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What the Hell do Experts Know Anyway?


I am not a climate scientist and in fact I don’t know much about climate science, but I still believe strongly that human caused climate change is warming the Earth. Because climate science is not my area of expertise, it is perfectly reasonable for me to bow to the consensus of scientists that are experts in the field. Since climate scientists are in consensus that the world is warming and humans have caused it, then I trust their opinion and have made it my own.

As skeptics, we are constantly pointing out areas within science in which the scientific consensus does not match public opinion. We are repeatedly telling people to get their information about the age of the earth and the evolution of life from geologists and biologists rather than from the bible. We ask parents to make decisions on vaccinating their children based on the scientists at the CDC rather than what Jenny McCarthy said that one time on Oprah. Scientists have been getting much better at communicating science information to the public. Entire movements and organizations have sprouted to help educate the public about the differences between scientists and cranks and how to sort through complicated scientific information.

University of Chicago took this same idea of scientific consensus and applied it to economics with the IGM Economic Experts Panel. They gathered a panel of 41 academic economists (taking into account diversity of geography, political affiliation and age, though notably not gender) and every week asked them their opinion on a national policy issue. The results each week are really interesting and reveal both topics for which there is a lot of disagreement and those in which there is clear consensus.

Two other researchers took this idea a step further and conducted opinion surveys of the American public asking them their opinion on 14 of the topics for which the panel experts were in consensus. They found that the public generally was in far more disagreement than the experts.

For example, they asked both groups how much they agree with the following statement: “Permanently raising the federal tax rate by one percentage point for those in the top income tax bracket would increase federal tax revenue over the next 10 years.” Among the Economists, 97% said they agreed with this statement while only 67% of the public agreed. How are we supposed to have a national conversation about the right level of taxes when a third of the public doesn’t even believe that raising taxes increases government revenue?

When asked whether the 2009 economic stimulus led to a lowering of the unemployment rate, 92% of the economists agreed that it did but only 46% of the public agreed. If the stimulus worked last time but we don’t believe it worked, what are we going to put in place next time we need a stimulus? Additionally, 93% of the economists agreed with the statement “a carbon tax is a less costly way to cut emissions than car-mileage standards” but only a mere 23% of the public agreed. You’ll notice that more car mileage standards were put into place last year while we still wait for any politician to mention the words “carbon tax.”

Just like in other fields, there is a huge disconnect between the experts and the public. And, just like in science, these issues are hugely important to the policies being enacted in Washington and yet economic experts are basically absent from the conversation. Politicians either do not believe the economic consensus or they are purposefully ignoring it because they know their constituents disagree. Either way, we end up with huge congressional fights over issues that are not even controversial within their field.

This one study was clearly not perfect. It has too low a number of experts to be able to state that there is true consensus on any one issue. Right now though, so little has been done on determining consensus among economists that this is the best we’ve got. Considering the importance of these issues, I would love to see some better studies done to determine how much agreement there really is and how this differs from public opinion.

Economics is extremely complicated and little understood, yet it seems so simple that everyone, regardless of background or education, is an armchair economist, loudly proclaiming why they most certainly know better than those stuffy professors. For example, here’s director Steven Soderbergh explaining why he could have totally been in charge of a perfect Katrina disaster relief response if only someone would have asked him. Making the problem even worse, most of those stuffy professors are also much happier quietly writing papers than actually going to Washington to educate politicians or on TV to educate the public.

Perhaps this new study will break the indifference economists have toward educating the public on policy issues. Just like scientists are coming around to the idea that they need to be better about communicating their ideas and results to the public, economists need to get down from their academic high horse and go out into the world to disseminate their ideas to the masses.

Featured Photo by Jamie Bernstein

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  1. Jamie, interesting indeed. Of the 3 questions, the first should have been a no brainer, the second possibly open to debate (though the strategy was discussed and agreed upon by the whole Western world!), and the third more so. I guess the reason for the carbon tax being more efficient is that motor vehicle emissions are only a small part of the whole, although more visible than the big polluters such as iron and steel production.

