Economics: the Honest Science

I stumbled across a really great article on Wired titled “In Science, you Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The author describes the firm beliefs people often hold about “scientific fact,” and juxtaposes it with the reality that we can never truly be certain about these facts.

I’ve seen this play out a lot. In the K12 system, a lot of science classes are predicated on teaching kids “facts” about Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and other realms of science, facts that are “updated” as you go along. Over the years, many ideas in the scientific community have also been updated: you don’t perfectly accelerate from some constant force of gravity if you were dropped from 10,000 feet above sea level, water that we drink isn’t 100% H2O (pure water could potentially kill you), people who are categorized as different races can be more genetically similar than with someone from the same race, and smoking can damage, not aid digestion after a meal (plus it can also cause cancer).

The problem with a lot of people is that they tend to fall into one of three camps. The first group immediately changes their belief that a new “fact” discovered is indeed the true fact (often using the template “I used to believe that [“previous fact”]… now I know that [“fact”] is true). The second fully believes in the previous particular “fact” because “science” told them it was true (even if their source has been retracted or disproven). Finally, there are some who just refuse to believe in any scientific knowledge, and form their notions of reality only on what they see in their surroundings (or just flat-out wrong notions).

Lots of scientists tend to fall into the first camp, constantly claiming that they newly discovered fact is true over and over again. Economists, on the other hand, recognize that models and conceptualizations of our world aren’t perfect, and must be updated over time. At Stanford, there are always some kids in ECON1 (introduction to Economics) who will challenge the basic supply and demand models, claiming that they are inaccurate. This isn’t quite correct; the basic supply/demand model is good for conceptual understanding, and holds in terms of broad facts, but the model is certainly imprecise, leaving out many exogenous and endogenous characteristics that need to be considered to continually refine the model. While many of my friends in the “hard sciences” treat new discoveries as the complete truth, a lot more of my friends who also study Economics take everything with a few grains of salt, reviewing the limitations of new studies, their methodologies, and scope.

It’s important to acknowledge the second and third camps of people, those who cherrypick scientific knowledge and those who ignore knowledge. It’s relatively easy to disprove something – you can disregard the importance of a model or a theory by showing it doesn’t match real data – but it’s very hard to prove something is true; instead, we try to get as close as possible to something that appears to be confirmed by the widest possible scope of measurement. From the Wired article, the author used the real-life example of a low-friction car with a fan on its back, blowing at a constant force. When the car continued to increase its speed instead of arriving at a constant speed on a short track, his students requested a longer one. While he was able to obtain a larger track, there are limits to that scaling, just as there are limits in exploring all of the sciences.

The problem of ignorance arises from people who fail to realize that we cannot be truly certain of something unless we test the entire population of interest (which, for some questions, is the entire universe), but we can work to gain a scientific consensus on something we believe to be the truth, even if parts of our truth may be updated over time. Economists push back against all three camps, the first for naively accepting the next “truth” as the complete truth, the second for jumping to conclusions (raising wages doesn’t necessarily lead to a large increase – or any increase – in unemployment, for example), and the third for being willfully stupid (“printing more money” won’t magically fix everything). This is why I say Economics is the honest science – Economists are willing to acknowledge shortcomings in their modern science that’s still relatively young, work hard to develop better ways of understanding our world, and share that knowledge with the world.

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