Underconfident Experts?

In Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan claims people are overconfident and otherwise irrational about their political beliefs:

Voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational – and vote accordingly. …  emotion and ideology – not just the facts or their “processing” – powerfully sway human judgment. Protectionist thinking is hard to uproot because it feels good. When people vote under the influence of false beliefs that feel good, democracy persistently delivers bad policies. … irrationality, like ignorance, is selective. We habitually tune out unwanted information on subjects we don’t care about. In the same vein, I claim that we turn off our rational faculties on subjects where we don’t care about the truth.

Bryan’s finds voters irrational by comparing them to experts, such as economists or toxologists, and to counter this irrationality he suggests that people use their discretion to push expert views (p. 199):

Harry Truman famously longed for a “one-handed economist,” who would not say “on one hand, on the other hand.” … When economists choose between communicating (a) nothing, or (b) simplified but roughly accurate conclusions, they seem strangely to prefer (a).   When you have an entire semester with a group of students, they forget all but the main points.  If you fail to hammer a few fundamental principles into your students, odds are they will take away nothing at all.  …

Professors can drastically change the content and style of their courses at low cost. … they should strive to channel the spirit of the original one-handed economist, Frederic Bastiat.  It makes no difference if “teacher of economics” is your official job description.  Everyone who knows some economics – professors, policy wonks, journalists, students, and concerned citizens – has opportunities to teach.  …

At first many feel uncomfortable being a one-handed economist.  But anyone can do it.  Spend less time qualifying general principles.  Except at the best schools, introductory classes should be almost qualification free – there is too much nonsense to unlearn to waste time on rare conditions where the standard conclusions fail.  …

Economists … usually say, “Competition works as long as …” and then list the many strong assumptions of perfect competition.  … It is more important for students to understand that self-interest often encourages socially beneficial behavior than to understand that this mechanism falls short of perfection.  … Yes, these techniques can be used to inculcate fallacies as well as insight.  But there is no intrinsic conflict with truth.  You can actually get students excited about thinking for themselves on topics where society disapproves …

When the media spotlight gives other experts a few seconds to speak their mind, they usually strive to forcefully communicate one or two simplified conclusions. … But economists are reluctant to use this strategy.  Though the forum demands it, they think it unseemly to express a definite judgment.  This is a recipe for being utterly ignored.  If you are one voice in a sea of self-promotion, you had better speak up clearly when you finally get your chance to talk. … professional humility is dangerous … there are two kinds of errors.  Hubris is one; self-abasement is the other.

(I gotta say, all this “excess” honesty makes me proud to be an economist.)

Bryan apparently suggests that anyone who thinks they know how expert opinion differs from average opinion should, unless they are speaking to rare elites, forcefully push a unqualified version of that expert opinion.  “If you’ve ever taken a course in subject X, confidently declare oversimplified claims about X.”

But since most everyone can find excuses to consider their opinions relatively expert, this seems a recipe for making most everyone more overconfidence.  This hardly seems like getting people to “think for themselves,” and should we really encourage everyone to drop any pretense to reasonable open-minded discussion?

If we rank people on their socially-observable expertise on a topic, perhaps Bryan is right, and there is some critical expertise level above which people are underconfident when speaking to people below some other critical expertise level.  If so, how could we tell, what are these two critical levels, and does this apply to most experts, or mainly just to economics?

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  • Some Quick Stuff

    First, interesting quote from Overcoming Bias:
    Harry Truman famously longed for a one-handed economist, who would not say on one hand, on the other hand. When economists choose between communicating (a) nothing, or (…

  • eric

    It’s nice to think experts would straighten out the morons who vote, but the experts are not only wrong often, but insanely confident whilst being wrong. Thus you have busing, public housing skyscrapers (now all abandoned), or starting wars to promote democracy (because of course this leads to peace and prosperity). In the history of socialism, how many good academics turned a blind eye to communism’s insane evils (the Ukrainian forced famine was on par, if not greater, than the much more lamented Holocaust [I’m not denying the evilness of he holocaust]) because of the greater good? More trivially, I’ve seen global warming and homeless advocates admit the tension between telling the messy truth and telling little white lies for the greater good (saving the planet, after all!). But then yesterday’s white lies become dogma (3 million homeless?), and honest research that then would counter these dogmatic assertions are considered counter-revolutionary, and science is corrupted.