    We are lucky in Australia to have the ABC as a reliable source of information. One of the finance pundits is Alan Kohler, an extremely polished communicator who does these interesting graphs every night
    Over time a great deal can be learned.

    • There are two major reasons why petrol taxes are a better idea than mileage mandates:
      1) Better mileage makes cars cheaper to drive, which can encourage people to drive more. It’s actually possible for improving car mileage to increase aggregate fuel consumption.
      2) There are many possible ways to reduce the CO2 output from cars. People could drive less, or we could put resources into developing more fuel-efficient cars or we could put more resources into alternative fuels. Which solution (or combination thereof) is the best for society is very hard to determine in advance. Taxing CO2 creates the right incentives for people to figure it out, while simply mandating better fuel standards does not.

      • Yes. It’s also worth remembering that cars are fairly far down the list of major greenhouse gas contributors (something like 9-10% if these charts from DOT are correct. A carbon tax would likely cover many more spheres of activity than just passenger cars, and thus potentially have a much greater impact.

        • I was assuming that “Emissions” in Jamie’s post meant all emissions, not just those from motor vehicles, and that the economists realised that but that the average Joe did not think of the big picture. Possibly because MSM hammers motor vehicle pollution all the time.

          • It’s unclear in the original article if this is the case or not; the question as it is framed there could lead one to think that it refers to automobile emissions only. This is the sense in which I understood it (since otherwise the comparison doesn’t make much sense), but even if mileage were proven to be marginally more effective in that sphere, an overall carbon tax might still do more good overall with the least legislative effort.

            Speaking of the original article, one thing I wish Jamie had mentioned here (since it is directly relevant to her argument) is that upon being informed of the expert consensus only a very small percentage of the ‘civilian’ respondents actually changed their minds. Of course this too might depend on how the question is framed (given increasing awareness of push polls), but astounding nonetheless.

          • Oh, and also, delictuscoeli, you are right that the original study was far more complicated and found more interesting things than the simple explanation I mentioned in the post. They did find that after telling people that “Economists agree that the answer is x” it didn’t really change the mind of the people who thought “y.” I think part of the problem is that people don’t really trust economists. We don’t see them very often because they are generally not out making their case to the public. Also, it’s not a required subject in K-12 education so many people will go their whole lives without even knowing the basics of economics, so how are they supposed to trust economists when they don’t even know what “economics” means? There are also lots of crazy people who talk about economics all the time on TV but don’t actually know what they’re talking about. It’s all quite confusing and I think leads to an overall distrust of the subject and its practitioners.

  2. It might be a little unfair to blame the /economists/ for the fact that politicians and the public at large don’t listen to them. First off, quietly writing papers is actually how professional academics communicate their ideas to (most of) the public. Maybe we should ask why policy makers don’t read economics journals? Further, let’s not forget that these academics /are/ engaged in full time education of the public! Any student who has an interest in economics can take an economics class and learn how things work. Those students who are not interested aren’t terribly likely to watch an economist on TV.

    Second, politicians are only going to “learn from” academics whose opinions already match their policy positions. Expecting anything else is kind of hopelessly naive.

    Sure, we can implement more positions for public communication of economics (as we have for some scientific fields), but they will inevitably be seen as politically controversial, perhaps even moreso than the scientists are. Universities are already in the cross-hairs of many state governments on suspicion of political “indoctrination”…can you imagine the funding threats that would result from appointing an economist who advocated raising revenues? As it is, you can’t even have a symposium discussing economic divestment from West Bank settlers without the hammer coming down…

    • Second, politicians are only going to “learn from” academics whose opinions already match their policy positions. Expecting anything else is kind of hopelessly naive.

      Definitely. Democracy pushes politicians to support policies that will win them votes, not policies that experts approve of.

    • > It might be a little unfair to blame the /economists/ for the fact that politicians and the public at large don’t listen to them.

