Physicists Held To Lower Standard

In August I complained about vague LHC forecasts.  My oped based on that post just appeared in Symmetry, "A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication."  Its blurb: "Today’s LHC forecasts are no easier to score than the typical horoscope."  It ends:

But geez – the LHC costs more than $10 billion of public money. Shouldn’t we expect big-shot physicists who hope to crow to the public about LHC vindication to express their predictions in a more scoreable form? We don’t accept less from weather, business, or sport forecasters; why accept less from physicists?

My implicit answer: we hold physicists to lower standards.  As I posted two years ago:

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.

That same Symmetry issue says:

Leon Lederman, a 1988 Nobel laureate and Fermilab physicist, plopped a folding table and two chairs on a busy New York City street corner and sat under colorful hand-scrawled signs offering to answer physics questions.  Even in a city of people too busy for impromptu sidewalk conversations, the sight was too tempting to resist. … Soon about 20 people formed a line down the block. They asked Lederman about the strong force, time and space, fusion, and even time travel. Some asked follow-up questions to get a clearer understanding, while others just seemed thrilled at the chance to meet a Nobel Prize winner.

I’ll bet none told Lederman he was wrong.  Imagine how a Nobel-winning economist would be received. 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • frelkins
  • HH

    So true. But this sort of difference is treatment is not surprising. Physics and the “hard” sciences have the benefit of controlled experiments that can settle most questions once and for all, beyond any reasonable doubt. Economics, unfortunately, belongs in the same field as evolutionary biology and psychology, sociobiology, global warming research, and such other fields that cannot have controlled experiments. I find the logic of economics and evolutionary psychology, and the evidence therefor, persuasive. But if you want to believe something else, my evidence will never amount to proof.

    Because some sciences have the ability to run control experiments, I think it’s an implied assumption by most people that if a claim in such sciences is offered, it has been tested in such an experiment. Economics is assumed to not have been tested in such a way, so skepticism ensues.

    It probably also doesn’t help that the hard sciences are non-political, while economics, ev. psych, and global warming, to name the obvious examples, are highly political.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    What’s more remarkable to me is that the opinions of economists play little role in economic policy decisions; and that the nation’s economic instruments, such as the Federal Reserve, are not run by economists.

    NASA is not run by engineers. But the engineers make the technical decisions. (Except sometimes, when a manager decides to launch a shuttle in freezing weather even though its O-rings are only rated for 50 degrees.)

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    If it makes you feel better, Robin, a Nobel-winning biologist would have lots of people lined up to tell him/her why evolution was wrong.

  • Doug S.

    What’s more remarkable to me is that the opinions of economists play little role in economic policy decisions; and that the nation’s economic instruments, such as the Federal Reserve, are not run by economists.

    Huh? But Ben Bernanke is an economist…

  • Boris

    Robin, this might have something to do with the fact that physics has a history of predicting real-life events fairly successfully. Economics isn’t quite as good at it yet (at least in part because the areas in which the models are applicable aren’t that interesting in many cases, so they get applied in areas where they’re not that applicable).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unbathed/ Unbathed

    Nobel-winning economists are received with grumbling even by other economists. Ask Paul Krugman.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unbathed/ Unbathed

    Boris,

    Per Taleb, interesting real-life economic events aren’t predictable.

  • HH

    “Robin, this might have something to do with the fact that physics has a history of predicting real-life events fairly successfully. Economics isn’t quite as good at it yet (at least in part because the areas in which the models are applicable aren’t that interesting in many cases, so they get applied in areas where they’re not that applicable).”

    That ties into my earlier point. Economics can’t replicate natural conditions, run experiments, and determine outcomes outcomes. [“Here we have two identical economies. We’ll give this one a tax cut.”] Physics and chemistry can, and usually do. Hence the implied assumption in most people’s minds is that the “real” sciences wouldn’t make a claim unless it had been proven.

    On your second point, I think politics re-enters it: using a model or rule of economics in the wrong context lets you “justify” an outcome you prefer. Most people can’t tell who’s doing this and who isn’t, and thus suspect everyone.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’ll bet none told Lederman he was wrong.

    If you know someone who can ask Lederman about it, I’ll take that bet.

  • Mike

    I must say this piece is very misguided.

    All of the popular physics pieces I have read make clear when they wander into speculative ideas. They appear fickle because reporters and physicists like to present new ideas as revolutionary, because for one side it increases readership interest and for the other it increases chances for funding. But it must be realized that physics has an enormous body of literature on which there is an overwhelming consensus covering explanations of almost every aspect of our experience of the world. If you have a practical question that physics claims to cover, you can get an answer that all physicists agree on.