    Surely to win a debate based on a vote of the masses you should omit much and exaggerate much. Effective advocacy, like popular talk radio, is confident and unambiguous. But the idea that scientists should adopt this strategy when dealing with the hoi polloi is the genesis of Lysenkoism, a perversion of science that doesn’t deliver the goods: better policy.

    As a PhD, I arrogantly insist I have a different standard of truth and good rhetoric, and consort in my mind with the great men of the past to whom I feel kinship thru their writings. We believe a scientist because he can substantiate his remarks, not because he is eloquent and forcible in his enunciation. In fact, we distrust him when he seems to be influencing us by his manner.

  • Russ 2000

    I vote the way experts tell me to vote because it feels good.

  • David J. Balan

    It is already the case that a great many students who take an introductory economics course believe they have learned that the virtues of markets are such that economic interventions of the kinds supported by lots and lots of mainstream economists (whether for the purpose of correcting market failures, for redistribution, or for paternalism) must somehow necessarily be a bad idea. If teachers started acting the way Bryan says, this would be even worse.

  • This is a difficult business, because when one is an official “expert,” this indeed can lead one to be all too certain that one’s views on matters within one’s professional expertise are correct, and thus one can end up preaching “without qualification.”

    As someone who also lectures on economics, I have tried to go the other way, to present “all sides” when I perceive there to be competing views within the profession on matters. I even go out of my way to try to conceal my own views on which side is correct, even when I have strong views about which one is, although sometimes I confess to not doing so, usually on matters where I am in disagreement with what is received conventional wisdom of the profession, which may mean that I am being biased in an inappropriate manner. But in general I am more likely to make a strong effort to “make the best case” for positions that I disagree with in these presentations, out of what may be a misguided effort at “even=handedness.”

    Although I in fact have some very strong views on lots of things, in 30 years of teaching, I have never had a student in evaluations ever accuse me of preaching to a class about my own political views or pushing a particular ideology. Of course this may simply mean that I have been very sneaky and tricky about my efforts to brainwash my victims…

  • Many problems require a variety of expertise. So we see expert climatologists strongly recommending various actions to forestall global warming, even though they lack expertise in economics, technology forecasting, or risk preference.

    I have Bryan’s book in my queue and am looking forward to it, but do not expect to agree with his argument (as far as I’ve seen it) that we should put ourselves in the hands of “experts” 🙂

  • I’m reminded of Stephen Schneider: “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Deploy a few easy to understand numerical qualifiers before giving an expert opinion; things like
    “70 % of the time, government interventions in markets make problems worse” or “nine times out of ten, something that looks approximately like perfect competition behaves as if it was”.

    If they’re not able to quantify their judgement (at least approximately), then they have no basis claiming to be experts.

    Experts should only deploy pure advocacy when the numerical data is of the type that the public consistently misinterprets, like very small probabilites. Rounding 99,99% to 100% is justified in most cases.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    If we rank people on their socially-observable expertize on a topic, perhaps Bryan is right, and there is some critical expertize level above which people are underconfident when speaking to people below some other critical expertize level. If so, how could we tell, what are these two critical levels,

    I think that model’s a bit too schematic and formal to be usefull. Experts probably need to look at these situations case by case – why do their certainties not precolate down to the general public? What is their audience, and how should they tailor their message to it? Just reminding experts that there are degrees of knowledge and prejudice in the world, and that they need to think about them, would help a lot.

    and does this apply to most experts, or mainly just to economics?
    In maths, it’s brutal. Some mathematicians seem physically unable to utter a statement without attaching all the caveats and pre-conditions that go along with it, even if their audience can’t understand those.

