Whether there is a War on Science

Aside

Paul Krugman’s latest column is a species of the familiar lefty complaint that righties are anti-science.  His launching point is an interview in which Sen. Marco Rubio is asked how old earth is and says he doesn’t know, as he is not a scientist.  According to Krugman, Rubio’s “inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mindset that has taken over the GOP.”

Rational or anti-rational has nothing to do with it.  Rubio’s point is that he is not a scientist, and so hasn’t had occasion to systematically judge the evidence.  Over 90% of people, including over 90% of people who believe in a Republican “war on science,” do not form opinions on these matters by systematically examining the evidence, but by deciding what authorities to trust.*  There are “well-informed” people among these 90% who have glanced at evidence on culturally divisive matters, but this evidence comes pre-selected by entertainers they know are on their side, such Krugman.

***

How could it be otherwise?  I think certain things about DNA, atoms, the rate of acceleration of objects falling toward earth, etc., because authorities I consider reliable have informed me these things are, as best as anyone can tell, true.  You could also say I trust a process that has been institutionalized, known as Science, in which experimenters publish their results and others try to replicate them.  I don’t myself have to go and replicate experiments, because I know others are doing so.

So in part, I’m not relying on an appeal to authority of any person, but of a process I have evaluated rationally and decided it seems like it would work.  This is a process involving humans, and so is suspect.  You have to exercise discernment to distinguish cases where you’re getting mostly process from one’s where you’re getting a lot of human.  If I learned that a peer-reviewed study showed that people a pill has a certain side effect, or that smaller class sizes have a certain effect or lack of effect, I would take it with at least a grain of salt.  Everybody knows scientists are lazy, don’t check each other’s work very carefully, make assumptions that influence their results and so forth.  Yet this doesn’t prevent my being quite confident that things like equations governing the motion of planets, the wave-particle duality of light, cell splitting and the like are real, to the best of our current knowledge.

So this approach of trusting in a process can save us from the need for a pure appeal to authority.  It is not clear, however, that it can save Krugman’s argument.  Krugman and others like him never define terms like “rational,” “science” and “fact,” which they employ so freely.  They make no distinction between “scientific consensus” or opinion polls of scientists on the one hand, and Science itself on the other, science being a process whose very virtue is that it frees knowledge from the ever-present threat of intellectual consensus prejudice.

Not limiting the meaning of “science” allows them to treat any number of opinions as being as well-founded as Galileo’s discoveries, and their narrative of dogmatic, religious suppression of science allows them to tap into the mythic power of his martyrdom.  Not defining “fact” allows them to label opinions facts, while they also equivocate freely between right-wingers’ “war on science” and refusal to accept such “facts.”

Krugman starts with something that I don’t doubt is well-established, the age of earth, and by the end of the column is talking about a Congressional Research Service report on economic policies.  He wants us to associate the two.

***

In his “I am not a scientist” remarks, Rubio recognized science as the basis for determining earth’s age, but was unwilling to make a judgment between competing claims of what science says.**

How important is it to make such a judgment?  We sometimes ride airplanes on the assumption that certain laws of physics are true.  Actually, we don’t even know what these laws of physics are, let alone the evidence for them; we only assume that whatever they are, they can be taken as authoritative enough to justify getting on the airplane.  Similarly, we rely on medical researchers to know laws of biology.  All this happens through a Hayekian, I Pencil-like process, and rationalism, empiricism or any kind of conscious epistemology has humblingly little to do with it.  Once again we are trusting a process, and most people can’t even articulate their reasons for doing that.

Nevertheless, someone, somewhere, obviously has to know the relevant natural laws.  The age of the earth is not, however, a law of nature; it is an extrapolation of these laws back in time, combined with certain geological observations.  It is a discovery about what has happened in the past.  Krugman wonders how we can extract resources if schools have to give equal time to claims the earth is 6000 years old, or compete in biotechnology if biology classes cater to creationists, but the relevant question, as far as I can tell, is what laws of physics one expects to operate in the future, not extrapolations about their past operation.

***

If a science class actually teaches science, it has to start by treating scientific knowledge as questionable.  That includes evolution, heliocentrism, wave-particle duality of light, quantum physics***, etc.  Schools will have to tell kids how we know the things we know.  If they equip students to look at the evidence and draw sound conclusions, we don’t need to worry much that having them read challenges to these theories will corrupt and confuse the youth.

If a science class is just about teaching kids to take certain claims on authority, then of course a school might not want to legitimize a dissenting position with its authority by teaching multiple sides of an argument.  Yet kids are bound to discover the controversies when they get older, and will not be mentally equipped to handle them, and so will form opinions based only on which side of the culture war they identify with.

