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Another rant on our view of social science

April 25, 2008

My last roommate is an econ major, and her boyfriend has a law degree and is going for his econ PhD.  If I have a question about economics, they’re the ones I’d go to.  Jen can explain exactly why we should do certain things about the minimum wage, and she has studies to back it up, as well as enough experience in the field to really know what she’s talking about.  Now what’s the usual evidence on any political opinion: “Well here’s my theory and it’s supported by this experience or observation of mine”.  Yeah, hard evidence there.

What am I getting at?  Why do we expect politicians to make up their own economic policy, and expect that this too can be a matter of opinion, like stances on marriage or immigration are.  How much would people laugh if one of the presidential front-runners came out with an opinion on how to cure AIDS, or what sort of material will make a more efficient solar cell?  We know that they don’t know these things.  All we ask is for them to accept the results of the relevant studies and pump money into research.  Thing is, social science doesn’t have as many numbers.  There’s not so much calculus, and I doubt you have to do complex analysis ever to come up with their models.  It seems approachable because the math centers around statistics and there are all these real understandable things.  The average person can’t visualize protein-enzyme interactions, or really comprehend the size of a nanotube, but money we can grasp.  We understand what a dollar raise does to a person, or a tax increase.  These things are tangible every day occurrences, so we feel like we understand them.

Seems to me, though, we ought to leave that to the PhDs.  Yeah, I have opinions on economics (tax the hell out of the rich), but I readily admit that I don’t know squat.  I’m a chemist.  Why would I know how the economy works?  Again, though, we think that social science is easy and anyone can do it, and so everyone tries.  It cannot be economically sensible to both tax the rich and give them tax cuts, and yet talk to politicians and you will get well reasoned arguments for both sides.  I’ll vote for the first politician who says “I don’t understand this completely because I’m not an economist, but here’s a pile of PhDs who say this and have evidence to back it up”.

Of course, that’ll never happen.  It’d be political suicide for them to admit they don’t know everything.  At some point they probably will have to have opinions about AIDS and solar cells too.  I just hope that then, as I hope happens now, there are PhDs behind the scenes with opinions and evidence.  Meanwhile, I want Jen’s opinion on trickle down economics.

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