Re: Social Science Fiction?

Robin Hanson (
Wed, 17 Mar 1999 15:06:39 -0800

Doug Bailey wrote:
>I suspect issues in economics are more controversial (even needlessly so)
>because of the political baggage that many attach to them. ...
>Additionally, I've noticed a general attitude towards economists (even the
>transfer pricing ones I deal with) by non-economists that they don't really
>know anything. I've not checked the latest accuracy figures for economists
>predictions but the general feeling I get is that it is not spectacular.
>People generally have a skepticism of economists. But is this justified?
>I'm not sure. I don't think so. I suspect the complexity of the phenomena
>economics attempts to describe and model is higher than that of, say,
>physics. ... Perhaps the success rate of economic predictions is similar
>to that of meteorologists for a reason, both subjects
>attempt to model an extremely complex interplay between a host of agents.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:
>When economists can do something cool - instead of scurrying around
>producing contradictory explanations, incorrect predictions, and
>hideously failed recommendations - they'll get the public's respect.

Billy Brown wrote:
>However, IMO the public skepticism of economists is entirely justified for
>this very reason. We listen to physicists because they have a long history
>of making precise, accurate predictions. We listen to meteorologists
>because they admit they can't be especially accurate, but they can tell us
>what the odds are. We largely ignore economists because we remember the
>last 20 guys who claimed to be able to make physicist-like predictions, but
>in fact weren't even as good as the weather man.
>The public gave economists their chance. We've seen their advice have a
>profound effect on public policy for most of the 20th century. ...
>1) Reign in these people who claim to be able to make detailed predictions...
>2) When a broad claim can be made, use the necessary probabilistic language...
>3) Start building a track record of success in areas that are simple enough...

I think you guys are mostly right, but not quite for the reason you think.

When talking among themselves, economists have long had powerful empirical success, used appropriate probabilistic language, and punished those who claim more than then can make a case for. When they speak to policy makers and the public, however, their declarations seem to carry little information. A combination of mercenary behavior and ideology lets advocates find respected economists who will say whatever they want said.

Why haven't other fields succumbed to this problem? I suspect it is because they have better tied advice to responsibility. An astronomer who claims to be able to build a better telescope is judged by his peers at this ability and then given the task himself. If he can't deliver, the worse for him. A surgeon who says he has a better procedure starts doing it himself. An economist telling a judge how to decide a case or a legislator how to design a health insurance system has much worse responsibility. Economists hired by firms to design their insurance systems do better, as do finance economists working at firms where they have a personal investment stake.

Idea futures should, as an institution, give economists a better stake in being right about their policy claims. So I predict that with idea futures economists will come to be respected as knowing a lot. The problem is, we aren't likely to get idea futures until folks respect economists like me who say its a good idea to try.

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884 after 8/99: Assist. Prof. Economics, George Mason Univ.