* One could, of course, take the position that the Bible says earth is 6000 years old, and this supercedes scientific evidence, which would be a kind of appeal to authority, but this is not what I am talking about.  I mean authorities on what the best science actually is.  Many, probably most young-earthers feel compelled to hedge their a priori bets (Bible supercedes science) with some claim for empirical support for their hypothesis.

** Elsewhere in the column, however, Krugman quotes Rubio calling the age of earth question “a dispute among theologians,” which contradicts Rubio’s implication here that it is a matter for science to settle.  The question is how far back we want to extrapolate the observable scientific laws.  Science can get us back to the Big Bang, but that’s about it.  It’s a question of when we think something happened arbitrarily to create the laws of physics, matter, energy, etc.  We don’t need to start with the Big Bang.  I might, for instance, believe the universe came into existence 12.7 seconds ago, but has operated under observable laws since then.  This seems wrong to me, for various pre-scientific reasons, as does the 6000-year-old earth.

*** Does God play dice with the universe?  Teach the controversy!

Advertisements

Demographics and the 2012 Election

“The white establishment is no longer the majority…the demographics are changing.  It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

“record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas…did win the election for him.”

These quotations, or something very close to them, could have come from just about any media source the week or so following the election.  Left-leaning journalists, officially neutral and otherwise, gleefully looked forward to a future in which old, angry white men died off, and their successors found themselves a minority in a country transformed along the lines of the progressive project.

The quotations came from Bill O’Reilly and Paul Ryan, however, and so have been treated as borderline racist.  Because O’Reilly and Ryan are pro-Romney, they are seen as blaming his loss on a rising brown menace, rather than crediting Obama’s win to a better and more diverse America, or neutrally describing Obama’s win as illustrating the GOP’s demographic doom.

***

The advice that the Republicans stop being the Party of old white people seems to assume some deliberate strategy on the part of Republicans to insure that their fate is tied to those 55 and older.  Silly Republicans!  Don’t they know their constituents are good for nothing except sitting around waiting to die so the more enlightened can take over?

I have seen people say that with the demographics of 1992, the Republicans would have won the 2012 election.  Yet it isn’t as if the Republicans pursued a 20 year strategy of seeking to dominate the white vote to make up for a shortfall among minorities to which they’d resigned themselves.  The GOP recognized back in the days of Bush/Rove that it would have a greater need for minority votes than had been the case in the past.  Bush got an unusually large share of the Hispanic vote in 2000, as I recall.  He then started shedding both white and Hispanic swing voters late in his term.*  You didn’t need demographics to explain the downturn in GOP fortunes in 2006 and ’08. By 2012, the GOP has become extremely successful with the white vote, especially the old white vote, while Democrats dominate among minorities.

One possible explanation is that white people on average want different policies than black and hispanic people do; Republicans have run up the score with white people by favoring policies white people favor and opposing those that black and hispanic people favor.

For simplified example, suppose the median white voter favors government spending x %GDP, while the median black/hispanic voter favors government spending x+5% GDP.  Democrats promise x+5%.  Republicans can offer x% and get half the white vote, plus a few white people who are closer to x than x+5.  The Democrats will win over half the hispanic vote.  Now suppose Republicans decide they want more votes.  If they decide to try to get more hispanic votes, what should they do?  Offer more than x, obviously.  If they want more white votes, what should they do?  Again, the solution is to offer more than x.

So that’s a difficulty in turning to policy disagreement as an explanation for recent white/hispanic polarization (Dems’ share of the black vote holds pretty steady); in cases where there’s middle ground, the political system will deliver it.  Genuine polarization would require that almost every hispanic favored bigger government than almost every white person, or that almost every hispanic was adamantly pro-choice and almost every white person was adamantly pro-life, or something similar along these lines.

***

Another explanation is cultural polarization.  This is more difficult to analyze without a bias.  For instance, most progressives considering the question feel there is a need for a special reason explaining why old white people vote Republican, whereas voting Democratic is natural.  They tend to explain white people’s Republican votes in terms of resentment of the rise of minorities- white people fear they are losing their country, the mantra goes.

If someone similarly argued that black and hispanic voters voted for racial reasons, this would be treated as racist.  The very questions that are permitted or expected (“why do whites vote Republican” versus “why do blacks/hispanics vote Democratic” or “why do men vote Republican” versus “why do women vote Democratic”) bias the analysis.

Yet we don’t need to turn to insulting explanations, as progressives do for white voting patterns, in order to conclude that racial identity plays a part in Democrats getting 75% of the hispanic vote and 100% of the black vote.  These groups may vote the way they do because they think many Americans are hostile to them, and that Republicans represent these voters.

For instance, whites and Hispanics aren’t polarized around immigration policy (some whites are for reform, while many Hispanics don’t see the issue as a top concern.)  However, a minority of whites care intensely about opposing immigration, and used their power with the GOP to prevent Congress from enacting Bush’s reform proposals.  As a result of the rhetoric of that debate, Hispanics may have come to see the GOP as representing hostility to them, rather than merely failing to advance a policy they liked.  The Arizona immigration law and other similar laws, the increasing prominence of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Minutemen, and 2012 GOP primary rhetoric all likely exacerbated the problem- border control is one thing, actively treating Hispanics as the enemy is quite another.

