Day By Day

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Megan McArdle on Confirmation Bias

One of the most sensible commentators on the economy writes about the use and misuse of "science" in political and policy matters.
One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgements about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.  

But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect.  The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day.  We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices.  We're still doing this kind of science today....
Read the whole thing here.

The naive presumption underlying the Progressive movement has always been the faith that "science" in its various forms would invariably produce superior policy recommendations that could be implemented for the benefit of all. More than a century of experience with technocratic regimes should have disabused us of that notion and awakened us to the horrors that technocratic utilitarianism can produce, but still the Democratic Party and a sizable portion of the Republican establishment buys into the notion that government by credentialed experts is superior to democracy. The tendency of "experts" to find what they are looking for and to issue "scientific" pronouncements that simply confirm their own biases is an endemic problem that should remind us that science is a human undertaking and as such is susceptible to all human foibles.

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