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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

ATBozzo has interesting things to say and links to me.

The topic is the appalling ignorance and/or rejection of scientific theories with overwhelming empirical support found in the GSS (a bare majority of US residents agree that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year).

Kim noted that

The ignorance of or rejection of the consensus of people who know the facts is particularly marked for fundamentalist Protestants and very weak for Jew and the non religious.

An anonymous commenter objects.

I bloviate at great length.

Thanks for the link. As you note, I think (and think I can prove) that anonymous is wrong when he or she claims that there are, at the moment, economics "facts".

This commenter also notes that liberals and atheists may harbor beliefs based on bad science, citing genetically modified foods "fear mongering" and selective rejection of economics or social science "facts.""

I agree with your note that scientific theories are not facts, but, beyond that, I don't think that the results of economic research have the status of scientific theories yet (much doesn't even manage to be a falsifiable hypothesis).

I don't think there is anything the economics profession agrees on in the way that biologists agree on evolution by natural selection (just as well as I am 50% confident that we would be right if we agreed on a yes or no question).

The implications of economic science are, first of all, generally implications of theoretical analysis not empirical results and, second of all, always inevitably implications of assumptions made for simplicity (or to get the result) not assumptions that anyone actually believes.

I personally claim that, for any policy you propose, I can write a model such that it is optimal. If I am right, there really isn't anything for liberals to disagree with. I haven't been stumped yet (OK no one has tried but come on it would be fun no ?).

As to GMO, I am a liberal and a fanatical enthusiast for genetically modified foods, the only cause to which I ever really devoted myself (until I found that I was just getting in the way). Anonymous should at least show a positive correlation between liberalism and GMO phobia before shooting his or her keyboard off. Good luck on a correlation between atheism and GMO phobia, I'm willing to bet a modest amount that atheists are less GMO phobic.

Also, of course, we don't know all about GMO dangers and not all GMOs are created equal, so it is not a well defined scientific result that GMOs are safe (certainly one could make a dangerous GMO I, for one, aint eating nothing with HIV genomes incorporated into its chromosomes).

update: On the principle of a link for a link, I note that Holler Back, memeorandum, the lantern, and some Russian guy have linked to my blog.


Tom Bozzo said...

Thanks for linking back, Robert.

I had sneakily changed terms on my commenter by turning "facts" into "results" with a shorthand for your characterization of the "implications of economic science" in mind. Thinking about that in any depth does leads me to wonder what the strongest reply is to Brian Leiter-style critics who think that the nature of our assumptions at best lead us to descriptions of fantasy worlds and at worst relatively well-paid snow jobs.

At the risk of mind-reading, I expect that what the commenter has in mind is "liberals want to interfere with markets too much." I'll concede your model wager for any intervention in response to market failure and any conservatarian counterargument that policymakers should leave well enough alone. My non-sociologist co-blogger is of a mind to test you, by the way. I think "a model" with no modifier after "a" would give you an enormous advantage, though we'll see who gets pwned if it comes to that.

As for GMOs, I'm less concerned about direct threats to human health (though unintended consequences of engineered defenses against pests require vigilance) than issues related to how GMOs might interact with native species -- where broader invasive species problems suggest society has been inadequately cautious. I can't really say I live up to my principles, since I willingly maintain a yard full of GMOs (developed by the selective breeding method), not to mention the four-footed beast that expects three meals deposited into his dish daily. And there's a certain amount of native wildlife that would wish that I didn't let such an effective small-critter killing machine loose in the yard.

Robert said...

On GMOs I am, in general firmly convinced that, although some concerns are reasonable, not too burdensome regulation and public intervention can handle them. I would tend to agree that loss of biodiversity is the real risk (and as Tom notes a huge risk with conventionally bred crops already).

This problem has been addressed with publicly funded seed banks in which some seeds of strains of corn, weat and rice which no farmer wants to grow are stored. This is a critical defense against vulnerability to pathogens. Genetically modified crops don't make the problem worse than it was already (which is very very dangerous).

Some crops can't spread in the wild. OK I mean maize (can't reproduce unless people take the kernels off the cob). Still that is an interest of mine as I think new techniques could be used to improve protein quality without reducing yields (goodbye pelagra).

In any case it is possible to make an organism vulnerable to something which doesn't kill normal organisms so suicide genes can be put into GMOs.

As to the model for any policy challenge -- bring it on.

Tom Bozzo said...

One challenge is in (here), from one of my sociology friends:

Does he mean a policy regarding anything? What about the social security system, in terms of the schedule of payments in by workers and payments out by the government? I thought I once read Milton Friedman say there was no way that was optimal in an economic sense, so it would be interesting having this commenter prove him wrong.

W/o proof, and w/o checking whether he's accurately recalling what Friedman might have said, I called this one in favor of your wager as a member of a family of 'intervene to remedy a market failure'/'don't intervene despite a market failure' problems where the assumptions presumably can be tuned to the desired result -- but if you want to weigh in with a response, please feel free. (As I'm sure you have no other uses for your free time :-).)

Robert said...

Stealing from Tom's link (click it or he could sue me)

"In this particular case, I wouldn't even think it would require an unrealistic model (by prevailing standards). Insofar as being left to one's own devices makes people poorer overall in old age, I'd argue that Friedman's side would have to engage in more contortions to explain why it's optimal to be free to starve."

Indeed. All that is needed for forced saving to be optimal are dynamically inconsistent preferences (people have problems with self control). Since people are wildly enthusiastic about social security, it is impossible to believe that they are rational enough to do without it (if they are so rational why are they wrong about social security ?).

The commenter might be talking about the bend points etc.
The optimal tax and transfer schedule is, in standard models, the solution to a very hard problem in which any result can be optimal for the right assumptions about labor supply.