***

Similarly, of course, progressives’ often-expressed contempt for “angry old white men” may turn some people toward the GOP.  Whereas anti-black or anti-hispanic rhetoric is usually aimed at these entire groups, ridicule of “angry old white men” is often expressed by angry old white men, and is meant to refer only to a certain kind of white person.  Those who feel they are the target of these insults are obviously likely to vote against the Party that is identified with people who are waiting for them to die and get out of the way of Progress.

In a similar way, Bush-era conservative Republican rhetoric was aimed against effete, intellectual elitists.  For people with a college degree, opposing Bush and supporting Democrats becomes a way of expressing identity as a thoughtful, open, nuanced person.  Of course, political rhetoric and pre-existing cultural divides are mutually reinforcing; politics probably doesn’t create these divisions out of nowhere.

***

We don’t know how the country will polarize itself 20 or 50 years from now; I tend to assume Parties and factions will adjust to one another such that it will be about 50-50, with incumbents having a slight advantage in their ability to shape events, just as was the case in 2012 and 2004.  The relavent question is who the easiest marginal voter to get is in 2014 and 2016, and how to get him or her.

But notice that culturally polarized elections like 2000, 2004 and 2012 come only when no substantive differences are there to motivate people to vote.  By 2006, Iraq an obvious disaster, no longer ambiguous enough to serve as a cultural Rorschak test as it did in 2004.  In 2008, the economy was bad enough that people were obviously ready to slaughter the incumbent Party.  In 2010, voters rejected Pelosi-Obama’s health care agenda, worried about debt, opposed the auto and bank bailouts, wanted to punish the incumbent Party for the failure of its deficit-increasing stimulus to improve the economy, and acted accordingly.

In 2012, Romney did not really raise the issue of ObamaCare, and contrary to Republican fears, and Clinton’s valiant efforts at the DNC, Democrats left the issue of the Ryan budget largely alone, and were not able to use the issue to take back the House.  The election mostly wasn’t fought over the issues (social security, Medicare, medicaid, health care, budgets, taxes, including possible carbon taxes) that will actually decide our policy future.

Romney sought to win on the grounds that the economy was weak, mostly a contentless argument.  The really important short-term economic policy actions (auto and bank bailouts, stimulus) were all done, for better or worse.  The only one that was still an issue, the auto bailout, was one where Romney was now forced to play defense, as public opinion was against it by a smaller margin than in the past, and all the intensity was on Obama’s side.

Obama’s winning strategy was to watch as slight improvement mitigated the economy as a problem for him, argue that Romney would be even worse because he’d fired people at Bain Capital, and use the auto issue to win back the Midwest and form the centerpiece of a broader “it’s been a tough ride but ‘Merica doesn’t quit” narrative, and shape a culture war he could win to take attention off the economy.

I wouldn’t draw too many sweeping conclusions about the course of history from the 2012 election.

Paul Krugman-Ron Paul Showdown

Several months ago, Paul Krugman and Ron Paul debated economic policy. 

Here’s the rough flow, based on debate transcripts, with some artistic licensee, particularly regarding chronology of arguments, to create greater clarity. 

RP:

Status quo bad:

–         Gov’t should not run monetary policy, as it lacks adequate knowledge.

–         Gov’t intervention causes inflation, which takes from savers

o       Constitutes theft and is immoral

o       Leads to less saving, which leads to lack of capital, which leads to bad economy

–         Political harm: Fuels big gov’t. by preventing natural interest-rate signals to discourage politician irresponsibility.

Plan: Natural rate of interest as determined by the free market; solves knowledge problem.

PK:

Plan is impossible: Money includes variety of assets besides greenbacks; no bright-line between money and non-money.  Cannot bring back world of 150 years ago.

DA:  Depression

Link: Compelely unmanaged economy historically leads to extreme volatility

–         Great Depression as empirical proof

o       Spike: Gov’t caused depression- No it didn’t! [no warrant here from Krugman]

Uniqueness: Gov’t intervention prevents or shortens depression

–         Empirical proof: post-WWII policy success

Harms Mitigation: We’re nowhere near Japanese levels of debt, yet they carry their debt levels just fine.

Harm Turn: Destroying econ. makes us unable to afford debt we already have.

RP:

AT Plan is impossible:

–         Nothing modern about inflationary monetary policy.  Greeks and Romans did it.

o       Roman inflation fueled the welfare-warfare state, causing civilizational collapse and rampaging huns.  Rampaging huns is an independent voting issue

AT Depression DA:

Link turn: Fed caused Depression (Bernanke Admits)

AT uniqueness: Post-WWII boom comes after spending cuts- Keynesian intervention did not cause.

