Why People Are More Accepting of ‘Hard’ Scientists Conclusions Than Social Scientists’ Conclusions

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:


(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.

Related: Robert Hanson and NoahPinion also comment.

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5 Responses to Why People Are More Accepting of ‘Hard’ Scientists Conclusions Than Social Scientists’ Conclusions

  1. evodevo says:

    With respect to your question in Economics: Does It All Come Down to Those Stupid F-cking Natural History Facts? “Yes, structural instabilities matter, but why didn’t the meltdown happen three months earlier or later? After all, Big Shitpile was shitty for quite a while. Households were overextended on credit for years. So why didn’t the collapse happen in 2007?”
    It did … or it tried to – should have – whatever. When the two Bear Stearns hedge funds collapsed in July, the dam broke, and by August, it was apparent to even Bennie Boy that Armageddon was at hand. Top priority however, was not curing the system, but putting off the inevitable until the change of administrations, or until the “economy could recover” and the banksters could extricate themselves with little loss. I don’t think he realized it would take trillions to do that (and we still aren’t anywhere near finished). We are still sliding down the slope toward Hell.
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”
    –Upton Sinclair

  2. joemac53 says:

    Where there is profit or opinion involved, people know that there is going to be a ton of bullshit for every ounce of truth.

  3. anthrosciguy says:

    People figure they know about it, and don’t accept that they don’t know as much as experts do. From another field, sport, we get a similar thing, which I remember encapsulated in a letter to the editor after Danny Sullivan won the Indy 500 in 1985. It read (and it’s scorched in my memory, so yes, this is exact): “If Mr. Sullivan is an athlete then so am I, because I also drive an automobile”.

    This person, who no doubt did drive an automobile, was thinking that he was at the same or similar level with a guy who had just driven 500 miles through traffic and saved himself from a nasty crash by doing a 360 degree spin coming out of turn two at over 150mph.

    Basically folks just have no idea how much better at something a lot of folks are than they are themselves, as long as they themselves have little inkling of how much better one can be. Ironically, if they have no familiarity, as with most people and physics, they are willing to admit they don’t equal the pros, and if they have a reasonable amount of familiarity at a very similar action (for instance, throwing or hitting the exact same kind of ball as a pro), they are also willing to admit they don’t equal the pros. When they merely think they are doing something similar (like driving a car) but have no clue at all how different what they’ve done is from racing, they are not willing to admit they don’t equal the pros. And this is what happens with economics, sociology, anthropology, etc. that deal with human interactions; people think they know as much as the pros and so fall victim to Dunning-Kruger effect.

  4. There’s also what I call the Bamboozlement Factor. People think they understand things like biology and the social sciences, but they know they don’t have a clue about particle physics and semiconductor design. That’s why they are willing to spend many billions to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s on atomic theory, but squawk when a field biologist wants to spend a few hundred thousand to study how voiceless frogs in Southeast Asia find their mates.

    The same thing applies when they are inclined to express their opinions.

  5. eNeMeE says:

    People don’t experience astronomy or high-energy/particle physics. They certainly do interact with other people and money, and often don’t understand that the plural of anecdote is not data, so they offer opinions on things.

    In the case of economics (and of a number of studies in sociology that I unfortunately don’t remember so they may not even exist, and I may be talking completely out my ass here) the expert opinions are backed up by papers that are often entirely hypothetical (with clearly false assumptions) or are studies with very small sample sizes, poor reporting from the study subjects, or a very high dropout rate. 1st case: economics, 2nd: sociology – the 2nd is not the result of the experts screwing up or anything, just that sociology is freakin’ hard, and is probably less well known. The 1st case, on he other hand, is on display pretty much anytime an economist opens their mouth on TV or (figuratively) in print…

    Well, I haven’t slept in about 48 hours, so I’m going to stop making a fool of myself now. Screw you prednisone!

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