      I agree. As a climate scientist, I have written letters to the editor, participated in the Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day, and gone to countless workshops on scientific communication to figure out how I can be a better communicator. While I was in grad school, I met many economists trying their best to communicate with policymakers and the general public too — testifying before congressional panels and the like.

      The problem is larger than individual scientists or economists though. We have an academic/university system that doesn’t reward outreach/service activities (like communicating with the general public and policymakers) to the same extent as it rewards publications and getting grants. Given the huge cuts in federal spending on research and education, along with higher standards for what it takes to get tenure, I’m guessing that most scientists and economists already have a lot on their plate and communicating their research results to the public is seen as something you do during your spare time (if you have any). We have a media environment that tends to report quick soundbites and less frequently reports longer, more nuanced debates or issues. We also have live in a country where money = speech, and unfortunately, scientific/economic experts are not always the ones with the most money or the most well-oiled PR machines.

      I think that the younger generation of scientists, economists, and other researchers are picking up on that though. I’ve seen the number of workshops and panels on bridging the gaps between academia, the general public, and policymakers grow in recent years, and I hope that we can figure out not only how to communicate better but how to deal with these larger structural and institutional issues.

    • Yah, I probably do put a little too much onus on the economists to attempt to educate the public, but its only because anecdotally it seems very much against the culture. Just like in the sciences, it’s looked down upon to go on TV or to Washington. It’s crazy that we’re having a national conversation about our future budget woes and not including the economists, the experts in the field, in our conversation. Not only is no one asking them for their opinion, but they certainly aren’t scrambling to offer it. We need to make them a part of the conversation, but they also should be calling up news organizations and offering up their commentary on these big issues.

  3. Because climate science is not my area of expertise, it is perfectly reasonable for me to bow to the consensus of scientists that are experts in the field. Since climate scientists are in consensus that the world is warming and humans have caused it, then I trust their opinion and have made it my own.

    Exactly. The way I see it, It’s not so much a matter of trusting the evidence – or even the majority of scientists – as trusting the scientific process. On this note, I think we who call ourselves “skeptics” are sometimes guilty of exaggerating the degree to which our own views are based on a deep understanding of/intimate familiarity with the evidence. I could probably do a fairly decent job of presenting a layman’s explanation of the evidence for things like evolution or global warming based on books I have read, but this is already an interpretation and a translation into linguistic form of the evidence itself. I wouldn’t personally be able to extract any useful information about past climate from tree rings or ice cores.

    When skeptics (and let me be the first to plead guilty on this point) admonish others to just “follow the facts” and “let the evidence speak for itself”, we are subtly contributing to this simplistic myth that “following the evidence where it leads” or “evaluating each new argument on its merits” is a straightforward matter rather than something that requires vast amounts of background knowledge in its own right. If we had to remain “agnostic” about every claim unless we could trace every chain of evidence back to first principles, no one could ever claim to know anything, but this would not be a rational approach to take.

    A related skeptical slogan that I have come to find too simplistic is the admonishment to just “think for yourself”. Obviously most people would benefit greatly from being more critical of their sources, but neither is there any shortage on cranks who believe crazy things precisely because they trust their own thinking too much and accuse anyone who does not accept their wacky ideas of being totally incapable of thinking outside the established paradigm. In fact, I would argue that an important part of becoming critical thinking is learning to accept that an idea isn’t necessarily good just because I though of it, and that – shock of all shocks – sometimes the experts really do know best.

    • When I was kind of new to skepticism, I used to feel guilty for taking the opinion of experts without researching it myself. Looking back though, that seems crazy! Like you said, it’s about trusting the process and being able to sort legitimate experts from those posing as experts. Knowing how to sift through and judge information is probably one of the most important branches of skepticism.

  4. Yesterday, at our Skeptics in the Pub, we had a guest speaker from the British organization <a href=""Sense About Science, who was in town at the AAAS meeting because they are starting a new campaign called “Ask For Evidence USA”. (Apparently their earlier “Ask For Evidence” campaign in the UK has been very successful and they are going international with it.)

