Wrong answers are better than no answer

Nov 6, JDN 2457699

I’ve been hearing some disturbing sentiments from some surprising places lately, things like “Economics is not a science, it’s just an extension of politics” and “There’s no such thing as a true model”. I’ve now met multiple economists who speak this way, who seem to be some sort of “subjectivists” or “anti-realists” (those links are to explanations of moral subjectivism and anti-realism, which are also mistaken, but in a much less obvious way, and are far more common views to express). It is possible to read most of the individual statements in a non-subjectivist way, but in the context of all of them together, it really gives me the general impression that many of these economists… don’t believe in economics. (Nor do they even believe in believing it, or they’d put up a better show.)

I think what has happened is that in the wake of the Second Depression, economists have had a sort of “crisis of faith”. The models we thought were right were wrong, so we may as well give up; there’s no such thing as a true model. The science of economics failed, so maybe economics was never a science at all.

Never really thought I’d be in this position, but in such circumstances actually feel strongly inclined to defend neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics is wrong; but subjectivism is not even wrong.

If a model is wrong, you can fix it. You can make it right, or at least less wrong. But if you give up on modeling altogether, your theory avoids being disproven only by making itself totally detached from reality. I can’t prove you wrong, but only because you’ve given up on the whole idea of being right or wrong.

As Isaac Asimov wrote, “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

What we might call “folk economics”, what most people seem to believe about economics, is like thinking the Earth is flat—it’s fundamentally wrong, but not so obviously inaccurate on an individual scale that it can’t be a useful approximation for your daily life. Neoclassical economics is like thinking the Earth is spherical—it’s almost right, but still wrong in some subtle but important ways. Thinking that economics isn’t a science is wronger than both of them put together.

The sense in which “there’s no such thing as a true model” is true is a trivial one: There’s no such thing as a perfect model, because by the time you included everything you’d just get back the world itself. But there are better and worse models, and some of our very best models (quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution) are really good enough that I think it’s quite perverse not to call them simply true. Economics doesn’t have such models yet for more than a handful of phenomena—but we’re working on it (at least, I thought that’s what we were doing!).

Indeed, a key point I like to make about realism—in science, morality, or whatever—is that if you think something can be wrong, you must be a realist. In order for an idea to be wrong, there must be some objective reality to compare it to that it can fail to match. If everything is just subjective beliefs and sociopolitical pressures, there is no such thing as “wrong”, only “unpopular”. I’ve heard many people say things like “Well, that’s just your opinion; you could be wrong.” No, if it’s just my opinion, then I cannot possibly be wrong. So choose a lane! Either you think I’m wrong, or you think it’s just my opinion—but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it’s clearly true in the real world that there is a lot of very bad and unscientific economics going on. The worst is surely the stuff that comes out of right-wing think-tanks that are paid almost explicitly to come up with particular results that are convenient for their right-wing funders. (As Krugman puts it, “there are liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists.”) But there’s also a lot of really unscientific economics done without such direct and obvious financial incentives. Economists get blinded by their own ideology, they choose what topics to work on based on what will garner the most prestige, they use fundamentally defective statistical techniques because journals won’t publish them if they don’t.

But of course, the same is true of many other fields, particularly in social science. Sociologists also get blinded by their pet theories; psychologists also abuse statistics because the journals make them do it; political scientists are influenced by their funding sources; anthropologists also choose what to work on based on what’s prestigious in the field.

Moreover, natural sciences do this too. String theorists are (almost by definition) blinded by their favorite theory. Biochemists are manipulated by the financial pressures of the pharmaceutical industry. Neuroscientists publish all sorts of statistically nonsensical research. I’d be very surprised if even geologists were immune to the social norms of academia telling them to work on the most prestigious problems. If this is enough reason to abandon a field as a science, it is a reason to abandon science, full stop. That is what you are arguing for here.

And really, this should be fairly obvious, actually. Are workers and factories and televisions actual things that are actually here? Obviously they are. Therefore you can be right or wrong about how they interact. There is an obvious objective reality here that one can have more or less accurate beliefs about.

For socially-constructed phenomena like money, markets, and prices, this isn’t as obvious; if everyone stopped believing in the US Dollar, like Tinkerbell the US Dollar would cease to exist. But there does remain some objective reality (or if you like, intersubjective reality) here: I can be right or wrong about the price of a dishwasher or the exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

So, in order to abandon the possibility of scientifically accurate economics, you have to say that even though there is this obvious physical reality of workers and factories and televisions, we can’t actually study that scientifically, even when it sure looks like we’re studying it scientifically by performing careful observations, rigorous statistics, and even randomized controlled experiments. Even when I perform my detailed Bayesian analysis of my randomized controlled experiment, nope, that’s not science. It doesn’t count, for some reason.