  • It’s hard to see how underconfidence is the best description of what’s going wrong. I’d say a better description would be that economists are talking mainly to other economists. They know it’s hard to get reputational advantages from discussing models of competition with laymen, so they stick to seeking reputational advantages from using descriptions that will impress other economists. The few exceptions to this pattern are either confident (overconfident?) of imitating Milton Friedman or Keynes, or are being altruists.
    I partly agree with Bryan’s advice for those who want to explain economics to non-economists. I will try to put more emphasis on the slogan “incentives matter” when describing economics to non-economists.
    But I don’t agree that presenting unqualified models of perfect competition will be effective. That approach causes too many laymen to reject economics entirely. My alternative is to point out that beliefs about the degree of competition matter for some important policy disputes, so it’s important to have accurate opinions about the degree of competition that exists, and it’s obvious from the political disagreements we see that many people get their beliefs about competition from their ideology rather than from evidence.

  • Stuart, while I see your point, mathematics is not like reality. In reality, standard conditions can be assumed; the audience does not need to be told the Earth is round. (Note how I don’t say the Earth is “approximately spherical” – damn, guess I blew it.) But in mathematics, the conditions are assumed into existence, not the defaults of anything. A mathematical statement that doesn’t include all necessary preconditions is simply false. Also, meaning no offense to pure mathematicians, I have never yet heard a life-or-death political issue that did not involve the application of math to some physical condition whose defaults could be assumed. And who, even on Fox News, would be dumb enough to argue with a mathematician about mathematics? – don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.

  • One area where I very definitely make loud statements involves areas where I am aware that the public is wildly ignorant about actual data. Matters of what are the best policy are matters of debate, but when one knows that something like 45% percent of the public believes that the largest item in the federal budget is either foreign aid or welfare or a majority of people think that Saddam Hussein was behind al Qaeda, or that if social security were to “go bankrupt” in 2041, old people would receive less in real terms from the system than old people do now, I am motivated to be a bit more direct.

    Oh, you believe that last one, about social security? Hah! The starting payments are indexed by wages. The current mid-line forecasts that have the system “going bankrupt” in 2041 have wages then at about 170% of what they are now. The bankruptcy would entail a sudden decline to about 71% of the payments, a number widely publicized. However, very few people know that this is 71% of about 170%, which comes out to being greater than 100%.

    Two years ago, three colleagues and I did a survey of our students at James Madison, about 250, most of them economics majors. They were asked in seven different classes about what they thought the payment would be if “the system goes bankrupt as forecast” as a percentage of what retirees get now. They were offered four options: zero, zero to 50%, 50-100%, and above 100% (the correct answer). A class in game theory said zero. Five of the remaining classes had majorities saying zero to 50%. One class had a majority saying 50-100% (an environmental econ class). Not one student knew the correct answer.

    Anyone who wants can check out the details of the survey on my website at http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb. Look for “Student ignorance about social security.” So, I will often lecture students about their ignorance about social security, given that I know they really are massively ignorant.

  • Doug S.

    That 170% is in inflation-adjusted dollars, right? Since the median wage for men in the United States hasn’t budged since the 1970s (the median wage for women has increased but doesn’t equal that of men), I wonder how realistic that assumption actually is? Current trends have labor’s share of income decreasing.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    mathematics is not like reality.
    Shush! Don’t let the people find out about that.

    A mathematical statement that doesn’t include all necessary preconditions is simply false.
    I do take your point, and I was only providing mathematicians as an example I personally knew about. But there are lots of sciences were statements without the preconditions are false (such as omitting “ignoring quantum effects” when talking about general relativity). Mathematics has axioms and theorems, science has “if these conditions hold, these are the results”. For an un-expert audience, and for someone lecturing to that audience, the difference is not significant.

    In fact, in my (WARNING: ANECDOTE) experience, physicists and engineers are those most able to overcome their urge to caveat every statement. Mathematicians and economists are the worst. There’s different cultures in each discipline, and part of that culture is how to argue amongst yourself, and how to talk to non-experts.

