And here I was hoping that after your vacation your blog wouldn't mostly be dedicated Keynes.
I'm surprised how down to earth Krugman can be. I always thought economists were absorbed in their own little intelligentsia, kind of like how Krugman says in that video, but it's nice to see one of them come down into the real world and hash it out a little bit. One thing about giving all these talks and so on, and social scientists actually do seem to engage the public more than, say, engineers (perhaps why according to one poll I've seen more people understand basic economics than basic science, seriously), is that it's more likely their work will be misinterpreted. For example, I read some of Kurgman's stuff in a political science class. And these articles and so on are, of course, easier to understand and not as technical as economics. Political analysis obviously isn't as technical as economics most of the time, although it can be. But can I say I understand Krugman and his economics and where he's really coming from just from his public appearances and talks? If that makes sense. This has kind of been on my mind lately for some reason. I actually think scientists can explain their work to the public and simplify the ideas quite well. When scientists talk, we should listen, they have something to tell us. I'm not sure social scientists have really perfected the art of simplification or clarification. --successfulbuild
When scientists proper speak about their ideas, they often make the outrageous admission that they themselves have a hard time grasping what they are trying to learn. And that's partly because what they have just learnt is an imperfect work in progress, and a halfway attempt at understanding a very complicated thing.Nobel Prize winning physicist Steve Weinberg once said that when people say the universe is expanding, they only make (misleading) analogies. Actually the universe...grows or rushes out, if that makes any sense. Of course, it is so complicated that even scientists have a hard time keeping this concept in mind, and one physicist simply explained it as: "Not only is the universe queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose."On the other hand, this sort of admission is simply not acceptable in economics. These people intend to propose public policy, and they damn well not appear to be unsure in front of a parliamentary hearing. Where science is a work in progress, religion and economics are the final conclusions whose authority is unappealable.Hence, you are likely to see the very humbled scientist try to explain things clearly, while the arrogant economist must not look like he doesn't understand the very complicated things he speaks.
Prateek -re: "On the other hand, this sort of admission is simply not acceptable in economics. These people intend to propose public policy, and they damn well not appear to be unsure in front of a parliamentary hearing."This is interesting, Prateek. This is not my experience at all. I find that the complexity of the economy is regularly remarked upon. Certainly among empirical economists that I know there's always a great deal of doubt and humility precisely because we working with such complicated systems and we rarely have a clean test. Now, that's not to say we don't know anything at all - and certainly we don't pretend that we can't advocate anything because we don't have perfect knowledge. We can absolutely assert claims given the knowledge that we do have because we have enough confidence in what we think we know to know that one course of action is likely to be better than another. But I think the limits are quite clear.There are a lot of elements to a scientific mind, but I think humility and doubt are two of the most important.re: "Where science is a work in progress, religion and economics are the final conclusions whose authority is unappealable."This is absurd. The conclusions of economics get challenged, doubted, and even appealed all the time.
Think of it this way - biologists are always humble and unsure because we're still discovering things, yadda yadda yadda.But biologists don't stumble over the question of whether we should teach creationism in classrooms.That's the sense in which economists are confident. Knowing you don't know everything and being up front of that is absolutely not the same thing as splitting the difference on every single question. There's a lot we can advocate and there's a lot that we can bet on even if we don't know for sure.
You are right, you are right, my post was unfair. Especially given how economists have changed their minds all the time.I have just been on a big science phase, where I keep viewing science lectures and keep reading popular science books. And I am stunned by the big difference between scientists and economists. There is a big difference, although I lost myself trying to specify what it is.If you look at some Bloomberg TV appearances by economists who are asked to explain why oil prices are rising, how many of them will ever say, "I don't know and neither do you"? They will all talk about Middle East conflicts, demand and supply issues, and other related causes, but it's never a heavily qualified statement. On the other hand, many of the interviews of Steve Weinberg show him explaining that there is no fundamental or universal set of laws for physics, because the actual nature of things keeps defying any possible principle we can ascribe to them.Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Journalists sometimes say that scientists have to go back to the drawing board. What do they think, that we just put our feet up, and decide we have figured things out? We are ALWAYS at the drawing board." On the other hand, a distinguished economist, whom I won't name, has expressed irritation at "70 years of hard won economic data being ignored". Physicists are capable of starting from scratch from 100 years or more!
...stunned by the big difference between scientists and economists.ZING!
re: "If you look at some Bloomberg TV appearances by economists who are asked to explain why oil prices are rising, how many of them will ever say, "I don't know and neither do you"?"Although a lot of these guys are like market analysts. That's like comparing a weather channel person to a climatologist, or some fairly well-read GM foods activist to a geneticist.I think this is part of the reason why economists get a bad reputation - we see all kinds of analysts, forecasters, prognosticators, and even journalists and politicians talking about economic issues and we impute that to economic science.Economics deals with a subject that matters a great deal to human beings. When primatologists study primate resource allocation it doesn't raise a lot of passions. When economists study the resource allocation of a specific species of primates (human beings), there's a lot more at stake. And that's OK - we shuold be opinionated and passionate about the kind of society we want to live in and we should use science to understand what's achievable and how to achieve it. But these dueling priorities - between normative and positive work - often obscure the picture.Yes, you are going to get a reaction from an economist who is asked "what should the president do?" that varies more and is less "scientific" than what you hear physicists talking about. That's because it's essentially a normative question. It's a perfectly legitimate question to answer, of course.A good analogy would be atomic physicists in the early Cold War. They were very passionate about and had very divergent opinions on how to use our knowledge of nuclear energy, but the difference between Oppenheimer and Teller on these normative questions doesn't mean there's that kind of division on the science.Too many people see normative divisiveness and assume it's a sign that economists aren't being scientific.As far as the price of oil - we know several factors that affect the price of oil and we know ways of teasing out which is dominant. I'm not sure Weinberg's claim makes sense. Or put it this way - I'm not sure some ultimate uncertainty about the nature of the world should prevent us from talking confidently about the physics we do know as a fairly successful (albeit always revisitable) paradigm.
Prateek and Daniel,I believe you are leaning towards the issue of certitude. Tim Harford had a short column in the FT recently that's worth reading: "Why we're all to sure of ourselves".Regarding Krugman's "Keynes" lecture. I only read the text this w/end and thought that it was excellent. Say what you want about the man's politics or pomposity, he is an outstanding communicator that invokes multiple lines of evidence to support his position. I'd also say that some of the criticisms of his lecture where amusingly obtuse. E.g. Reading through the comments on this CP post, I was reminded of Bill Clinton's perfectly evasive response to the did-you-have-sex-with-that-woman question: "I cannot believe I have to answer that again." Followed by a disbelieving shake of the head. (Not only did he fail to answer the question, but he fooled many in thinking that he had!)
"...or some fairly well-read GM foods activist..."That's an oxymoron."Too many people see normative divisiveness and assume it's a sign that economists aren't being scientific."Well, they aren't; that seems to be the point. When Krugnuts starts talking about how the "eliminationist rhetoric" of the GOP lead to the shootings in Arizona it is fair to say that it completely undercuts the notion that economists are "scientific."
Gary - what the hell does Jared Loughner have to do with economics???
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Daniel Kuehn is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor in the Economics Department at American University. He has a master's degree in public policy from George Washington University.