The only at all principled way I can see you could justify such a thing is to say that once you start studying other humans you lose all possibility of scientific objectivity—but notice that by making such a claim you haven’t just thrown out psychology and economics, you’ve also thrown out anthropology and neuroscience. The statements “DNA evidence shows that all modern human beings descend from a common migration out of Africa” and “Human nerve conduction speed is approximately 300 meters per second” aren’t scientific? Then what in the world are they?

Or is it specifically behavioral sciences that bother you? Now perhaps you can leave out biological anthropology and basic neuroscience; there’s some cultural anthropology and behavioral neuroscience you have to still include, but maybe that’s a bullet you’re willing to bite. There is perhaps something intuitively appealing here: Since science is a human behavior, you can’t use science to study human behavior without an unresolvable infinite regress.

But there are still two very big problems with this idea.

First, you’ve got to explain how there can be this obvious objective reality of human behavior that is nonetheless somehow forever beyond our understanding. Even though people actually do things, and we can study those things using the usual tools of science, somehow we’re not really doing science, and we can never actually learn anything about how human beings behave.

Second, you’ve got to explain why we’ve done as well as we have. For some reason, people seem to have this impression that psychology and especially economics have been dismal failures, they’ve brought us nothing but nonsense and misery.

But where exactly do you think we got the lowest poverty rate in the history of the world? That just happened by magic, or by accident while we were doing other things? No, economists did that, on purpose—the UN Millennium Goals were designed, implemented, and evaluated by economists. Against staunch opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, we have managed to bring free trade to the world, and with it, some measure of prosperity.

The only other science I can think of that has been more successful at its core mission is biology; as XCKD pointed out, the biologists killed a Horseman of the Apocalypse while the physicists were busy making a new one. Congratulations on beating Pestilence, biologists; we economists think we finally have Famine on the ropes now. Hey political scientists, how is War going? Oh, not bad, actually? War deaths per capita are near their lowest levels in history? But clearly it would be foolhardy to think that economics and political science are actually sciences!

I can at least see why people might think psychology is a failure, because rates of diagnosis of mental illness keep rising higher and higher; but the key word there is diagnosis. People were already suffering from anxiety and depression across the globe; it’s just that nobody was giving them therapy or medication for it. Some people argue that all we’ve done is pathologize normal human experience—but this wildly underestimates the severity of many mental disorders. Wanting to end your own life for reasons you yourself cannot understand is not normal human experience being pathologized. (And the fact that 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year may make it common, but it does not make it normal. Is trying to keep people from dying of influenza “pathologizing normal human experience”? Well, suicide kills almost as many.) It’s possible there is some overdiagnosis; but there is also an awful lot of real mental illness that previously went untreated—and yes, meta-analysis shows that treatment can and does work.

Of course, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Many of our existing models are seriously flawed in very important ways, and many economists continue to use those models incautiously, blind to their defects. The Second Depression was largely the fault of economists, because it was economists who told everyone that markets are efficient, banks will regulate themselves, leave it alone, don’t worry about it.

But we can do better. We will do better. And we can only do that because economics is a science, it does reflect reality, and therefore we make ourselves less wrong.

To truly honor veterans, end war

JDN 2457339 EST 20:00 (Nov 11, 2015)

Today is Veterans’ Day, on which we are asked to celebrate the service of military veterans, particularly those who have died as a result of war. We tend to focus on those who die in combat, but actually these have always been relatively uncommon; throughout history, most soldiers have died later of their wounds or of infections. More recently as a result of advances in body armor and medicine, actually relatively few soldiers die even of war wounds or infections—instead, they are permanently maimed and psychologically damaged, and the most common way that war kills soldiers now is by making them commit suicide.

Even adjusting for the fact that soldiers are mostly young men (the group of people most likely to commit suicide), military veterans still have about 50 excess suicides per million people per year, for a total of about 300 suicides per million per year. Using the total number, that’s over 8000 veteran suicides per year, or 22 per day. Using only the excess compared to men of the same ages, it’s still an additional 1300 suicides per year.

While the 14-years-and-counting Afghanistan War has killed 2,271 American soldiers and the 11-year Iraq War has killed 4,491 American soldiers directly (or as a result of wounds), during that same time period from 2001 to 2015 there have been about 18,000 excess suicides as a result of the military—excess in the sense that they would not have occurred if those men had been civilians. Altogether that means there would be nearly 25,000 additional American soldiers alive today were it not for these two wars.

War does not only kill soldiers while they are on the battlefield—indeed, most of the veterans it kills die here at home.