  • Doug S.,

    Yes, inflation-adjusted. Of course if wages go up less than forecast, the payments will go up less rapidly, which means the system will not “go bankrupt” as soon.

    The more absurd problem is that the projections that have been made by the Social Security Administration have been wildly pessimistic. Reality has done better in the last ten years than what was projected by their supposedly “optimistic” projection. But they have not altered their projections at all in the face of this. As it is, if the current optimistic projection holds, and for that matter something considerably less good than the optimistic projection, the system never runs a deficit (the mid-range forecast has deficits appearing in 2017) and certainly never goes bankrupt. So, probably this whole discussion of bankruptcy is nonsense, although few people realize this because the media just repeats endlessly the mid-range projection as a fixed fact, even though it has totally flopped over the last ten years.

  • Doug S.

    Predicting the economic future accurately seems to be roughly impossible; is it therefore best to use the heuristic “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it” regarding the impact of policies on events 30 years from now?

  • eric

    Weren’t most economists for third-way planning in the 50’s, justifying India’s sclerotic infrastructure? Wasn’t Africa’s move from colonialism accompanied by lots of economists clap-trap about infant industries, etc? And wasn’t Adenauer’s removal of price controls in West Germany, or the growth of the ‘five tigers’ in Asia, completely outside of academic economics. Weren’t most economists sure that ‘fiscal policy’ would A smooth out investment cycles and B sustain sufficient investment that would otherwise falter?

    Bottom line: the ‘economic consensus’ has been meaningfully wrong on the big issues for a long long time.

  • I am going to be bad and point out certain unpleasant details of the case I have brought up, which only happens to involve the largest item in the US federal budget and an awful lot of inaccurate and half-baked commentary. I do this because I think this is an example of “experts” not only misleading people, but doing so consciously, partly to satisfy a strongly entrenched norm to obey the misleading story of the day. I happen to know from personal conversation, that many of these experts know better in private discussion, but never admit this publicly.

    So, how did we get into this absurd situation? I happen to think money and power lie behind it, surprise surprise, particulary very big and bipartisan Wall Street money, which gives the whole thing the establishment aura and patina that convinces established media bloviaters to prattle on and on about what really appears to be a nonexistent “crisis,” with the “experts” arriving en masse to provide their various “solutions.”

    It goes back to 1997 when Wall Streeter Robert Rubin was Treasury Secretary under Dem prez, Clinton. That person appoints the board of the Social Security Administration, its Trustees, who issue these annual reports. Wall Street firms would love to have social security privatized, at least to some extent. We are talking billions of dollars a year, here serious money. So, Rubin’s appointees came up with the projections that were crap that are still used today, “crisis!” eeeeek! etc. Of course Bush has supported privatization for ideological reasons since he first ran for Congress back in 1976, so his Treasury Secretaries have found it convenient to simply continue with what Rubin started, this bipartisan theme becoming so established that no respectable economist will publicly state what is known privately to pretty much all of them that have really looked at the subject, that these projections are pretty ridiculous, and that the probability that the system will even run a deficit anytime in the remote future is low. But it is so socially entrenched that one must say “there is a crisis” that every major economics adviser of every major Dem prez candidate agrees with this drivel, even though the Dem base does not want the system screwed with.

    This is one of those cases where the supposedly dumb voters may be smarter, or at least more in tune with an honest assessment, than the supposed experts.

    If you are reading this, Bryan, C., do you have any commment? (I realize, Bryan, that you do not like the social security system for ideological reasons, but that is another matter. It aint’ broke, and it don’t need no fixin’.)

  • Stuart Armstrong

    the ‘economic consensus’ has been meaningfully wrong on the big issues for a long long time.

    But that just makes it more important for economists to clearly explain their position. We’ll never be able to see when they’re wrong if they do the “on the one hand… on the other hand routine.” Anyone who claims to be an expert should be obliged to behave like one – with confident, clear claims. The success and failure of these will be the judge.