Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Economics and the Environment: Social Science Denialism

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Perhaps you have seen the following photo making the rounds and accumulating likes on Facebook.


My guess is that people like it because it gives some arguments for their belief that we should be closer to the “Environment” side of “Economy vs Environment” than we currently are. I would say this conclusion is at least reasonable (if not definitely correct), but that most arguments made for it are wrong, and that people should hesitate more to accept bad arguments in support of a pre-existing conclusion.

What are all claims packed into these four short sentences?

1) Unchangeable things are better / higher status / deserve more respect. Things we invented are less important and should be changed.

I don’t know if anyone really believes this when it is stated in its general form like this. I’m sure you can think of many invented things (penicillin, the Internet) you like better than many non-invented things (Lampreys, malaria). You probably have a neutral feeling about most physical constants (speed of light), often wish changeable things would stay the same (how happy we are in this wonderful moment), and perhaps even wish things would move from seeming unchangeable to changeable (all people get old and sick and die).

2) Since we invented the economy, there are no economic laws analogous to physical laws.

Invented-ness has nothing to do with it. Imagine saying that since we invented cars, they don’t need to obey the laws of physics. He just gets through explaining that our biological human nature is unchangeable, then implies there are no economic laws, that all economic interactions are changeable. Well, economic laws come from human nature. Some go even deeper: the law of demand emerges from rational agents with budget constraints (monkeys can qualify, or even computer programs with randomly generated preferences). Game theory is widely used by biologists and ecologists to describe the economic behavior of animals.

3) People sicken and die from ignoring biological laws, but not economic ones

Human lifespans more than doubled with the advent of the modern economy [if you haven’t seen the Hans Rosling video linked there, watch it now, it is way more informative than reading this]. Attempts to form communes while ignoring economic incentives have caused great sickness and death from the 1600’s US to 20th century Russia and China.

4) Environmentalism and Economic Prosperity are Opposed

There is a lot of truth to this; in many areas the tradeoff exists: shale oil vs clean water, jungle vs farmland, saving eagles or Africans. But economic science and environmental science agree more than you might think. Part of this is because people associate economic prosperity with GDP, but what economists actually want to maximize is people’s happiness, and we know that this comes both from GDP and a nice environment. Another part is that economists agree the world is over-polluted due to externalities, and spend time coming up with potential solutions.

What bothers me more besides the specific wrong claims (and the attempt to lower the status of economics) is how quickly the very people who complain about “science denialism” will themselves engage in “social science denialism”, insisting their own armchair analyses of the costs, benefits and tradeoffs of environmental policies must be right as if there were no experts working on the problem. More broadly, it bothers me how readily people will ignore bad arguments from “their side”. As Yvain eloquently put it in another context:

The problem is that screwed-up ethics, no matter how much they save your skin in the immediate problem, are going to stick around. If [Suzuki] pushes bad philosophy, many of [his] readers are going to accept them because arguments are soldiers and we all have to stand up for [the environment]. And then we’re going to end up with a cohort of very politically active people whose zealous opinions on subtle moral questions are based on what argument allowed a blogger to sound most indignant fifteen years ago.


Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm

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