Expertise vs. Ideology

January 15, 2010

Suppose you were convinced that dragons exist. Real-life, fire-breathing, flying dragons, just like the ones you know about from legends. Is it so unreasonable? After all, dragons have a lot of advantages. They can fly, which makes it easy for them to get away from enemies and search for food. They breath fire, which is another defense against enemies, but this one works against tiny enemies like bacteria as well, so dragons have a lower risk of getting sick from eating raw meat and other unsanitary foods.

Armed with common sense and logic, you confront a biologist with your proof of the existence of dragons. And she tells you straight away: you’re wrong. Dragons don’t exist. She goes on to say that she got into biology because she was interested in all the different forms that life on earth takes, but that in her years of studying the subject, she hasn’t seen any evidence of dragons, and in fact, has seen a good deal of evidence suggesting that dragons, as they are presented in legend, are an impossible life form. Life on earth is endlessly surprising, it’s true, and she can’t offer an iron-clad, logical proof that dragons cannot exist, but given what we know or believe with high confidence, they are very, very, unlikely.

Well. But she would say that, wouldn’t she? As a biologist, she’s committed to a certain worldview, one which justifies her field and which agrees with her colleagues. She claims to be studying “life on earth,” but her notion of what constitutes “life” is biased and shaped by the unquestioned assumptions of other biologists. She may appeal to a “consensus” among biologists, but such consensus proves nothing except the ideological blindness of the so-called “scientific community.”

End satire.

I’ll admit that this is a slight exaggeration, but in all earnestness, I want to emphasize the word “slight.” Thomas objects to my “Market Fundamentalism” post by pointing out that my proposed “consensus” on the necessity of markets is merely a consensus among an ideological and biased group, akin to proving that Jesus was the son of God based on a survey of Catholic bishops.

How can you tell if economists are experts or ideologues? The biologists points out that if dragons would be a highly successful form of life, we would expect to see them in nature. Or, if breathing fire did convey a huge advantage on an animal, we’d see fire-breathing animals. But this argument has unquestioned Darwinian assumptions underlying it. The economist argues that no economy has ever succeeded without relying on property rights, markets, the rule of law, and other features that the economies we call “developed” have in common. But how can we call an economy successful where workers are exploited for their labor, where there are still people who don’t have access to decent health care? Even then, wealth is not the only value. How do we know that people in the “rich” countries are better off than those in the “developing world”? Isn’t the whole notion of “developed” and “developing” just a continuation of imperialist attitudes we were supposed to have discarded after the 19th century?

A famous quote goes, in paraphrase, “Always tell the truth, so you won’t have to keep track of the lies you tell.” A similar principle is at work here, too. Conspiracy theories always fit together nicely, but the difficulty is that in order for them to be true, a large number of improbable things have to be simultaneously true. Occam’s Razor is based on this idea. Each improbable claim you make decreases the overall probability that your explanation is true.

Marxism and the Labor Theory of Value could be true. But when you ask the experts, people who have spent their careers studying and thinking about human behavior in economic situations, they will tell you it almost certainly isn’t. Still, you’re not required, as a matter of logic, to agree with this conclusion. After all, minority positions can be correct. Galileo did exist. But, as a matter of probability, minorities are usually wrong.


3 Responses to “Expertise vs. Ideology”

  1. Robert Says:

    All that is solid melts into air with a bit more study. Among economists, Krugman and Stiglitz are hardly on the left end of the spectrum. The validity of Marx’s theory of value doesn’t seem to have much to do with the question of whether there should be a role for markets in organizing a post-capitalist society.

  2. Must admit, I can’t respond to that. Your position is defiantly non-mainstream, which, as I wrote above, counts as a serious strike against it.

    You could be right, but I find the arguments in favor of classical economics compelling and think the odds that you are correct are low enough that, frankly, I just don’t want to take the time it would require to evaluate your criticism.

  3. Robert Says:

    I don’t know that such ignorant silliness even rises to the level of falsehood.

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