I could be wrong

Don Boudreaux, George Mason University economist, gets annoyed when non-economists make economic pronouncements.  Boudreaux writes in his Pittsburgh Tribune column:

Economics — unlike chemistry, electrical engineering and almost any other subject matter you can name — is a discipline that people routinely opine on even if they have zero formal exposure to it. No taxi driver or movie star offers, for example, his opinion on the molecular structure of radium or the process by which the magnetron led to the development of microwave ovens. On such matters, that person defers to trained chemists and engineers.

But that same cabbie or movie star is often eager to give his opinion on matters such as the causes and consequences of expanded international trade, the effect of minimum-wage legislation and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the salaries of professional sports stars.

I’m embarrassed to confess that I often get annoyed at non-economists making pronouncements on economics.

Later in the column he softens his credentialism a bit:

Please don’t mistake me as saying that someone must have a degree in economics to offer worthwhile opinions on economics. I don’t believe for a second that that task requires formal training in economics.

What is necessary is at least some exposure to serious, formal economics — for example, taking a good course in principles of economics or reading at least two or three of the many good books on the market today that aim to introduce non-economists to the economic way of thinking. (Superb examples of such books include my colleague Russell Roberts’ “The Invisible Heart” and James Gwartney’s, Richard Stroup’s and Dwight Lee’s “Common Sense Economics.”)

I happen to think that Boudreaux is wrong about folks not opining on chemistry or electrical engineering.  I don’t think he pays as close attention to those fields.

Folks may not opine on the molecular structure of radium, but as a former electrical engineer, none of my friends or family who make pronouncements about the potential of solar or wind energy or electric vehicles ever ask for my opinion on the matter.

I also see plenty of non-chemists make pronouncements on the effects of chemicals and substances in our air, ground and water.

I also think Boudreaux does an injustice by singling out ‘non-economists’.

I get annoyed at anybody who makes pronouncements on any subject without considering that they might be wrong.  Economics is a wide field with plenty of different specialties and  economists can stretch their resumes and make dumb economic pronouncements on subjects they know little about too.

In my groups of peeps I try to gently enforce an informal rule.  If someone makes a pronouncement, I may ask them to explain to me how they arrived at their position.  Then I listen. I also request that they listen if I think they missed something in their thought process.

If they are unwilling to participate, I kindly request that they refrain from making such pronouncements unless they are willing to discuss.  It seems to work.

Now, everybody, let’s practice. Take a deep breath. Count to 3 and repeat after me.  1…2…3: I could be wrong.

It really doesn’t hurt that much to say it. Once you feel comfortable saying it, you open yourself to learning, teaching and seeing the world differently. But, of course, I could be wrong.

I use to have a tough time saying this.  Many of my family and friends have a tough time saying it. I still struggle with it at times.  But, I’m better now, and when I find it tough to say, I usually get over it quickly.

When you can say it, it’s amazing how disarming it can be.


3 thoughts on “I could be wrong

  1. Seth:

    Good point.

    It’s best to seriously listen to non-economists viewpoints. Think about it, we in fact have an economy largely based upon non-economists viewpoints.

    If the points are based upon economic fallacy, incorrect views based upon aspects of political science’s altruistic view rather than the nuts and bolts of public choice theory, etc., etc. the best course of action is to add insight to the discussion then allow one and all to determine if their view point might be off target.

  2. “I don’t know” are the hardest three words to say in the English language.
    If someone makes a fallacious claim about economics, I try to educate them in a non-patronizing way.
    I know what your saying, as a Chemist, I hear some crazy shit all the time.


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