Category Archives: Certainty

Economic Hubris

The failure to predict the current economic crisis has lowered the public’s esteem of economists, as The Economist makes plain. The hit to our reputation is well-deserved.

This is not to sell economics short. The explanatory power of the economic way of thinking is incredible. Reading and understanding Bastiat’s “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” will change the way you see the world.

Knowing what opportunity costs are, and that incentives matter, allows you to almost literally see the unseen. It is almost magical. It is the stuff of poetry.

The fact that cities of millions like Paris and New York are fed every day without fail – overfed, even – while producing almost no food themselves, and without anyone directing the process, can be explained with two words: spontaneous order.

Pretty cool. But economists, just like other mortals, cannot predict the booms and busts of the business cycle. That some have claimed this miraculous power is a sign that economists have fallen prey to hubris. Our shaming in the public eye is a direct result of overstepping our boundaries.

Turn your tv to CNBC or some other business channel. Some mystic parading as an economist will try to predict which way the stock market will move tomorrow, or which stocks are will beat the market. Nobody knows that. Nobody could possibly know that.

If a stock really is a good buy, then people will buy it, driving up its price until it is no longer a good buy. Anyone claiming they can beat the market long-term probably also has some snake oil to sell you. The fact that a few people have had inordinate success, like Warren Buffett, is an artifact of the laws of probability.

Think about it. We can’t predict if the stock market will go up or down. How can we presume to think we can understand longer-term, macro-level movements like business cycles? There are more theories than there are economists.

Still, some people have said that they understand. And they shall give unto us of their wisdom. Some of these people hold political office, or advise people who do. They are putting their theories to the test; they are finding no effect. No wonder people are thinking so ill of economists lately.

Our hubris deserves all the public scorn it gets and more. My deeply held fear is that this disdain will trickle down to from where it is deserved to where it is not deserved.

Hubris and Humility

I’m not proud of it, but I watched most of Independence Day on the tv tonight. Worse, I actually found one of the commercials intellectually stimulating. It — probably unintentionally — touched on a profound insight into human nature.

The 30-second spot promotes a show where paranormal investigators visit haunted houses looking for evidence of supernatural activity. Unexplained noises and happenings abound.

One of the hosts said something along the lines of, whether believer or skeptic, you have to admit that we don’t have answers for everything. This is true.

The unsaid, though unsubtly-hinted-at implication was that some creepy phenomena therefore have other-worldly causes.

That’s the insight. People hate to admit not knowing something; often they would rather just make up an answer.

It takes a big man (or woman) to say, “I don’t know,” mean it, and be ok with it. There is a certain hubris built into the human psyche.

On one hand, it gives us courage. We can go up against overwhelming odds, and our disproportionate self-regard tells us, “I can overcome.” And sometimes, we do. Overconfidence does have its uses.

On the other hand, it makes us say really weird things. If I can’t explain this weird noise coming out of my basement, well, I can’t admit that! I have to say something, anything, so I don’t feel dumb. Er, uh, it must be a ghost, then!

Of course, the logic does not follow from “I don’t know” to “therefore it is a ghost.” But it sure feels good to say, “I know the answer!” And just as important, I look and feel good because of it.

We humans are strange, wonderful, and arrogant creatures. One of these days I hope to find out what makes us tick. Until then, I will grudgingly admit that I do not know.

Political Science

Over at the New York Times, John Tierney has some excellent analysis of Obama’s choice of John Holdren to be his science advisor.

The Bush administration was often criticized — rightly, I think — for pursuing faith-based science policies. With Holdren as science advisor, it appears this will not change in the new administration. This is to be expected. President Bush is a thoroughly political creature. So is President Obama; you don’t get to be president if you aren’t.

The most important part of the scientific method is its humility. At its very heart is the ability to admit that maybe, just possibly, you could be wrong. If that’s what the evidence shows, then it’s ok to admit it. If you (gasp) don’t know something, that’s ok, too. Instead of just making up an answer, you try to find it out.

The new political science is very different. It replaces humility with Certainty. A large part of the politicized scientist’s job is simply to disagree with the other party. It’s an effective way to raise funding. At least, it is when funding is allocated by political means.

Holdren displays all the hallmarks of The Certainty. For one, he accuses people who disagree with him as being operatives of the other party. Of course they’re wrong, just look at how they vote!

This is not a strong argument. Neither is his primary defense for his party’s preferred global warming policies – the argument from authority. Scientific consensus is on his side. Of course, there once was a time when scientific consensus said that the earth was flat, and the center of the universe. The world as it actually is matters more than merely what people think about it. Millions of people can be wrong, and often are.