AT: Harms responses: Ability to carry debt works because world trusts our dollar, which just buys us time to create bigger bubble before bigger collapse if we don’t change our ways.  If we can just count on trust in our dollar, we shouldn’t even have to work- just print dollars and let people buy stuff.

PK:

Depression DA

Turn Back Link Turn: Great Depression: Fed caused Depression by not printing enough (Friedman)

AT: Rampaging Huns: I don’t defend Roman Imperial monetary policy.

RP

Depression DA

AT PK on Link: Still a gov’t fail

Inflation as Theft: Flow across

***

Analysis: Ron Paul’s attempt to apply the information problem argument to monetary policy never went anywhere.  That’s a shame, because one of the key disagreements between gold nuts and the economic mainstream seems to be whether anti-central planning arguments apply to fiscal and monetary policy; would have been interesting to see Krugman forced to respond.

Krugman didn’t really tell any kind of story about how a complete free market leads to economic instability, such as we experienced in late-19C.  The Depression is a battleground- in his initial spike, Krugman tries to deny that government caused the Depression, then he admits the Fed caused it, but by printing too little money.   Paul says all that matters is that the Fed caused it.  But his argument here is problematic- he doesn’t show why an absolute free market would have brought about a better result, and the argument complicates his impact stories and many of his other arguments, which are based on the idea that the Fed systematically prints too much money and that attempts to alleviate depression by loosening monetary policy are folly. 

The vulgar left-wing argument (free markets caused the Depression) is wrong, and Krugman shouldn’t have gone with it, but I don’t think Ron Paul generates any offense off the turn.  However, the problem is the exact opposite on the uniqueness argument.  Here Krugman points to post-WWII success under the status quo system, but Ron Paul points out that system kicked off the post-War boom by making free-market changes and cutting spending suddenly, which, as Tyler Cowen notes in his commentary on the debates, creates problems for the Keynesian Depression narrative. 

So Paul’s argument that the system’s failure led to the Depression is true only because the system didn’t deliver the results he says lead to disaster; and Krugman’s argument that the system’s success led to post-War prosperity is true only because the system didn’t act on his recommendations, and did act on some Ron Paul recommendations. 

Krugman loses the disadvantage on uniqueness takeout but, again, Congressman Paul doesn’t gain anything with his link turn.

As to the Representative’s own economic harms, they he explains why inflation can be bad, and why we can’t just count on the market’s confidence in the dollar, but doesn’t make clear why we’re on the brink.  Krugman makes a case for treating demand-side considerations as primary (Depression would prevent us from handling even the debt we have), while Paul argues for supply-side as primary (why don’t we just stop working altogether- the dollar will always be there!)  Yet Krugman does the better job dealing with the specific situation- other countries have had higher debt as %GDP and done fine.  Paul doesn’t directly answer this argument, or doesn’t make clear he is doing so.

He tries to pull across a moral anti-inflation argument, saying that government is immorally harming savers, but this relies on some excess inflation link stories that he just doesn’t tell enough, in my judgment. 

I have Krugman winning slightly.  (I treated Krugman as defending the status quo since he seems to come closer than Paul to doing so.)  As Cowen notes, it was closer than one would expect given that Krugman is a Nobel Laureate and Ron is an amateur dabbler. 

***

After the debate, Krugman threw a tantrum on his own blog, acting like he had lost and was being a sore loser, whining about how the format prevented him from allowing his Truth to show forth in all its brilliance.  “[Y]ou approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?)…So why did I do it?  Because I’m trying to publicize my book.”

This is highly dishonorable.  If you agree to debate someone, you can’t turn around and declare yourself too good for the process, your Fact and Truth too high to be cast before swine.  Once you put yourself on the line, there’s no hedging your bets. 

Moreover, did the format of the debate obviously prevented a highly technical discussion of data, but did it really force Krugman into the narrative BS he engaged in (“Great Depression was a failure of capitalism!”)?  Ron knocked that narrative down- why couldn’t Krugman have beaten some of Paul’s narratives as easily?  They were both dealing with the same format. 

One of Krugman’s most effective issues was when he alluded to data, without overwhelming us with it, about debt as %GDP being manageable.  One of Ron’s most effective arguments was when he cited facts to refute Krugman’s post-WWII narrative.  If he got facts wrong here, I don’t see why Krugman couldn’t have corrected him.  And in a blog post where he is without the encumbrances of a TV debate, he still doesn’t prove any of the Congressman’s facts wrong! 

Though there are highly technical cases for Keynesianism and its leading competitors, there’s also more narrative arguments that have a lot more to do with the success of schools of economic thought in persuading politicians and opinion leaders.  Krugman himself frequently goes the narrative route in his columns, to excess, as I have shown here.