    This is far from the state of economics. Consider for example the range of discussion as to what the best way is to precede out of the present financial crisis. In fact, from some editorials I’ve read recently, economists don’t even agree on what were the essential circumstances that lifted us out of the Great Depression. All this is understandable — economics is terribly sophisticated — but this is aside the point. What is particularly disappointing is, from what I have seen, economists seem far more apt to present speculative ideas — or ideas about which there is much disagreement in academia — as if there is they are well-understood.

    I have an example from just a couple of days ago. I read a NY Times piece by Tyler Cowen that, contained a bold heading saying “DON’T RAISE TAXES IN A SLUMP” in which he notes that while government spending went up during New Deal, so did taxes. He then says “When all of these tax increases are taken into account, New Deal fiscal policy didn’t do much to promote recovery.”

    To me, this presented as a non-sequitur. First of all, the fact that taxes were raised during the New Deal and yet that coincident with that set of programs we were lifted from depression, suggests that in fact you can raise taxes during a recession. Now, perhaps there is information that suggests we would have exited recession sooner without the tax increases. But Prof. Cowen doesn’t provide that — which would seem to be the whole point in providing any background discussion at all on this question.

    So I emailed him, asking why he said that (and, just to clarify my confusion, explaining why I thought it was conceivable why increased federal spending AND increased taxes could produce recovery). His response: everything I said was right, but he was assuming the taxes “canceled” the federal spending.

    This strikes me as rather unprofessional — as a physicists, I would have made clear if a statement I made had relevance to a political choice and involved a speculative assumption… all the more if other economists disagreed.

    What’s more striking is, I would think this question has been answered. In principle, one could study spending before a given tax increase and compare to after, to deduce whether taxes “canceled” spending or whether spending remained relatively constant and taxes + govt spending lead to more total spending. (Perhaps issues make this complicated — on the other hand it’s an important question.) If it hasn’t been studied, it suggest to me that economists aren’t really interested in serious empirical questions. If it has been studied, then why is Prof. Cowen making assumptions about the matter when it could gain or lose credence based on hard information?

  • Mike

    Incidentally, I don’t understand comments such as “the opinions of economists play little role in economic policy decisions.” I was under the impression that the ideas of economists were well represented in economic decisions. In fact, didn’t we just hear news about cabinet appointments of economists?

    Also, what was Lederman wrong about?

    With regard to the LHC, the setbacks are a disappointment to everyone. But I think it is a very weak argument that such setbacks come from low expectations or some form of incompetence. No one takes physics more seriously than physicists. The existence of setbacks is due to the projects being so ambitious. The LHC is a new piece of technology, constructed from a large number of other novel technologies, with emphasis on “novel” — many of the tools needed to get the LHC to work didn’t exist before its construction. This is why such projects are so susceptible to cost overruns — it’s hard to project the cost of inventing something that hasn’t been invented yet.

  • Mike

    Incidentally, I don’t understand comments such as “the opinions of economists play little role in economic policy decisions.” I was under the impression that the ideas of economists were well represented in economic decisions. In fact, didn’t we just hear news about cabinet appointments of economists?

    Also, what was Lederman wrong about?

    With regard to the LHC, the setbacks are a disappointment to everyone. But I think it is a very weak argument that such setbacks come from low expectations or some form of incompetence. No one takes physics more seriously than physicists. The existence of setbacks is due to the projects being so ambitious. The LHC is a new piece of technology, constructed from a large number of other novel technologies, with emphasis on “novel” — many of the tools needed to get the LHC to work didn’t exist before its construction. This is why such projects are so susceptible to cost overruns — it’s hard to project the cost of inventing something that hasn’t been invented yet.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Huh? But Ben Bernanke is an economist…

    Oops. I thought “business” because he taught at a business school for many years. My bad.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Incidentally, I don’t understand comments such as “the opinions of economists play little role in economic policy decisions.” I was under the impression that the ideas of economists were well represented in economic decisions. In fact, didn’t we just hear news about cabinet appointments of economists?

    Robin could address this better than I can. I think – could be wrong – that besides minimum wage, economists were/are generally against the recent $700 billion bailout, farm subsidies, tax rebates, tax deductions for children, and the notion that the key to getting a country’s economy to grow is getting its consumers to spend more.

