Sorry for the long gap between posts. A lot’s been going on recently. Anywho, I’ve started up my linear algebra class, so hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to post about that soon. I’ve already learned techniques that would have made problems in both E&M and multivariable calculus a lot easier to solve. Oh, well.
on to the meat of this post. Re: economics, it’s not strictly speaking
true that I know nothing about it. Like most sciences, I’ve paid enough
attention to get a general idea of what it’s about. I even took a
semester of economics in high school, but it was taught by a brand new
teacher who used to be a banker and for some reason felt the need to
confide in us that he didn’t actually have a teaching certificate and we
really shouldn’t tell anyone that. Oops.
On the whole, however, my knowledge of the dismal
science is quite limited. But economics is a science, however sad and
soft it may be. And I think this is an important fact that a lot of
people seem to forget, which is where this post is coming from.
You see, I used to have very strong
opinions about economics. (Those that know me in real life may wonder
about the “used to” there, but I think it’s largely true.) I was raised
in a leftish household and with that came mostly leftish politics and
economics. My politics, however, took a turn toward the weird after a
bit of philosophical revelation ten years ago. But my economics remained
mostly leftish for a long time.
Recently, however, that’s begun
to change. Now, this isn’t the story of me transforming into a
commie-hating libertarian, or even someone who’s moderately right, or
even someone who is staunchly in the middle. Rather, this is the story
of me deciding that if I don’t actually know anything about economics, I
shouldn’t have (strong) opinions about it.
As I said, economics
is a science. And in science, there are two kinds of debates you can
have: debates where the answer is already known but one side refuses to
acknowledge it, and debates where an answer won’t be forthcoming until
more data is collected.
For example, there is a “debate” about
whether evolution is true. As far as science is concerned, this debate
is quite settled and has been for a long time (up to a hundred and fifty
years). Some believe the issue is not settled, but their belief is
incorrect. That’s not to say their beliefs in general are wrong—just
their beliefs about evolution.
And then there’s the second kind
of debate, where we just don’t know enough yet. Take cosmology’s dark
energy as an example. Dark energy is a proposed mechanism to explain the
observed accelerating expansion of the universe, but cosmologists don’t
yet know what dark energy really is. There are theories, but no solid
evidence. A good cosmologist may prefer one theory over another,
and argue its case, but a good cosmologist will also ultimately admit
ignorance on the topic. More data is needed before the issue can be
In both of these scenarios, the right answer is not
decided upon by the voting public. In the case of evolution, a vote is
inappropriate because one answer is obviously correct and the public may
vote incorrectly. In the case of dark energy, it’s too early to hold a
vote because the answer isn’t known yet. But in both cases, there’s not
ever a situation in which the public should be voting on the issue
because the public is not informed enough about the topic to make the
correct choice (except by accident).
You see where I’m going with
this. If economics is a real science that requires years of study to
master, then economic questions are either settled (and should simply be
policy) or not settled (and should be left to experts to study). Thus,
when I vote, I don’t really do it based on economic policy.
Philosophically speaking, there are issues that are more important to
me, and about which I am more knowledgeable.
Some may see this as
cowardice. I’m too wishy-washy to take a stance, too scared of being
wrong. But I (surprise!) see it differently. I think one of the most
important lessons of science is that it’s okay to say you don’t know,
okay to profess ignorance. In the words of Newton, “Hypotheses non fingo.”
You don’t have to invent explanations when you can’t see one. You don’t
have to come to a conclusion before you have all the data.
fact, I think admitting ignorance can be seen as a brave act. Belief is
hard-wired in humans; it’s what we do naturally. We observe a phenomenon
and we attribute a cause to it, no matter how tenuous the connection, because we’re scared of not knowing. Withholding judgment, however, is much harder, and takes care and concentration.
may see my lack of an opinion as irresponsible. While many sciences
tend toward the academic and lack real-world consequences, economics is,
by definition, something we cannot ignore. Resources are scarce and we
have to do something about it. By refraining from taking a stance on
economic issues, I refrain from solving the problem of allocating scarce
But I think that perspective misses the point, which
is that resources are scarce and that’s not going to change any time
soon. There’s no solution within economics to the fact of scarcity, only
solutions to dealing with it. As far as I’m concerned, the best
solution is to eliminate the need for economics completely. With
sufficiently advanced technology, we can have practically unlimited
resources. We’re nowhere close to that, and in the long run it’s
distinctly untrue, but it can be true within the lifetime of our species.
we’ve stumbled on another reason why I’ve decided to study science. It
may seem as if I’m a delusional believer in a techno-utopia… and I’m not
going to deny that. Getting into why that’s the case would require
another post, however, and I think this one is long enough as it is.
So in the meantime I think it’s best to leave economics to the economists and be okay with admitting ignorance.