Pankaj Mishra is “…the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” “The Romantics: A Novel” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”” He doesn’t know anything about economics or economic history and yet writes about it on Bloomberg as though he is an expert. When speaking to an expert audience that is dangerous, and perhaps a little foolish.
Rothbard memorably wrote that
…it is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.
You could easily substitute any discipline for ‘economics’ and it would be as true. Why is it that people with so little expertise are so willing to pass judgment?
For economics it may be the familiarity with the subject matter since everybody lives it every day. While an ignorance of Abelian rings is obvious to us, the gaps in our knowledge of optimal taxation are less so. The everyday language of economics and its subject matter seem familiar enough that people feel they have an intuitive understanding of the subject. While it is fantastic to have such engagement with the discipline, it often seems to lead to overconfidence in untrained commentators. For instance, Mr Mishra might have been hesitant to voice an opinion on the Bourbaki project, yet he felt no such qualms about commenting on the reasons for economic growth.
It may also be that the same lack of kjnowledge precludes people from understanding the limits of their knowledge. Bertrand Russell boldly claimed that “…those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” However, modern research by Dunning and Kruger suggests that the effect has more to do with knowledge than intelligence. Their experiments show that those who are ignorant in a subject vastly overestimate their own skills. Yet, with only a little bit of tutoring, they gain a far better understanding of their level of understanding.
The lesson I take from all this is that poor writing about economics is a consequence of too little economic education. As economists we all have a role to play in helping people to understand the basics of our discipline. Every time we turn up our nose at a casual discussion about economics among non-experts we are promoting the spread of misinformation by our omission. Rather than just pointing and laughing at people who are plainly wrong we should be there to help.