Empiricism and humility

Here is a Noah Smith post on those topics, and here is Adam Ozimek, both responding to Russ Roberts.  Rather than adjudicate the varying points of view here, I will stress some points of my own:

1. The political process does not select for humble versions of empiricism.  Those end up with virtually no political influence, whereas some of the more dogmatic form of empiricism may find some traction.

2. A lot of the bias in empirical methods comes simply from which questions are asked/answered.  Post Trump and De Vos, I see plenty of commentators and researchers reporting “vouchers don’t raise test scores” and virtually no “vouchers increase parental satisfaction.”  Is that empiricism?  In isolation, maybe.  In terms of reflecting the broader spirit of science, not so much.  It is also not humility.

3. I also see bias in terms of framing and contextualizing.  One empirical result is “over a short time horizon, a $15 minimum wage in Seattle hasn’t destroyed many jobs.”  Another empirical result is “rises in the prices of inputs virtually always lower input demand, with larger effects over longer time horizons.”  There is also “non-pecuniary factors of jobs adjust downward, in response to wage minimums, thereby removing the benefits for the workers from the wage hike.”  One side claims the mantle of empiricism with #1, the other side claims the mantle of empiricism with #2 and #3.  Overall the course of that debate does make me more skeptical about “empiricism as we find it,” though not about proper empiricism.  And note that the scholarly division of labor does in fact give any particular individual a sufficient excuse not to be doing the task of overall synthesis.

4. I find a very common pattern among both researchers and commentators.  They first form broadly empirical judgments about social systems, based on overall views of history, current politics (too much), and some of their relatively general empirical judgments, such as whether elasticities are large or small, or the relative crookedness of politicians vs. businesspeople, or the relative competence of voters, and so on.  Those are empirical judgments, though usually in non-formal, non-directly testable ways, and also inter-smushed with ethical judgments, for better or worse.

They then view very particular empirical debates through the broader lenses they have chosen.  For instance, views on politics used to correlate with views on the interest elasticity of money demand.  Today views on politics correlate with views on minimum wage elasticity, and so on.

It’s the kind of empiricism outlined in the first paragraph of #4 that has the greater predictive value for beliefs.  Furthermore it is sometimes (not always) the more important form of empiricism for settling many questions of policy.

5. I am sympathetic with the view that the broader empiricism outlined at the top of #4 is overused.  Yet many of the critics of that broad approach simply wish to protect the presuppositions of the academic status quo from being disrupted by the possibility of other broad paradigms.  In other words, I worry that criticizing “ideology” is too often a means of cementing in the dominant ideology in academia (and journalism), rather than an actual critique of ideology.

6. Most generally, humility is always scarcer than one might think.  Perhaps that should be one of Cowen’s Laws.


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