February 07, 2010
Knowing is Half the Battle

Mike Munger ladles mockery upon Ezra Klein for his shock and dismay about politicians acting like politicians. This always brings me back to one of my favorite quotes, from Murray Rothbard:

"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a 'dismal science.' But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance."

I spend time in econ 101 talking about how understanding and applying the economic way of thinking is an important part of developing a good ethos. It raises a question about intellectual responsibility: if you're going to pontificate, what do you have a duty to know? Comments are open.

Posted by Art Carden at 09:14 PM in Economics

Comments

Rothbard's quote is one of my favorites, too. Nice post by Munger.

Posted by: Frank at February 7, 2010 09:31 PM

Being aware of one's vast ignorance is always useful - and if one is also aware that prices communicate a certain kind of knowledge, so much the better

Posted by: KMcC at February 7, 2010 09:36 PM

You have to have a basic understanding of the major arguments from both sides on the issue. If you've never heard that wages are related to productivity, then you shouldn't be arguing for the minimum wage.

Posted by: Josh Weil at February 8, 2010 04:20 AM

Arguing the science of any particular field, I think, should be more or less open. An argument should stand on its merits or fall from a lack of them, and it really shouldn't matter whether the arguer either seems qualified or quotes from authority or whatnot, because the medium for expression is inductive and/or deductive argument itself. I think an economist and a layman can have a reasonable discussion on whether minimum wage legislation raises the unemployment rate of low-wage workers with no worries about one being uninformed or not.

However, many things change when the argument is normative in nature. The real risk is when the uninformed argue that something is right or wrong in particular.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who warned against pontificating off your subject of expertise, giving the example that he always knew when someone was talking idiocy about language and linguistics because he was a philologist. This sort of uninformed moralizing is unbelievably frequent: movie stars urge us that climate change is a moral imperative, pastors tell their flock not to buy t-shirts from malaysia because it hurts malaysians, journalists clamor for justice in the economy or justice in science where their expertise is truly in investigation and narrative.

Posted by: Chris A at February 8, 2010 11:43 AM

I would say never pontificate unless you can back up your argument. In all other cases, it is perfectly acceptable to discuss with an open mind, or even argue for a specific point, but always with a sense of intellectual humility.

Go ahead and argue for things you don't know about, but acknowledge your limitations. If I argue a point I'm not qualified to argue, I offer my argument with the caveat that I may be wrong.

If people (were taught to) start with a sense of intellectual humility and honesty, they would be able to learn more, and arguments would be more civil and productive.

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Posted by: Lot@ at February 9, 2010 03:16 PM

I think we should encourage people when they finally figure out correct ideas, even though they should have known better and it is frustrating that it took so long.

Encouragement is a better teaching tool than blame.

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