Russ Roberts, economist, blogger, author (among other things) added a new category to Cafe Hayek. The new category is Dinner Table Economics. He wrote:
I want to start a new category of posts here called “dinner table economics,” questions involving economics for talking about over the dinner table. I want to top my hat to Seth’s blog, Our Dinner Table that gave me the idea.
I am honored and humbled that my blog gave him the idea to start this new category. Naturally I think that’s a great idea and I look forward to reading and learning from his posts.
The first topic of that category: a study linking vaccinations to autism. One of the key studies showing this link may be corrupt. Roberts writes:
What we talked about at dinner was whether it was a good idea to vaccinate and how would you know whether vaccination had side effects such as autism. This got us into a discussion of what an experiment is, how reliable is an experiment, the ideas of causation and correlation, sample size, spurious correlation and so on.
Great topic. Call something a ‘study’ carried out by ‘experts’ and it gains instant credibility with many people. News anchors seem to love how that rolls of their tongues. A new study out today in the Journal of such-and-such says that this causes an X% greater chance of that.
Tell people to be skeptical of studies and do some due diligence before drawing a conclusion and they look at you like you must be thick. It’s a study. It was carried out by experts. It’s peer reviewed. All good stuff, but none of it means it’s right. Believing it’s right without looking into is faith.
I got early exposure to be skeptical of conclusions drawn on experiments and studies from physicist Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend. One of Feynman’s specialties was poking holes in others’ experiments. If I recall, even in a discipline like physics, conclusions were often polluted by the bias of the experimenters and mistakes.
Back to the vaccination study. A local TV news story a few years ago featured a child who developed autism soon after receiving his vaccinations. I’d find such news stories better if the reporter consulted with folks like Mr. Feynman or Mr. Roberts to provide a more complete picture and remind us that one story does not establish cause and effect.
Even the skeptical me can be swayed by a personal story. Such stories are powerful. That’s why politicians love to have mascots (thanks for that one Sowell) to call on during speeches. But, what we don’t realize is that we are often swayed by the exception (HT: Don Boudreax of Cafe Hayek), not the rule. And we might be wrong.