There is a reason Woodrow Wilson chose November 11 as the date for Veterans’ Day: It was on this day in 1918 that World War 1, up to that point the war that had caused the most deaths in human history, was officially ended. Sadly, it did not remain the deadliest war, but was surpassed by World War 2 a generation later. Fortunately, no other war has ever exceeded World War 2—at least, not yet.

We tend to celebrate holidays like this with a lot of ritual and pageantry (or even in the most inane and American way possible, with free restaurant meals and discounts on various consumer products), and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with taking a moment to salute the flag or say “Thank you for your service.” But that is not how I believe veterans should be honored. If I were a veteran, that is not how I would want to be honored.

We are getting much closer to how I think they should be honored when the White House announces reforms at Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and guaranteed in-state tuition at public universities for families of veterans—things that really do in a concrete and measurable way improve the lives of veterans and may even save some of them from that cruel fate of suicide.

But ultimately there is only one way that I believe we can truly honor veterans and the spirit of the holiday as Wilson intended it, and that is to end war once and for all.

Is this an ambitious goal? Absolutely. But is it an impossible dream? I do not believe so.

In just the last half century, we have already made most of the progress that needed to be made. In this brilliant video animation, you can see two things: First, the mind-numbingly horrific scale of World War 2, the worst war in human history; but second, the incredible progress we have made since then toward world peace. It was as if the world needed that one time to be so unbearably horrible in order to finally realize just what war is and why we need a better way of solving conflicts.

This is part of a very long-term trend in declining violence, for a variety of reasons that are still not thoroughly understood. In simplest terms, human beings just seem to be getting better at not killing each other.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that this is just a statistical illusion, because technologies like nuclear weapons create the possibility of violence on a previously unimaginable scale, and it simply hasn’t happened yet. For nuclear weapons in particular, I think he may be right—the consequences of nuclear war are simply so catastrophic that even a small risk of it is worth paying almost any price to avoid.

Fortunately, nuclear weapons are not necessary to prevent war: South Africa has no designs on attacking Japan anytime soon, but neither has nuclear weapons. Germany and Poland lack nuclear arsenals and were the first countries to fight in World War 2, but now that both are part of the European Union, war between them today seems almost unthinkable. When American commentators fret about China today it is always about wage competition and Treasury bonds, not aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles. Conversely, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has by no means stabilized the region against future conflicts, and the fact that India and Pakistan have nuclear missiles pointed at one another has hardly prevented them from killing each other over Kashmir. We do not need nuclear weapons as a constant threat of annihilation in order to learn to live together; political and economic ties achieve that goal far more reliably.

And I think Taleb is wrong about the trend in general. He argues that the only reason violence is declining is that concentration of power has made violence rarer but more catastrophic when it occurs. Yet we know that many forms of violence which used to occur no longer do, not because of the overwhelming force of a Leviathan to prevent them, but because people simply choose not to do them anymore. There are no more gladiator fights, no more cat-burnings, no more public lynchings—not because of the expansion in government power, but because our society seems to have grown out of that phase.

Indeed, what horrifies us about ISIS and Boko Haram would have been considered quite normal, even civilized, in the Middle Ages. (If you’ve ever heard someone say we should “bring back chivalry”, you should explain to them that the system of knight chivalry in the 12th century had basically the same moral code as ISIS today—one of the commandments Gautier’s La Chevalerie attributes as part of the chivalric code is literally “Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.”) It is not so much that they are uniquely evil by historical standards, as that we grew out of that sort of barbaric violence awhile ago but they don’t seem to have gotten the memo.

In fact, one thing people don’t seem to understand about Steven Pinker’s argument about this “Long Peace” is that it still works if you include the world wars. The reason World War 2 killed so many people was not that it was uniquely brutal, nor even simply because its weapons were more technologically advanced. It also had to do with the scale of integration—we called it a single war even though it involved dozens of countries because those countries were all united into one of two sides, whereas in centuries past that many countries could be constantly fighting each other in various combinations but it would never be called the same war. But the primary reason World War 2 killed the largest raw number of people was simply because the world population was so much larger. Controlling for world population, World War 2 was not even among the top 5 worst wars—it barely makes the top 10. The worst war in history by proportion of the population killed was almost certainly the An Lushan Rebellion in 8th century China, which many of you may not even have heard of until today.

Though it may not seem so as ISIS kidnaps Christians and drone strikes continue, shrouded in secrecy, we really are on track to end war. Not today, not tomorrow, maybe not in any of our lifetimes—but someday, we may finally be able to celebrate Veterans’ Day as it was truly intended: To honor our soldiers by making it no longer necessary for them to die.