves them out of touch with current capabilities in their own field.

Bottom line is that awareness is easy if expertise is not required, and often feeds back into your own field.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Perhaps there's an analogue to the Ideological Turing Test: can you go to a specialty blog run by an economist/philosopher/historian/psychologist and be accepted as knowledgeable by the other commenters?

Jameson writes:


These are really good thoughts. However, in the context of the debate, the question is whether economics was not one of the most important bodies of knowledge necessary for an informed opinion on the subject of immigration. Other than perhaps history, I can't think of a body of technical knowledge more important than economics for understanding immigration dynamics.

So let's not forget that learning "about the world" is usually too general a goal. We have to decide what exactly we want to know about it, and once we do that, the various disciplines become more or less important with respect to the goal.

The short version: you really should have nailed Unz for not knowing any economics.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

I frequently read economists' posts here for two reasons: first, because they are posted by economists, so that I can learn about the way that they approach problems; and secondly, because the economists here have idealized the notion of the liberal self beyond reason, making them an easy target. In the course of reading and responding, I have the opportunity to sharpen my own focus (neo-institutional economics). Thanks.

John Soriano writes:

Great post. In college I double-majored in Economics and International Affairs -- the latter of which required me to take classes in IAFF, political science, history, and geography. I have also read a lot of philosophy and psychology in my spare time and took a couple of classes in both. Half of my classes were filled with quants, and the other half were filled with smart kids (my school has a top 10 IAFF program) who were often terrified by numbers. In my experience, the quants more disciplined thinkers, but were ignorant of basic historical events like the Opium War, the political institutions that their economic models operate within, and the philosophical origin of the economic questions economic models seek to to answer. On the other side of the stick the IAFF students lacked the tools to analyze all of the areas where they had (often great) factual knowledge. Don't even get me started on business school students.

I know this is self-affirming, but had I only had one of these two majors, I feel that my college education would have been woefully incomplete. I do wish I had the time to have taken science classes though!

Krishnan writes:

If a non-economist wants to learn about economics, I would recommend listening to econtalk - Russ Roberts does a very good job of discussing, debating and illuminating the ideas of the guest - true, he injects his ideas/opinions - but does allow the guest to defend him/herself ... Not all guests are "libertarians" or from the "Chicago school" or "Austrian school" ...

The opportunities to learn about other subjects are indeed out there ... Intelligence squared US debates are available as podcasts - a variety of guests who disagree but yet carry on a conversation that can be eye openers ... blogs (like this and others, like cafehayek) are also very good places to learn ... )

SY writes:

Sometimes other disciplines can corrupt economics, namely mathematics and psychology. While healthy in moderation, some economists overconsume these disciplines to the point of forgetting economics. Mathematics has so deeply infiltrated graduate schools that new economics students are coerced into mathematical overconsumption as well, perpetuating the decline of economics.

Brian E. writes:

"They don't study other subjects because their time is valuable, and the expected value of broadening their horizons is low."

The irony here is that if a non-economist actually says, "I don't have time to study economics, I'm too busy with my primary discipline." they're already thinking like an economist.

Dan S writes:

@John Soriano,

I'm interested in dipping my toe into foreign relations/international affairs. Is there a good introductory textbook you can recommend and also maybe a mainstream blog or something?

Not sure if you follow The War Nerd, but I read some of his stuff and it made me think, wow I really need to learn more about all this stuff.

Thanks in advance.

John R. Samborski writes:

Mr. Caplan,
What books would you recommend to an economist who wants to learn about psychology, sociology, political science, history, education, and philosophy? What books would you recommend to a non-economist who wants to learn about economics?

Fazal Majid writes:

From a cursory examination of Ron Unz's Wikipedia article, it emerges that:
1) He is a successful businessman
2) His company was in the realms of financial statistics

I would say this practical experience probably makes him more qualified to talk about real-world economics than 80% of academic economists, if not on the specific subject of immigration.

On the flip side, his background is in physics and physicists often have a distressing habit of thinking "physics is hard, therefore everything else is easy". Little do they know...

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