    It is a multiprong attack on misinformation, including teaching people to notice when unsupported claims are being made, when and how to ask for evidence to support those claims from the people making them (for example, they distribute simple post cards you can address to advertisers or news reporters or politicians or others asking for their evidence), teaching people how to evaluate evidence (understanding logical fallacies, statistics and what constitutes poor and good evidence), explaining the scientific process (e.g. peer review.)

    A second prong involves finding independent experts to evaluate claims reported by people as confusing, dubious, unsupported or bogus.

    Third is teaching communications skills to, especially, young scientists. This prong particularly relates to your last paragraph about breaking the indifference of economists towards public education. Julia Wilson of Sense About Science, who graciously spent the afternoon with us, held a “boot camp” last week at MIT to teach these skills primarily to PhD candidates, post-docs, and people in the first post-graduate jobs.

    Their campaign is a long-needed public outreach about the basics of skepticism and science, the antidote to the “She Blinded Me With Science”, much more the “How do we know it’s true (or not)”, rather than the “Gee Whiz, that’s amazing.”

    I think, from a brief perusal of their web site, they are including economics in their campaign. Certainly the same basic principles apply.

    But, darn, I forgot to ask her for their evidence that educating the public and scientists how to communicate with each other would actually work. :-(

  5. Additionally, 93% of the economists agreed with the statement “a carbon tax is a less costly way to cut emissions than car-mileage standards” but only a mere 23% of the public agreed.

    See.. I am not sure I agree with this. The same thing might have been argued for, say, cigarette taxes reducing the amount of tobacco purchased. The problem here is that improving vehicles, or even removing gasoline powered ones from the road, in favor of a combined solution of electric/alternative, and the infrastructure needed to support them. Adding a tax to use something that most people depend on… we already see the idiots running the oil companies jacking up prices via speculation, and the price wobbling all over the place, but never the less consistently going up. What does it end up looking like if they slap a new tax on it? Yeah, a lot of people are going to “try” to use public transportation, or, if it gets bad enough, look for alternatives,but then a lot of people also have absolutely no other options, especially in places where public transportation is limited, or non-existent.

    Would it work? Probably. Would it work better than trying to fix the vehicles? Probably. Would the resulting impact of people already being paid poverty wages, in financial difficulties, where we still have serious issues just finding jobs, never mind decent ones, and the economy is still not entirely stable, be a serious problem? Bloody hell yes. And, without addressing those issues. Without stabilizing things, and making it possible for people that pay the added cost.. Then even if it was applied only to vehicles owned by companies, not private citizens, its still going to end up raising costs of things people need. Basically – just because it would work better doesn’t mean that, in the context of the current situation, without a clear solution to the impacts that would result, doesn’t mean its viable.

    But, yeah. It would be nice if, people in general, never mind politicians, listened to people that know what the frak they are talking about, instead of the voices in there heads, or some rich assholes, who don’t want to have to spend money on the peasants, instead of buying a new painting (or the like…, if/when they bother to spend any of the money at all)

    • Hey, let’s not impugn those few rich people who still support the arts! I’d sure as hell rather see people dumping money on a painter or the local symphony than on a new overdesigned toy from Apple every year.

      The question of how to keep a carbon tax from being too regressive is an important one, and it would have to be accounted for (ha!) by figuring out if the scheme is still effective in reducing consumption if it only effectively taxes, say, the top three income quartiles. Since this would almost certainly be the case (after all, we’re looking to modify behaviour, not reach specific revenue goals), all that remains is to figure out how to set up a system that does so. It could probably be accomplished to some extent by creating allowances or rebates for people at certain income levels and/or who depend on driving for their employment.

      For example,a rebate system could be set up in a manner to Canadian sales tax credits (calculated based on estimated purchases by income level), or even (capped) gas subsidies for approved low-income drivers (much more complex and probably more vulnerable to abuse). It might even be the case that levying the tax across the board for all carbon-producing industries would be effective enough to allow for an exemption in the case of consumer gasoline purchases.

