Political Animal

Blinded by Science

BLINDED BY SCIENCE….I read two posts today about the (generally poor) state of scientific knowledge of the masses. First, Megan McArdle:

It’s dangerous that our humanities students are so alienated from the scientific way of thought that they can’t evaluate science on its own terms. You don’t need to be able to run a study yourself — but you should understand the limits of experimental design, how data is used to build a case, and the frameworks of almost-sciences like economics that will let you understand where economists pronouncements are likely to be pretty solid (rent control) and where they’re likely to be personal opinions dressed up as facts (tax policy).

We can’t all be scientists, but we can, most of us, understand the scientific way of thinking. And since the scientific way of thinking is what’s building most of the science that’s building our world, and should be constructing the economic thought we expect to make us all richer, we’d better be able to follow it or we risk being led around by the nose.

I’m pretty sympathetic to this thought, but even so I can’t help but wonder: is the “scientific way” of thinking really as important as she suggests? On the one hand, my experience in business leads me to think that it is: an inability to seriously analyze a set of numbers ? and understand their limitations ? is a real problem for an awful lot of people.

But it can cripple you as well. Libertarians, for example, frequently espouse the peculiar notion that their philosophy is somehow more “scientific” than others, failing to understand that (a) it isn’t, and (b) deciding how society should be structured isn’t a scientific question anyway. A scientific mindset is an excellent thing to have if you are addressing a problem susceptible to numerical analysis, but it’s an albatross if you use it to analyze everything that comes across your plate.

There’s another problem here as well: the level of discourse on topics like economics or environmental science is carried on at such a high level that it’s simply impossible for laymen to evaluate the evidence and the models themselves. We have to rely on experts, and so we end up making decisions based not so much on the evidence as on which experts we trust. There may be some level of analytic ability that’s useful in distinguishing real experts from bullshit experts, but there’s also a distinct limit to how far that gets you.

The second post is from David Appell’s Quark Soup, where he complains about a science writer who didn’t understand a simple concept from physics:

It’s far too acceptable in our society to profess ignorance of even basic scientific concepts (and this one is taught the first week of high school physics). Yet no person would be considered educated if they did not recognize certain key passages from Shakespeare, if they knew nothing of the Russian Revolution, or understood the concept of, say, supply and demand. Understanding the basic concept of gravitational acceleration falls into the same category–and one can’t make a utilitarian argument, since they all have about the same degree of usefulness.

I’m not sure what to think of this. Once again my inclination is to agree, but when I step back I find myself wondering if this is really right. There are hundreds of important disciplines around, and it’s unrealistic to expect most people to have more than a passing familiarity with anything but a handful of them. I know about gravitational acceleration, but I know nothing about ballet or opera. My sister is the opposite. Which one of us is a moron?

Still, from a “cultural literacy” point of view you could argue that there are certain key aspects of science that everyone should know about. But which ones? A knowledge of Shakespeare is helpful because allusions to Shakespeare are all around us, and you miss out on a lot if you don’t understand them. Which scientific concepts have the same utility in helping us understand normal public discourse? Any ideas?

Attention Gays: Your Role is to Protect Heterosexuals From Themselves

ATTENTION GAYS: YOUR ROLE IS TO PROTECT HETEROSEXUALS FROM THEMSELVES….The most breathtaking abuse of the slippery slope argument I’ve ever seen is on display today in Stanley Kurtz’s NRO article about incest, homosexuality, and adultery. First he starts with incest:

To see the mechanism of our incest taboo at work, imagine a world in which consensual adult incest was legal. Once we see or hear of couples ? even a relatively small number ? who engage in legal, consensual, adult incestuous relationships, the whole idea of incest with minors becomes thinkable. Preventing incest with minors from becoming thinkable is the purpose of the taboo.

I’m pretty sure that the problem of adult incest is pretty tiny in any case, but does Kurtz seriously think that acceptance of adult incest would actually lead to acceptance of child abuse? What on earth leads him to believe that?

But this is just a warmup anyway, leading directly to his real argument: homosexuality, and in particular gay marriage, will lead via a slippery slope to more adultery among straight people. No, really:

Above all, marriage is protected by the ethos of monogamy ? and by the associated taboo against adultery. The real danger of gay marriage is that it will undermine the taboo on adultery, thereby destroying the final bastion protecting marriage: the ethos of monogamy.