But Holdren is Certain. He knows he is right. Scientific consensus is on his side. Just as it was when he and Paul Ehrlich lost that famous bet with Julian Simon. Just as it was when he and others attacked Bjorn Lomborg — who is no Republican — for the crime of dissenting. Tierney notes that Holdren and his co-writers actually “made more mistakes in 11 pages than they were able to find in [Lomborg’s] 540-page book.”

This is faith, not science. President Obama ran on a platform of change. I have no doubt that he will change some things for the better. But his science policies will probably just as faith-based, and just as Certain in the face of contrary evidence, as his predecessor’s.

So it goes.

Cell Phones: Mankind’s Doom

Dr. Ronald B. Herberman is convinced that cell phones raise cancer rates. This man is no scientist, whatever his credentials may say; scientists use the scientific method. Instead, Herberman has The Certainty. MSNBC reports:

[Herberman] says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

The article also notes that over a dozen studies have found no cancer-cell phone correlation, let alone causation. But Herberman knows he is right, no matter what the data might say. He is Certain.

The Certainty

Happy Earth Day, everyone. Some thoughts were provoked by a timely piece by Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. He writes about why he left the organization.

Moore is a scientist, trained in the scientific method. He doesn’t have what I call The Certainty. His colleagues did. They were more rigid, more ideological. More Certain.

The breaking point came when, over Moore’s objections, Greenpeace tried to ban chlorine, which is an element on the periodic table.

Moore laments, “the initial healthy skepticism hardened into a mindset that treats virtually all industrial use of chemicals with suspicion.”

That hardened mindset is The Certainty. It is environmentalism’s ugly side. It turns it into a religion.

We all know that religion can bring joy and comfort to people. But when The Certainty shows itself, religion becomes something darker.

The environmental movement is the same way. It is wonderful that activists have raised awareness. People prefer a clean environment to a dirty one, and sure enough, look at the data. Our environment is cleaner than it was fifty years ago. What a noble achievement.

Then The Certainty came in. Trying to ban this or that chemical without evidence of harm. Advocating technological regress. Attacking those with fact-based disagreements as corporate puppets, without ever touching the substance of their arguments.

There’s a reason why I think of (radical) environmentalism as the new religion. Like religion, environmentalism has done some good. But like religion, the more radical adherents have The Certainty. That can, quite literally, be bad for our health.

Astro Turf: Mankind’s Doom

Fields made of artificial turf are being investigated as health hazards because some of them contain lead. New Jersey has taken an early lead in overreacting by closing two fields.

This would be a cause for concern if there were signs of lead poisoning in people using the fields. But there is no evidence of even a single player getting lead poisoning.

It’s the dose that makes the poison. That dose just isn’t there in the fields.

A spokesman said, “In the 40 years that synthetic sports turf has been in use in the United States and around the world, not one person has ever reported any ill effects related to the material composition of the fibers.”

It really irks me when media outlets frighten people with scare stories like this. Now a government investigation is wasting peoples’ time and tax dollars because of it.

Kucinich Wants New Hampshire Recount

I’m not kidding.

For those of you keeping track, he got less than 1.4% of the vote.


Coffee and Corporations

P.J. O’Rourke has an interesting review of Taylor Clark’s Starbucked, an anti-corporate biography of the coffee chain. O’Rourke paints a kindly portrait of the author as a young groupthink anti-corporatist who, in writing his book, came to realize some of the limits of his dogma:

“I never came to like “Starbucked.” But I grew very fond of its writer. Most books about social and business phenomena give the reader something to think about. This book gave the author something to think about… I experienced the pleasure a teacher must feel when he watches a kid with promise outgrowing the vagaries and muddles of immaturity (and the jitters of too many coffee-fueled all-nighters) and coming into his own as a young man of learning, reason and sense.”

Climate Fund

Special report from the AP:

Victims of climate change, real and potential, appealed Tuesday for a vast increase in international aid to protect them from and compensate them for rising seas, crop-killing drought and other likely impacts of global warming.

Where to begin? Al Gore says sea levels will rise by 20 feet. His co-Nobelist IPCC’s number is less than that by a factor of ten.


Other impacts? John Brignell has about 600 of them. Highlights: “Atlantic less salty, Atlantic more salty, bananas destroyed, bananas grow, billions of deaths, coral reefs grow, coral reefs shrink…” and that’s only a sample of A through C. More consensus!

The article goes on to advocate a replacement for Kyoto when it expires in 2012, “aviation taxes or direct taxes on all fossil-fuel use,” and so on.

I might suggest actually identifying the problem before prescribing a solution.

These people have what I call The Certainty. They are Certain of the problem, and Certain of its solution. If you are not also Certain, or (worse!) disagree, well then you just have to be wrong, no matter your reasoning. Almost sounds like a religion…