The Voodoo Sciences

Jerry Pournelle reprints and oldie but goodie of his from 1988.

As he says, it's still relavent... The Voodoo Sciences

"I wouldn't know anything about politics," my friend said the other day. "I'm only an engineer."

He happens to be a very good engineer, but he named his profession as if he were ashamed of it. I see this a lot. The social scientists are automatically assumed to know more about society and politics than the hard scientists - even when the subject matter is something like nuclear power.

I wouldn't be so sure.

During the Reagan Years we heard a lot about "voodoo economics." The term was usually employed by Democrats in reference to President Reagan's economic policies, but I've also heard professional economists use the term "voodoo economics" in a way that implies there is a real science of economics in contrast to "Reaganomics."

Certainly the official policy is that economics is a science. We have by law a Council of Economic Advisors to report to the president, while the Congress has its own staff of economists to tell them what they should do.

From all the evidence I've seen, we'd do as well to give the president a Council of Voodoo Practitioners, and let the Congress consult its Chief Astrologer. In fact, I suspect that a chief hungan and mambo would do less harm than our present economists: we'd be less likely to take them seriously. However much our Chief Voodoo Advisor protested that his work was scientific, we'd demand some kind of track record, some evidence that his predictions might once in a while come true; while we impose no such burdens on economists, which is just as well, since their track record is one of universally dismal failure.

One of the first things they teach stockbrokers is to stay out of the stock market. Brokers make their pile from selling advice, and from commissions on stock transactions. They can't predict the market, and few risk their own money. They, at least, only affect their clients' fortunes. Economists, though, can ruin the lot of us with their advice - yet if no science can predict a relatively closed system like the stock market, how the devil are you going to "fine tune" something a large as the American economy? I'd think it arrogant to try; as arrogant as the man with three illiterate drug-addicted spoiled brats writing a book on parenting.

But there's worse to come: to the extent that there is a "science of economics," its practitioners must behave in ways that other professions would brand unethical. Example: The Corporate Economist of a large aircraft company is going to give a speech. He has made his analysis (cast lots? examined tea leaves?) and he foresees nothing but bad news. We're in a 'downside cycle' and ain't much to be done about it. So he goes to a meeting of, say, the airline owners, and of course when asked for his predictions he gives his honest professional opinion.

In a pig's eye, he does. If he told what he thinks is the truth, he'd be fired. Worse, the Securities and Exchange Commission would look at all his financial records and possibly charge him with manipulating the value of his company's stock. It would be sure to fall, and if he'd prudently sold any shares recently he would likely go to jail.

No: his speech is predictable. He'll give some nodding acknowledgement to current hard times, predict an upswing, and tell his audience they better be prepared to buy a lot of airplanes.

Dr. Milton Friedman has a Nobel Prize in economics; one assumes he must know something about the subject. He once said, "Every economist knows that minimum wages cause unemployment. That's not a principal, it's a definition."

The logic seems clear enough, at least when applied to home economics: if I can get the yard cut for a couple of bucks, I'll pay it; raise the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour, and I'll cut it myself. Whomever I'd have fired will go jobless.

Of course not all economists agree with that. After all, it's not only possible, but likely that the Nobel Prize in economics will go in alternate years to people who disagree on nearly everything fundamental. I have a textbook on macroeconomics, and every chapter essentially cancels out the last, as each "school" presents its theories - and proves the others wrong.

In point of fact, economists don't have the foggiest notion of what's wrong with our economy or what to do about it; and the very best economics textbooks have almost nothing to say about science, engineering, research, development, and technology.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recently said, "The collapse of economic forecasting, where experts generally disagree with each other and nearly all of them turn out wrong - a circumstance that, alas, discourage neither economists from making forecasts nor the rest of us from believing them."

So: will someone tell me what, other than one's political preferences, is the difference between "professional" and "voodoo" economics? And why we pay a Council of Economic Advisors while neglecting to have a Chief Astrologer?

Another excerpt:

Engineering students may apologize for deficiencies in "culture." The man who started the People's Lobby, the first of California's mass anti-nuclear groups, used to say proudly, "The only physics I ever took was Ex-Lax."

The fact is that engineers and scientists will have studied far more of the liberal arts than social scientists will have of physics or engineering. (And, alas, neither will know any history.)

Isn't it time we ended this farce? Granted, the social scientists have a tough subject matter; but it isn't made easier by involving us all in a conspiracy to act as if they had skills they just haven't got. It would be a lot easier to respect them if they made their students take hard courses: calculus through differential equations, real probability and statistics, operations research, basic computer science. Of course, it their students mastered these subjects, they'd probably get out of "social science" and into something useful. Meantime, though, they can stop trying to get the rest of us to act as if they know something we don't.

Jerry lays down a righteous cluebat!

Read the whole essay -- it is worth your time.

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on October 23, 2005 7:58 PM.

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