Invalid opinions

By James Zuccollo 09/10/2012

IF you follow the econ blogs in New Zealand you’ll have seen Matt and others getting pretty grumpy about the uninformed comments sometimes made in the media. That has only been exacerbated by the recent misunderstanding of quantitative easing. A philosopher writing in the Herald sums up how I think economists feel:

If “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. …But if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth” then it’s pretty clearly false… [because it] implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise.

Economists are technical experts but work in a field that affects everybody’s daily lives. So, much like doctors, they have to cope with everybody thinking they’re an expert without a shred of real knowledge. And, just like in public health debates, credence is given to groups who have an opinion but no expertise. Understandably, economists get frustrated!

However, we need to be careful where we draw the line between those with expertise and those without it. For example, in public health debates, economists have no expertise in the health effects, but great expertise in devising and assessing the public policy response to the problem. A good illustration of that is Eric’s contribution to the alcohol debate in New Zealand. He isn’t an expert on the effects that alcohol has on humans, even if he’s familiar with others’ research. His expertise lies in determining whether the effects amount to a public policy problem, and helping to understand which interventions might be useful. Nonetheless, I’m sure he’s run up against the criticism that he’s not an expert on health and so has little relevant expertise.

Economists, too, need to be careful that they don’t exclude people from the debate who have useful expertise that offers a different perspective from their own. It’s very easy to dismiss someone whose opinion differs from your own by accusing them of being a non-expert. But any useful information from other disciplines will usually extend or conflict with your own view: if it didn’t then it wouldn’t be particularly useful. I don’t know how to draw the line but, while I understand people’s frustration at the comments of laypeople on technical subjects, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish a useful, alternative perspective from pure crankery.

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