The dangers of writing widely

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.

  • Although I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion, I have to admit that it can get hard to try to discuss things with people who turn around and consistently disregard what you are saying in your own specialty field.

    Some people do not want to challenge their own beliefs – they only want you to share theirs 😉

    • Nobody said being a modern hero would be easy 😉


  • Kimble

    I disagree.

    Call a spade a spade, and laughable ignorance a spade too.

    The softly softy approach wont have as much impact as the point and laugh approach. How much education  will it take to get Mishra to admit he was wrong? How much would it take to have the people who read and agreed with his position to admit they were wrong?

    Far more than they would be willing to engage in.

    People dont KNOW that its possible they dont know as much about economics as they think they do. You will advance the cause more by simply making them aware of their possible ignorance as opposed to correcting the record.

    I think the entire economics profession should go on the offensive. Make it very obvious where someone is talking crap. Let shame be their guide.

    • Getting people to publicly admit they were wrong is difficult but that’s a leap beyond helping people to understand their ignorance. I’m not sure that offensive shaming is the best way to overcome people’s intransigence either, although clearly their are a wide range of opinions on the matter.

  • Kimble

    Overcoming an individuals intransigence is a battle, but not the war. We want to change how people approach economics. You want them coming at economic questions with the same modesty they would have when considering a question of physics (or even when attempting to cook something for the first time!)

    How better to promote humility than through humiliation?

    • Knowledge and understanding, as Dunning and Kruger’s work suggests.

      • Kimble

        Understanding doesn’t help; that’s a personal thing.

        Knowledge can help, but isnt needed in itself. People must be prompted to seek knowledge, and at the moment they are simply assuming they dont have to. The awareness of lack of knowledge is what is important.

        We are social creatures, and social position means a lot to us. Fear of humiliation is a better prompt than anything else.