  • http://reactionwheel.blogspot.com Jerry

    There was a time when physicists were subject to critical scrutiny… and then forced to recant before the Church before being imprisoned. (And you think economists have it bad?) Nowadays, whether the universe has eleven dimensions or googolty-three has less impact on my daily life or psychological state than whether my university football team won last Saturday. I suspect that’s why journalists give physics the same breezy coverage as they give, say, Fashion Week.

    This does beg the question of how the physicists managed to wangle $11 billion out of the state to build the LHC. I have a theory for that, but I need to depict it as a Feynman diagram first so it won’t be questioned by your commenters.

  • tonyf

    There is no Noble price in economy. It is the price in economy from the Swedish National Bank “in honour of Alfred Nobel”. The Nobel foundation agreed to that it be handed out by the King of Sweden at the same occasion as all the Nobel prices (except for peace), but it is still not a Nobel Price.

  • poke

    Physicists aren’t in the business of predicting the outcome of experiments; they’re in the business of explaining the world. The two things are completely different. The weirdest thing is you compare forecasters predictions regarding their object of interest to physicists predictions regarding their own success. A more appropriate analogy would be if we asked weather forecasters how accurate they think their weather forecasting will be in 5 years.

  • top

    This is not at all surprising, I think, and has nothing to do with how “correct” are physics or economy perceived. People hate economists because they are prescriptive, and they sometimes prescribe things people don’t like. Crazy physicists, on the other hand, just ask for money, not for you to change your way of life, so they are far less annoying.

  • ac

    /violin for Robin. Those lazy physicists get all the love…

    I’m curious that you think business forecasters are in the business of validating their models and predictions with quantitative scores in the same way weather forecasters do.

    I’m open to the possibility that it happens – can anyone point me in the direction of an example? As an outsider I don’t see economists consistently predicting anything of note – happy to be proven wrong, but I think the guts of it is Taleb’s point that the system of interest simply doesn’t have predictibility on the scales we think it should.

    And what is the point of scoring physicists predictions about what will be discovered, anyway? My gut feeling is that well calibrated forecast of potential discoveries would need to be so poorly resolved that you wasted your time coming up with a scheme to forecast it in the first place. Not to mention the number of forecasts is so small that measures of reliability and ability to discriminate will be hopelessly inaccurate.

    Hey, maybe we can shut down the LHC and use a prediction market to decide whether the Higgs Boson exists.

  • Unnamed

    What are we going to do with these clear, scoreable LHC forecasts if we get them? If the LHC produces interesting, important discoveries, I’d think that the physicists would have every right to talk up their findings and the machine that produced them, even if the amazing discoveries are wildly different from what they’d predicted beforehand (it’s the physics that’s impressive, not the physicists). Weather forecasts are useful because I use them to decide whether to bring an umbrella or a jacket, but I don’t see what turns on the physics forecast of what specific particles turn up. Finally, meteorologists advance their science by analyzing the huge set of data that includes their precise forecasts and the actual weather, comparing the accuracy of different forecasters and models, but after the LHC results come in physicists will probably need to advance their science in the same way they’ve been doing, regardless of whether or not they made readily scoreable forecasts beforehand.

  • Mike

    Phil:

    economists are most definitely NOT unanimous against “the recent $700 billion bailout, farm subsidies, tax rebates, tax deductions for children, and the notion that the key to getting a country’s economy to grow is getting its consumers to spend more.” I’m not an economist so perhaps I shouldn’t speak on their behalf, but I read their blogs and my impression is they generally supported a huge government bailout (though there is disagreement on what the best detailed prescription should be) and there is wide support for progressive taxes (of which “tax rebates” and “tax deductions for children” are a part). As for what makes economies grow, I don’t think economists really understand this yet. The best ideas involve a combination of strong (non-corrupt) government, strong institutions, technological innovation, the latter two supported in part by capital investment (at least that was the impression I got from the last book I read, circa 2002 or so). If economists were unanimous on these sorts of issues, I would assume that would translate to more coherent policies on these matters.

  • egl

    Mankiw passed this on in his blog:
    I was talking with a professor here at GMU and another PhD student recently and all three of us agreed that after earning all the advanced degrees, nearly everything you ultimately use in economics, you learn in Mankiw.

    It’s hard to imagine a practicing physicist saying the same thing about a first-year physics text, including Feynman’s Lectures—as wonderful as they are.