Is he serious? The reason to oppose gay marriage is because it’s the only thing that keeps all us heterosexuals from cheating on our wives?

Men have been cheating on their wives since the dawn of marriage itself, and the popularity of this activity has stayed high through thick and thin. If Stanley Kurtz thinks that adultery has been under control all this time but will suddenly overwhelm society if gays are allowed to get married ? well, he’s living in a different universe than I am.

Is this really the best that NRO can do to try and convince libertarians that it’s OK to be a Republican?

School Choice

SCHOOL CHOICE….I’ve written a few posts recently about education ? this is mostly a coincidence, I assure you, not a sudden new crusade of mine ? and even went so far in one of them as to wonder if math should be a required subject beyond sixth grade. This suggestion was, ahem, poorly received.

However, the prize for audacity in educational reform ideas must now go to Scott Martens of Pedantry, who suggests today that the answer to improving our schools is….to stop making kids go to school. Make it optional. And let the kids themselves make the choice.

Yowza! This is tentatively going onto my Top Ten List of All-Time Worst Ideas, but I sure have to give Scott credit for willingness to rock the boat. There’s nothing like a little sacred cow bashing to get people to listen!

The funny thing is that the reason I so strongly disagree with Scott is not the obvious one: his assertion that most people don’t actually learn much in school beyond basic literacy and numeracy. I suspect he’s right about that for about two-thirds of high school students.

Rather, my disagreement is on the subject of socialization. Aside from learning the various things that schools teach ? and in the end it may not matter all that much what those subjects are ? schools serve a critical function in instilling habits: you have to show up every day, you have to sit at your desk quietly, and you have to do what the teacher tells you. This enforced regimentation, of course, is what most people hate so much about school, but the unpleasant fact is that it’s also one of the most important roles that schools play.

Kids who don’t get this kind of discipline end up being unable to survive at practically any job available in the modern world, and this is becoming more true, not less, as blue collar jobs decline and the service economy grows. It’s practically impossible to instill the discipline necessary to succeed at an office job unless it’s done at a very young age, so kids who opted out of school would essentially be doomed to a lifetime of menial jobs or complete unemployment.

Scott is quite right to suggest that schools would be infinitely better if the 10% of extreme troublemakers all left. Unfortunately, this improvement would come at the cost of creating an even larger pool of unemployable people than we have now, and the societal costs of that would be large indeed. It’s a bad idea.


TAXES….On Monday I wrote a post that made two points about the U.S. economy since World War II: (a) tax rates on the rich have steadily declined and (b) overall growth rates have also steadily declined.

As I said in comments to that post, my point was not really to claim that declining taxes on the rich have caused slowing growth. Rather, it was to show that declining taxes on the rich certainly haven’t accelerated growth, as conservative economists keep promising. In fact, within a fairly broad range, tax rates have very little impact on economic growth.

Here’s a thought experiment: design any personal tax system you want. You can decide whether it’s an income tax or a consumption tax, you can decide what kinds of exemptions are allowed, etc. When you’re done, you’ll have your very own ideal tax system designed for maximum efficiency and economic growth, and you’ll have one job left: you have to set the tax rates themselves on various income groups. The only restriction is that they have to raise enough money to fund whatever government operations you also have in your ideal world.

Given that the actual rates (i.e., flat vs. progrssive) don’t have much impact on economic efficiency, the only real reason to choose one set of rates over another is based on what you think is fair and equitable. There’s no such thing as a “neutral” system, either. You have to choose rates of some kind, and any set of rates you choose is a reflection not of economic arguments, but of philosophic ones.

My view is that a progressive tax system is best, for reasons of basic equity and fairness. Why? I’ll leave that for another post, but for now I just wanted to make a point that often gets hijacked by lengthy discussions of economic minutiae: in reality, tax rates are a reflection of what we value in a civil, democratic society. That’s what the argument should be about, and we shouldn’t allow partisans ? either conservative or liberal ? to avoid the subject by pretending that their proposals are nothing more than neutral arguments about economic growth. It’s just smoke and mirrors to take our minds off what’s really important, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it.