By Eoin O’Malley (10 May 2011)
How many times in making an argument do we rely on the eminence of a person holding a position to back up our own point of view? You’ll regularly read in the pages of the Irish Times that a ‘Nobel-prize winning economist says X’ and we are expected to accept X as a reasonable position. Richard Tol in the Irish Times thinks academic eminence is a good, and possibly the only proxy for expertise. Of course we often find that another Nobel prize-winning economist says the exact opposite.
We should not be impressed by these ad hominem arguments – ones that rely on our linking the evaluation of the person who says something to what they say. We should be interested in the logic of the argument and the evidence provided to back it up. Who said it is irrelevant. This is why most academic journals operate a double-blind peer-reviewing process.
Of course expertise is important. I would be uncomfortable if the person about to perform heart surgery on me announced that he learned all he knew from watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Formal qualifications give us a good idea of what the person can do. But they are not without flaws. I’d prefer a heart surgeon with a degree from theUniversity ofWalthamstow who had performed a few hundred procedures, to some one straight out of a top medical school. Experience matters.
But Richard Tol’s objection to ‘celebrity economists’ is not as reasonable as our possible objection to an enthusiastic but amateur heart surgeon. First many of these economists are not academic economists and do not claim to be. We should not confuse being an academic with being an expert. They work as professionals, but do so in the real world and their experience in the real world might be very valuable. They might know how markets are likely to react. They do not produce scholarly works, so criticising them for not having their non existent scholarly works cited seems a bit irrelevant.
In any case counting citations indicates how much you are being talked about, not whether you are right. One of the most highly cited political scientists is Samuel P. Huntingdon, in particular for his work The Clash of Civilisations. The reason he is so highly cited? It is a combination of his own celebrity – he is very well known even outside academia; his extraordinary thesis – that religious and cultural identities would be the source of post-cold war divisions; and the fact that he was shown to be wrong – economic interests are the much more important source of conflict. Most people citing him do so to criticise him.
An this related to a more fundamental problem with our elevation of expertise. Experts can be spectacularly wrong.
Sometimes we tend to misattribute expertise. Linus Pauling who won two Nobel prizes ventured into an area he knew less about. He became convinced that vitamin C could cure anything from the common cold to cancer. These claims were stupid and later refuted, but not before many groups became convinced of their truth. I assume that headlines such as ‘Nobel prize winner claims vitamin C can ward off cancer’ were part cause of the vitamin supplement revolution.
And when they are wrong they tend to all be wrong at the same time. Experts like to talk to other experts, and after a time they tend to agree with one another. They even educate new experts to accept their world-view. It then takes a spectacular event to enable us to question this collective wisdom once formed. So the economic crisis has enabled social scientists to question the assumption of human rationality on which much of economic theory is based.
So why shouldn’t people be encouraged to ask seemingly dumb questions in areas they aren’t expert? Morgan Kelly is not an expert on the property market, banking or complex financial products. But he seems to have had a curiosity and a scepticism that drove him to do back-of-the-envelope calculations which alarmed him. Kelly was immediately criticised for not having an expertise in the area. Yet we now know he was closer to being right that his critics.
The Department of Finance has been criticised for not having enough qualified economists. It’s a legitimate complaint. But we should also consider that broadly similar policies were followed by the UK and US Treasuries both of which did have enough experts.
When asked about why the UK Treasury followed what transpired to be poor economic policies, a senior official in the Treasury said that there was a consensus – no one was free to verbalise objections. There was not a plurality of ideas being thrashed about.
It is far more dangerous for us to dismiss criticisms by people who we might not consider experts than to listen to what they say and evaluate their arguments with an open mind. It is evidence not eminence that we should look to when evaluating policy advice.