  • Mike

    The LHC is certainly a very expensive machine. But in assessing its cost, it should be kept in mind that it is a international project — the US contribution is much less than $11B. Furthermore, that money covers something like a decade of operations, and the machine will likely operate for much longer than that (adding years of operation is not so expensive).

    The sell to governments probably involves reference to the value of past investments. The rationale is very similar to that behind the moon mission, say: one presumes great value in spin-off technologies. Except the moon missions had little scientific value compared to the LHC. And, historically, there have been many valuable “spin offs.” You can probably find good discussion of this on the Fermilab, SLAC, and/or CERN web cites. To just name a couple things, the development of the world wide web and of all forms of medical imaging technologies were greatly accelerated by the underlying technologies being developed first at particle accelerators. Another reason to do this is to create the next generation of physicists, who need challenging research projects to develop their skills. The vast majority of these physicists will find work outside of academia, and this is a boon to the technological advantage of this country. As someone drew a comparison to economics, let me note that much of the most innovative work in economics is done by people trained in physics (at least as evidenced by economics Nobel winners).

  • mk

    “top” is right.

    1. Economists are unavoidably tied up in politics. Economists’ findings often have political implications; physicists’ findings rarely have political implications (and when they do, physicists are certainly challenged — How about Galileo, for starters?)

    2. Economic theses are hard to prove (partly because of the lack of controlled experiments, as others have mentioned).

    3. Thus, people will largely turn to their political prejudices rather than the unclear pronouncements of academic economists, when trying to decide an economics question.

  • http://rationalanalysis.blogspot.com Enginerd

    “Physicists aren’t in the business of predicting the outcome of experiments; they’re in the business of explaining the world. The two things are completely different.”

    The two are exactly the same. The reason scientists do controlled experiments is to isolate particular effects. Technically, anything is an experiment, you just can’t draw conclusions because situations are so complicated that you can’t isolate an effect with certainty. If economists could run thousands of controlled experiments to see what happened given a set of conditions, I’m sure they could build better models afterwards.

    In regards to physicists being treated easily, I think it’s because the press doesn’t understand physics, and neither do most of the public, and they know this. Neither the press nor the general public understands economics, they just think they do. So they question the experts. Plus, things like the subway, magazines, and the internet are proof that physicists have gotten something right. Point to any corresponding economic example, and because societies are so complicated, somebody will always say that the economists in question just got lucky.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Well now I’m sorry I quoted the paragraph that mentioned economists, as it completely distracted from the issue of the physicists’ apparent hypocrisy.

  • Brian Macker

    “Nobel-winning economists are received with grumbling even by other economists. Ask Paul Krugman.”

    That’s because Paul Krugman is a Keynesian and hasn’t met an economic fallacy he doesn’t find attractive. Am I suppose to think Arafat is a exemplar of “peace” just because he won the “peace prize”. Not likely.

    Meanwhile economists are telling us that the world is made of purple fluff and if only we’d print more money for them to distribute to their pals everything will turn out rosy. So yes they are questioned. Even colliders don’t cost $7 trillion.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jhertzli/ Joseph Hertzlinger

    Lots of people tell physicists they’re wrong. We can start with anti-nuclear-power activists and continue through young-Earth creationists, astrologers, people who think that quantum mechanics means that refusing to perceive something means it doesn’t exist, etc…

  • Mike

    I finally realized what’s going on here… a bunch of people who neither understand physics nor economics decided they were going to champion one and ridicule the other.

  • tndal

    “Why Physicists Need the LHC”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8xwSfuY8xA

    Farhi hopes that something (anything, please!) will be found that is not currently predicted by the Standard Model. Otherwise High-energy particle physics in its current form, accurate to 10 decimal places, will be almost completely explained.

    What’s wrong with the Standard Model being correct? It would appear that 10 decimal places accuracy is sufficient to indicate a theory correct and complete.

    High-energy particle physicists are worried that, should the LHC prove to be a $6B boondoggle contributing little or nothing to knowledge, they will be unable to get future funding and will face future unemployment. Farhi admits he is hedging his bets by doing side research in quantum computing (that’s why he’s at Google).

    I hope the LHC finds nothing new. Then research money could be redirected from high-energy particle physics to more productive areas of physics and the other sciences.

  • anon

    “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.”

    Saying that a minimum wage increases unemployment is based on multiple heroic assumptions (infinite this, zero that) while assuming away any contrary evidence. An idea this weak would never survive centuries in the hard sciences; the reason physicists are given a ‘pass’ is that the physics community has demonstrated its ability to self-monitor and discard bad or unrealistic ideas. The reason economists have their ideas attacked is that they deserve it.

