Monday, April 17, 2017

Why Physicists Have It Easier Than Economists

H.L. Mencken

From Don Boudreaux:

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:
Today’s “Notable & Quotable” reminds me of what is nearly the identical point made 77 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his essay ‘The Politician’: “The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache.  After trying a few shots of it on his customers, the larval statesman concludes sadly that it must hurt them, and after that he taps a more humane keg, and in a little while the whole audience is singing ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah,’ and when the returns come in the candidate is on his way to the White House.”*
Mencken was on to something important.  If
science is the process of revealing the details of reality and making plain that these are never optional, politics is the practice of masking reality’s details and assuring the masses that their fondest fantasies, no matter how absurd, will all come true if only the state is invested with more power.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030
* H.L. Mencken, “The Politician,” as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949); p. 149.
The hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, have a relatively easy time of it.  These sciences deal with comparatively simple phenomena of a sort that we humans are evolved to take note of with a reasonable amount of objectivity.  Jumping naked off a cliff will always cause you to fall so quickly to the ground that, if your leap is from a height of more than a few feet and onto a solid surface, you will splatter and die.  Always.  Taking six apples from a bag filled with ten apples will leave only four apples remaining in that bag.  Always.
In contrast, economics and other social sciences, when done properly, deal with astonishingly complex phenomena.  Most of the consequences of any given social action are more distant in space and time than we humans are evolved to notice.  For example, the destruction of jobs by minimum-wage legislation is not easily seen by those who have never been fitted with the lenses of sound economics.  Ditto for the bulk of the benefits of international trade.
Consequences and events so difficult to see are easily ignored or denied even when they are pointed out.  Because of social-reality’s complexity, people who long to do so can hang on to their fond wishes, their treasured beliefs, and their fun fantasies.  Our understanding of social reality is much more a stubborn product of the tales that we tell ourselves than is our understanding of physical reality.
This fact does not mean that all beliefs about social reality are valid.  Most beliefs about social reality are, in fact, quite mistaken.  But the epistemological reality that we are stuck with is that even the most wrong-headed beliefs about social reality are very easy to cling to for those who cherish them.
The above originally appeared at Cafe Hayek.


  1. Physicists and Engineers deal with very complicated phenomena all of the time. They just are honest about what they don't know, while many economists will yell you they know what they don't.

    1. Re: David T,

      If there's one thing about which scientists and engineers are NOT honest about, is knowing economics. They will always tell you what's best for the world and us stoopid, selfish rubes.

    2. I came here to state the same. There are some very complicated failures to analyze. Effects that carry through multiple parts. By the time they get to the media they are oversimplified and the company portrayed as evil and trying to save a buck.

    3. Haha, an engineer will say he doesn't know? I must be working with the only ones that don't.

    4. LOL. My point is that in physical phenomena, there are many engineering simplifications that aren't hidden. And physicists will tell you how inaccurate their hurricane path predictions are because they are a statistical model of a very complex system. These aren't hidden. Some economists, though, think they can predict the time, location, and direction of every financial hurricane and that they know how to stop it by strategically putting up a large wall of fans to change it's direction.

    5. Didn't mean to hit delete on my previous comment. My point is that the unknowns in science are not hidden. While in economics, the unknowns seem to be hidden by all but Austrians.

    6. There are many examples of those involved in the hard sciences being dishonest. The Climate Change argument is the most apparent.

      One distinct difference between social sciences and hard sciences is how they are used by the State and how the State uses them to justify their use of force.

      The more complex the system the more difficult it is to draw conclusions from evidence, the more difficult it is to devise equations and models. Human nature is quite complex.

      I made this comment in a prior post: An economic "expert" can be found for just about every economic theory. The more statist the more experts can be found.

    7. That's definitely true. Hard sciences can be used for political purposes as well, such as with eugenics, climate change, etc. Of course "real" science has no motive, just like honest economics, but it is true the more complex the system, the easier it is to produce any result you want.