Voice

Ideologues to social scientists: get off our lawn!!

As I've written before, I'm a big fan of Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites, and the argument contained therein that public distrust of elites and expertise more generally is at an all-time high.  

Two data points from my morning reads can highlight -- but not prove -- this trend.  Exhibit A is a fascinaing column by Gillian Terzis in The New Inquiry on the persistence of superstar economists since the 2008 financial crisis.  What caught my attention:

E]conomists have not only retained their prominence in the years since the global financial crisis; they have expanded it. Media-savvy economists have only grown in number, disseminating nuggets of user-friendly economic theory and technocratic liberalism in newspaper columns, blogs, and econo-centric podcasts. Krugman, along with Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Taleb, and Jeffrey Sachs have become household names as swaggering political pundits....

With economists becoming mainstream personalities, their econospeak is worming its way deeper into everyday language. Our money is as easily invested as our time: remember to “calculate” your “opportunity cost.” Emotions are “inefficient”: try not to have any. Choosing a restaurant necessarily invokes a “cost-benefit analysis.” Steering the course of one’s life is necessarily about making the right decisions at the right time. And the time for this linguistic evolution is right. In an age of laissez-faire capitalism and precarious labor, what are individuals and corporations doing, if not constantly “re-establishing themselves” as “market players?”....

Underlying all these examples is the idea that a perfunctory understanding of economics, it seems, is society’s best attempt at a code of justice amid endemic institutional dysfunction in political and legislative frameworks. As such, the quotidian economist presents himself (most often, it is a “he”) to audiences as above and beyond the realm of trifling matters like ideology or politics. The everyday economist goes out of his way to portray economics as a social science untouched by politics and ignorant of historical context. But such an approach is at a deliberate remove from the complexity and the uncertainties of modern life. It suggests that because humans are rational thinkers, then our actions can always be predicted, or at least reduced into theoretical epigrams.  And so mainstream economics affirms itself as the discipline with an answer to everything, even when financial crises repeatedly underscore the gap between theory and praxis....

Metaphors may make for a great pull-quote, but too often they perpetuate causal simplification. Everyone is assumed to act in a certain fashion under a specified set of conditions, holding all other variables constant. Oversimplifying economic phenomena ignores possible failures and contingencies: how does one account for empathy, altruism, irrationality? Surely, politics must play a part; surely there are objects — sentimental talismans, or the right to decent shelter — to which no market value can be ascribed. It’s beyond the remit of economics to care....

In the online marketplace of ideas, the influence of a few celebrity economists creates an illusion of scarcity of new, heterodox voices. Yet now more than ever, to prevent costly and irreparable policy errors, economics needs its crowded-out Cassandras.

This is such an extreme mixture of fascinating analysis and total bulls**t that your humble blogger really needs to step back and gaze in awe at it.  A big problem with Terzis's analysis is that the very "celebrity ecconomists" she cites -- Roubini, Taleb, Stiglitz -- were precisely the economists who were the Cassandras prior to 2008.  One would assume that a public intellectual ecosystem that rewards critics who provided trenchant criticism is a good thing.  Lamenting their rise seems... odd. 

Except that it isn't for Terzis, because she objects to the very idea of a social science that tries to drain the complexity out of modern life in order to model it.  Which is a fancy way of saying she objects to social science in principle -- because without simplifying reality a lot, it's simply impossible to model or explain it.  In essence, Terzis' argument is that modern society is sooooo complex that radical uncertainty can't be eliminated -- so don't bother. 

Terzis is coming at this from a Karl Polanyi-esque place on the left.  Meanwhile, on the right, John Podhoretz looks at yesterday's polling in the 2012 presidential race, throws up his hands, and basically says, "Bah!! Numbers!!"

Mark it down on your calendars: Yesterday — Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 — may go down in the annals of history as the day political polling died.

It was the most ridiculous polling day among many preposterous polling days in the course of this long campaign...

The disparity in these numbers and their trends are so broad that even the cautionary method of adding them all together and averaging them out — best done by the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” — makes little sense....

Pollsters themselves, when challenged on their stats, say they’re just presenting a snapshot of public opinion. Fine, but these snapshots are wildly distorted.

The key hidden fact is that fewer than one in 10 respond to those who try to poll them.

People who screen their calls, hang up on people they don’t know or end the survey because they don’t have time to take it make up more than 90 percent of those phoned by pollsters.

Then there are issues with cellphone users and those who communicate pretty much solely by texts and e-mail, and the like.

All we can be sure of, in the words of the peerless Internet humorist Iowahawk, “political poll results accurately reflect the opinions of the weirdo 9 percent who agree to participate in political polls.”

What yesterday proved is that all bets are off. We’re judging the state of this contest with junk data, and we need to stop. Until pollsters can figure out how to avoid all these crazy mood swings and white noise, they should be put on political and pundit probation.

Yeah!!  Until pollsters learn to avoid... um... statistical variance... um... they shouldn't do statistics.  And get off my lawn!!

Podhoretz raises some useful points here -- omitting cell phones does introduce a possible bias into polls, and the possible sample bias of low response rates.  Podhoretz's core complaint, however, is both deeper and pretty friggin' absurd -- there's too much variance!! Stop the madness!!

The whole basis of statistics is that one is attempting to determine what a population thinks by looking at a small sample of that population.  Such an exercise inherently introduces variance in interpreting the results.  One day of particularly wide variance does not spell doom for the polling enterprise.  Indeed, as a poll-watcher, what's been striking this election season is not the variance in the poll numbers but the relative lack of it compared to past elections.  Both candidates' post-convention "bounces" were modest compared to past elections, and the numbers were pretty constant for a pretty long period of time during the summer. 

Look, I get that social scientists are easy to mock and ridicule, and Lord knows, we make mistakes.  Acknowledging fundamental levels of uncertainty and unknowability is a healthy thing to do.  Going from that acknowledgement to rejecting the enterprise of social science entirely -- as both Terzi and Podhoretz do in their essays -- is really, really stupid. 

Now get off my lawn.

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