Economics vs. Physics Cage Match

ECONOMICS vs. PHYSICS CAGE MATCH….Robin Hanson complains about the media’s treatment of the economics profession:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying “Isn’t that cool!” But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to “balance” their story.

I wonder why he thinks this? Every article I’ve ever read about cutting edge physics (like superstring theory) includes loads of quotes from skeptics, as well as paragraph upon paragraph of musing about whether any of this stuff has any practical significance. It seems factually incorrect to suggest that reporters simply write about this stuff unquestioningly.

On the economic front, it’s true that most news reporting about the efficacy of the minimum wage is fairly balanced, but that’s because there’s solid economic evidence on both sides of the question. The overall effect of modest increases in the minimum wage is simply not a settled question among economists, which means that reporters should present both sides. And they do.

More generally, physics has a small number of moving parts and therefore tends to have more precise and unanimous answers on a broad array of topics. Economics is much more difficult and doesn’t have the same precision. What’s worse, economics deals with questions that often have important non-economic dimensions, which means that even when economists do agree on a “correct” answer, people may legitimately disagree with them for reasons of social justice, practicality, personal preference, or a hundred other things.

We all know the old joke about how many opinions you get if you put ten economists in a room. All things considered, it seems to me they get treated reasonably well (if not always very accurately) by the media.

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