Treatment of Economics v. Physicists: Doubting Gravity

Robin Hanson thinks we economists are poorly treated:

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 see the same pattern with my students – they’ll easily believe physics claims, but are very reluctant to entertain standard economics claims.

This is an odd example as the employment effect from a higher minimum wage is hotly debated within the economics profession. Kevin Drum counters:

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.

Well said, but let’s consider a standard claim often made by physicists – and not Robin’s example of 11 dimensions. If a physicist talked about gravity, how many students would jump off the top of the tallest building on campus just to prove the professor wrong? But let’s see what set Robin off:

the public having four big biases: an anti-foreign bias, a make-work bias, an anti-market bias, and a pessimistic bias.

He points to Bryan Caplan and Arnold Kling for more discussion. Caplan and Kling are arguing that economic literacy means one should recognize without question that there are gains from trade. Maybe it would help if we economists made this argument in a less dogmatic way as it is rather obvious to the common man that movements towards free trade harm some individuals just as it helps others.

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