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