Models

Echidne’s post about physics versus economics is an absolute pleasure to read. She responds to Robin Hanson, a n economist who complains that the media isn’t taking economists who say that the minimum wage is bad seriously:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying “Isn’t that cool!” But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to “balance” their story.

Echidne is right on the money in explaining the difference: physics also has better models.

Models can be very useful, but they are models. Natural sciences can test the formulas and models in laboratory circumstances. Social sciences don’t have that luxury, partly, because even if laboratories were used they would be artificial environments likely to affect the outcomes, not ways of holding external influences constant. This means that social sciences muddle through and actually study something more complicated than some of the physics models do, and it also means that we must view the social science models with a greater deal of scepticism.

It’s easy not to grasp how mathematized theoretical physics is. Theoretical physics is still scientific in the sense that it makes falsifiable predictions, but since the experiments themselves are so abstract, the amount of mathematical deduction that goes into a single prediction or a single interpretation of experiments is immense. When the media reports a breakthrough in superstring theory, it functionally treats it like a proof of a famous conjecture like Fermat’s Last Theorem or the PoincarĂ© Conjecture.

Less mathematized sciences are never treated that way. Biology doesn’t receive that adulation, even though it’s hotter than physics lately; even without mentioning creationism, the media isn’t in that much awe of biology. It might call advances in physics discoveries of the fundamental nature of the Universe, but will never call an advance in gene-centric evolution even “the fundamental structure of evolution.” Stories about climate change, where models are about as mathematized as in biology, are rife with references to climate change skeptics, in part because of the opposite bias of the one Hanson is complaining about.

Meanwhile, economists aren’t even united in their belief that minimum wage laws increase unemployment. A 2000 survey of economists’ responses to various questions reveals that economists are far from libertarian on many issues. 38.9% agreed that “the distribution of income in the US should be more equal,” 27.9% agreed partly, and 31.5% disagreed. On the minimum wage question, 45.6% agreed that minimum wages increase unemployment among youth and unskilled workers, 27.9% agreed partly, and 26.5% disagreed. That’s not an anti-minimum wage consensus, but a normal disagreement that an objective media will report both sides of.

2 Responses to Models

  1. gordo says:

    Not only is there no consensus on the minimum wage, let alone a consensus that has lasted “hundreds of years,” but the fact is that when there IS a consensus among economists, the media tend to report it as fact.

    Consider, for example, the idea that inflation is best controlled by controlling the money supply, rather than by capping wages and prices. As recently as the 1970s, some economists still argued in favor of price controls. But when the Fed talks about controlling inflation, nobody in the mainstream media suggests price controls or a gold standard. They question is always whether and how much to push up interest rates.

    That’s because there is a consensus opinion on that subject, and so the media treats that opinion exactly as they do scientific opinions for which there is a consensus. Except, of course, for the opinion that global warming is a man-made phenomenon.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    I was going to get more into anthropogenic climate change, but thought it would be too much of a distraction. The rule is that people outside the mainstream never get air time unless they’re backed by billion-dollar thinktanks. That’s why the media doesn’t pay attention to string theory skeptics like Peter Woit.

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