  • HH

    Returning to Robin’s intended point, which is the lower scrutiny for physicists. I’m still of the opinion that it’s caused by implicit assumptions held by the general public (and their extension, the media). Physicists have had a very good track record, historically: they’ve explained much of the physical world and enabled amazing modern things, from the car and microwave to space travel. (I understand they’re not the sole contributors to these.)
    In addition, physicists are generally perceived to be scientists searching for “truth.” It’s hard to paint them as selfish, corrupt, or ideological, since most people don’t think that the LHC would benefit them personally, or their cronies, if they had any.
    Both of these are made possible by the general overconfidence of the public and the media, who seem to think that “if physicists were taking advantage of us, we would know.” That belief is made possible by the controlled experiments I referenced above: questions in physics can be settled very quickly. From that, it “follows” that physicist must be honest lest they be proven liars, so clearly claims by physicists can be trusted.
    These factors (track record of success, perception of selflessness, perception of necessary honesty) thus combine to make physicists appear more trustworthy, and thus, in the eyes of the public, needing less supervision. Even when $11 billion is at stake.

    I don’t think there’s a need to point out how these factors don’t apply to many other area. Especially economics.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Protagoras/ Aaron Boyden

    The minimum wage example may not be a good one, as anon has more or less pointed out. The empirical evidence concerning the effects of a minimum wage on employment has been highly mixed. Of course, that evidence has been collected by economists, some of whom have theories about why a minimum wage often doesn’t raise unemployment, so the big problem with your example is that only some economists have been saying that a minimum wage raises unemployment; others have said the opposite. If there is controversy among experts, on what basis are outsiders supposed to be confidently believing in one side?

  • HH

    “some economists have been saying that a minimum wage raises unemployment; others have said the opposite. If there is controversy among experts, on what basis are outsiders supposed to be confidently believing in one side?”

    This is the effect of the lack of controlled experiments I mentioned earlier. You’ll notice that ever economic prediction says “other things being equal.” Well, other things being equal, a minimum wage does reduce employment. But economics don’t get to hold other things equal: economic events happen all the time, simultaneously, to different groups of people, with different laws in place, and a multitude of other factors that very. Even valid deductions are open to attack because economists can’t control these other factors. [“Minimum wage may have reduced employment there, but won’t here.” Can’t really rerun history twice on the same people to prove your case.]

  • anon

    ceteris paribus (holding other variables equal) isn’t, IMHO, what discredits economics. In thermodynamics cateris paribus is explicitly assumed in many models but I’m not about to call thermodynamics into question. Nor is it untestable hypotheses, economists like to kick their feet about this one but its a smokescreen.

    The problem of (or maybe I should say my problem with) economic theory is in its level of abstraction – so many assumptions are made that the final theories no longer resemble the world they are supposed to represent. By the time you finish setting up the classic minimum wage model you’ve assumed away important things like class, gender, age and power while simultaneously assuming that the workforce is liquid enough and that wages are dynamic enough for the market clearing process to occur. This simply doesn’t reflect the world that we live in. The sophistication required to refute this model (in economic terms) is generally not possessed by the 1st year econ students it is taught to, so this type of thought process becomes part of their ‘intuition’, and sadly it affects their life choices and politics in the future which in turn affects human life as a whole.

    I could rant on this for hours, but more to the point: members of the public generally don’t have the ability to ‘raise the bar’ on physicists because they set it so high on themselves to begin with. Economists on the other hand have buried their bar in the sand, so anybody who feels like digging can get to it.

  • starbright

    What would happen if a Fields medalist mathematician set up in the street?
    He would be ignored.

    Why? Because math is hard, and doesn’t pander to the “layman”.

    Take out the contributions of mathematicians and neither physics nor economics would have much left but talk.

    ” They aren’t called branes, they are called submanifolds–and we in differential geometry have been exploring their properties for more than a century.”

  • starbright

    What would happen if a Fields medalist mathematician set up in the street?
    He would be ignored.

    Why? Because math is hard, and doesn’t pander to the “layman”.

    Take out the contributions of mathematicians and neither physics nor economics would have much left but talk.

    ” They aren’t called branes, they are called submanifolds–and we in differential geometry have been exploring their properties for more than a century.”

  • Cameron Taylor

    Humans evolved brains to argue about who gets what. They argue economics in an attempt to alter public opinion in their favour. This applies to physics far less.