      Probably there would have to be at least a little of #1 and a little of #3, especially if the tax were structured like a VAT. Under such a scheme, instead of taxing value added at every step of the production process, firms would be required to pay tax on carbon released at each stage of manufacturing and shipping, including commercial but not residential use if a given end product is fuel (thus oil companies pay for drilling, shipping, and refining, and airlines pay it for burning jet fuel, but citizens do not pay it for winter heating). Overall price increases in consumer goods are then partially offset by the estimated credit for those in need, while everyone else gets on with their business. The only trouble would be making that kind of scheme work in a global economy–how are imports taxed? Giant carbon-tarriffs might be a real impediment to trade…but then again they could be a great incentive for global polluters to clean up their acts in order to remain competitive.

      • Hey, let’s not impugn those few rich people who still support the arts! I’d sure as hell rather see people dumping money on a painter or the local symphony than on a new overdesigned toy from Apple every year.

        Thank you for saying this. Science is important, but the arts are as well.

    • Kagehi, delicuscoeli, in Oz we already have a carbon tax. Whether it is going to work or not is under fierce debate. I will quickly get out of my depth here cos its complex but worth noting
      1 It is a tax on all producers of carbon at the source, not just gasoline but power production, ore smelting, etc
      2 A large chunk (most?) of the receipts go towards direct compensation to low income earners and some businesses
      3 The overall effect on electricity prices is said to be roughly 10% and is barely noticable in comparison to recent massive price hikes.
      4 The conservative opposition is dead against it and forecasts disaster for the economy (ra ra bullshit wait til average global temperatures go up a couple of degrees!)
      I worry that maybe we are off topic here but then one of the great things about Skepchick is that the discussions are free ranging and more interesting as a result!

    • First of all, mileage standards on cars greatly increase the price of cars, which also impacts the poor. Even if the poor are buying used cars, increases in the price of new cars would raise demand for used vehicles while decreasing supply, which would raise the price of used vehicles.

      Regardless of how you try to solve the problem, it will cost money and anything that costs money will have a disproportionate effect on the poor. But really, the question wasn’t “Which policy would be better?” It was “Which policy would be the most efficient?” Those are different questions. In many cases, we might want to take some inefficiency in order to help certain members of society and that’s ok. That’s a value decision though, not an economic one. Scientists often say that science isn’t morality. Science just says what’s out in the world, but it doesn’t tell you what you should do about it. Economics is basically the same.

      In the end though, carbon taxes might not be the answer but vehicle mileage standards certainly aren’t. They raise the cost of new vehicles which generally leads to people driving older, more inefficient vehicles for longer. And, once you own one, you’re more likely to drive more because the cost of driving is cheaper. In the end, it costs consumers a lot of money and doesn’t really result in any gains for the environment.

  6. > I am not a climate scientist and in fact I don’t know much about climate science, but I still believe strongly that human caused climate change is warming the Earth.

    We shouldn’t *believe* anything, but rather check what the world-wise scientific consensus is on the subject at any one time. Belief = religion.

    • As I understand the word “belief”, to believe a proposition X simply means “holding X to be true/most likely true”. There is nothing in this definition that says a belief cannot be justified/held for rational reasons (belief.? faith). Why do we do science in the first place if it’s not legitimate to consider any of its findings most likely true (or at least a good approximation of the truth)? As I see it the most important distinction is not between belief and knowledge (whatever that may mean?) but between justified and unjustified beliefs.

  7. UAJamie,

    I used to believe a lot of stupid things. For a brief period of time I actually believed the Global Warming denialists claims. I actually began to accept global warming even before I came to reject that stupidity. A lot of the people on the conservative blogs I used to follow got really upset with me for not believing the claim that C02 released into the atmosphere by man causing climate is a hoax perpetrated by the left. For a awhile I also believed the stupid “stealth Jihad / Creeping sharia” conspiracy theories put forth by people like Robert Spencer and Danial Pipes. So glad I know longer believe the crap spouted by either the climate change deniers or the “Counter Jihad” crowd.

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