Teaching Ignorance

It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings

Economics is important. So the world could use more of it. In the same sense, ignorance of economics is even more important. That is, the world could even more use a better understanding of how ignorant it is about economics. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve had a chance to see how folks like computer scientists, philosophers, futurists, and novelists think (in separate situations) when their work overlaps with areas where economists have great expertise. And what usually happens is that such folks just apply their ordinary intuitions on social behavior, without even noticing that they could ask or read economists to get more expert views. Which often leads them to make big avoidable mistakes, as these intuitions are often badly mistaken.

Yes, even folks who do realize that economists know more may not have the time to ask about or learn economics. But it seems that usually most people don’t even notice that they don’t know. Their subconscious quickly and naturally supplies them with subtly varying expectations on a wide range of social behaviors, and they don’t even notice that these intuitions might be wrong or incomplete. Which leads me to wonder: how do people ever realize that they don’t know physics, or accounting, or medicine?

Most people throw and move objects often, and have strong intuitions about such things. And if physics was only about such mechanics, I’d guess most people also wouldn’t realize that they don’t know physics. So it seems that a key is that “physics” is also associated with a bunch of big words and strange complex objects with which people don’t feel familiar. People hear words like “voltage” or “momentum”, or see inside cars or refrigerators, and they realize they don’t know what these words mean, or what how those devices work.

Similarly for accounting and medicine, I’d guess that it is a wide use and awareness of strange and complex accounting terms and calculations, and strange and complex medical devices and treatments, that suggest to people that there must be experts in those fields. And even in economics, when people realize that they don’t know where money comes from, or which of many possible auction designs is better, they do turn to economists to learn more.

Kids often learn early on of the existence of specialized knowledge, from the existence of specialized language and complex devices. Kids like to show off by finding excuses to use specialized words, and showing that they can do unusual things with complex devices. And then other kids learn to see the related areas as those with specialized expertise.

So I’d guess that what the world most needs on economics is to get more kids to show off by using specialized concepts like “diminishing returns” and complex devices like auctions. And then they need to hear that this same “economics” can be used to work out good way to do lots of social things, from buying and selling to voting to law to marriage. It is not so much that the world actually needs more kids using these concepts and devices. The important thing is to create a general impression that there are specialists for these topics.

The biggest obstacle to this plan, I’d guess, is that naive social science infuses too much of the rest of what kids are taught. Various history and “social studies” classes use naive social intuitions to explain major world events, and novels are read and discussed as if the naive social science they use is reasonable. Those who like using these things to push social agendas would object strongly to teaching instead that, e.g., you usually can’t figure out who are the bad guys in key historical events without complex economic analysis.

So the bottom line is that people don’t use enough econ because econ tends to conflict with the things people want to believe about the social world. Even teaching people that they are ignorant of econ conflicts, alas.

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