Sean Carroll poses a question raised by Robert Hanson:
Over on the Google+, Robin Hanson asks a leading question:
Explain why people shouldn’t try to form their own physics opinions, but instead accept the judgements of expert physicists, but they should try to form their own opinions on economic policy, and not just accept expert opinion there.
I want to expand this to the natural sciences, since I can’t speak to physics directly, but there are plenty of ‘hard’ sciences where non-experts feel free to offer their opinions. Like global warming (which does involve some physics). In biology, evolution is the obvious example, although many people distrust medical research (in light of the Decline Effect, that’s actually not always a bad idea).
To the extent, that the expertise of ‘hard’ scientists’ isn’t challenged, one obvious reason is that getting up to speed on the vocabulary can be really difficult. One long-time quips that when he reads my published articles, he only understands the prepositions. If there’s some math lurking around, that makes it all the scarier (unfortunately). But I think there are two other significant factors.
First, a subtle reason: the field needs a bracing dose of empiricism. There are too many toy models and simplifications that don’t pass the smell test. As Bill Mitchell snarked:
Typical stuff – starting with “lets assume we live on the planet X which is not Earth” – “lets assume we collect coconuts and swap them with each other” – “lets assume there is no money in this economy for simplifying the argument” – “lets assume the government doesn’t exist but a minimum wage policy is introduced nonetheless” – then after a page or more of second-rate mathematics – we get the conclusion – “Card and Krueger are wrong – minimum wages stop workers collecting coconuts”. Many times I have heard that sort of rubbish at conferences, workshops, etc.
Likewise, talking about kingdoms with gold while ignoring the very real phenomenon of slack demand doesn’t help either. And certain assumptions, either in theory (e.g., optimality) or empirically (CBO estimates) don’t make a lot of sense either. Not helping reputations. I would also add that a discipline that overemphasizes deduction at the expense of induction and those stupid fucking natural history facts is a lot less convincing–people like data (except for those data that contradict cherished beliefs…).
To a considerable extent, though, this is some pretty inside baseball. I think the primary reason has to do with the Mad Biologist’s Pentultimate Political Theorem:
PEOPLE HAVE TO LIKE THIS CRAP.
(And for good measure, let’s add in my uncle Harry’s corrolary: “Rich or poor, it’s always good to have money.”)
For the middle class, the last decade has been miserable: real income has declined since 2000. Male employment is at a historical low. Income inequality has steadily risen. In the midst of this, at least in the popular sphere, consider the following:
•economists still argue in favor of ‘free’ trade, even as people are terrified of losing their jobs, often through no fault of their own (and, no, they don’t want a fucking retraining program)
•most missed the collapse of Big Shitpile–this was an error, not of degree, but of kind.
•there’s a compelling argument to be made that economics, in its applied sense, has failed. Too many people are miserable, frightened, and hungry.
If biologists released a killer virus that wiped out a billion–or even were ‘only’ totally impotent in the face of a pandemic–we probably wouldn’t be liked even though many biologists would try to fix the problem. Ditto economists. Overwhelmingly, they failed to warn us (although some did try), and, even now, there is a confusing babble about something that directly affects people’s lives. How could one possibly reconcile Barro and Krugman (never mind James Galbraith or Dean Baker)?
So people look at all this and think, “I couldn’t possibly do worse.”
Might be true.