Expert Consensus Versus Lay Opinion

There is a fact that ordinary intellectuals and common folk do not know. There has long been a near-unanimous consensus among the experts in any field, on many broad fundamental issues. When I often say that journalists are idiots or that Indian non-fiction is terrible, or some such thing, people think that this is a sweeping generalization, or based on my narrow, limited experiences. But, they seem to have no clue. People, again, deny this because they have no idea of what I mean. The quotes given below are indicative. These are true facts denied by a large majority of intellectuals and virtually the whole of the common public. But, virtually everyone who has reviewed the literature tend to agree:

“Six conclusions regarding tests of cognitive ability, drawn from the classical tradition, that are by now beyond significant technical dispute: 1.) There is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ. 2.) All standardized tests of academic aptitude or achievement measure this general factor to some degree, but IQ tests expressly designed for that purpose measure it most accurately. 3.) IQ scores match, to a first degree, whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent or smart in ordinary language. 4.) IQ scores are stable, although not perfectly so, over much of a person’s life. 5.) Properly administered IQ tests are not demonstrably biased against social, economic, ethnic, or racial groups. 6.) Cognitive ability is substantially heritable, apparently no less than 40 percent and no more than 80 percent.”—Charles Murray, Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve

“Lawrence Summers offered, as an interesting though unproved possibility, that innate sex differences might explain why so few women are on science and engineering faculties. To judge from the subsequent furor, one might conclude that Mr. Summers was advancing a radical idea backed only by personal anecdotes and a fringe of cranks. In truth, it is the other way around. If you were to query all the scholars who deal professionally with data about the cognitive repertoires of men and women, all but a fringe would accept that the sexes are different, and that genes are clearly implicated.”—Charles Murray, Sex Education at Harvard

“For decades the public has been exposed mostly to the pessimistic view, a view fueled by a constant stream of bad news and doomsday pre­dictions about resources and the environment emanating from individuals, environmental groups, and the media. one finds a wide spectrum of environmental viewpoints ranging from the doomsday pessimists to the Pollyannish optimists. Most environmental professionals do not subscribe to either extreme but hold highly nuanced and contingent views of these complex subjects. Yet among the nonexpert public the dominant impression is clearly pes­simistic, as the result mostly of media exaggeration. The extreme pessimism about the environment is not justified by science, by economics, by demographics, or by history.  Although most environmental chemists were appropriately cir­cumspect in describing their findings, environmental writers and the media increasingly sensationalize the issue.”—The Real Environmental Crisis, Hollander, Jack M.

“All resources are limited. The longer run, however, is a different story. The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time. There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely. Many people find it difficult to accept this economic argument. Dwindling resources, increasing pollution, starvation and misery–all this seems inevitable unless we curb population growth or otherwise cut back consumption of natural resources. The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths. Progress is limited largely by the availability of trained workers. In the long run the basic forces influencing the state of humanity and its progress are a) the number of people who are alive to consume, but also to produce goods and knowledge; and b) the level of wealth. Those are the great variables which control the advance of civilization. That is the science of the matter. The consensus of scholars of these subjects is on the side of the view which I just gave you. This is now quite the opposite of a single lone voice.”—Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource

“Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parents barely affect their children’s prospects. If parents gave themselves a big break—or redoubled their efforts—kids would turn out about the same. Before you dismiss this claim as crazy, imagine you adopt a baby girl and raise her to adulthood. Who do you think she will resemble more by the time she graduates from high school: Her biological parents, or you? I don’t just mean physical resemblance; I’m also talking about smarts, personality, achievements, values, and so on. Can you honestly say you’d be shocked if your adopted daughter had a lot more in common with the strangers who conceived her than she did with you? You don’t have to merely imagine this scenario. It’s been done—repeatedly. A small army of researchers has compared adoptees to their relatives—biological and adopted. They find that when adopted children are young, they resemble both the adopted relatives they see every day and the biological relatives they’ve never met. However, as adopted children grow up, the story has a shocking twist: Resemblance to biological relatives remains, but resemblance to adopted relatives mostly fades away. Studies that compare identical to fraternal twins reach the same conclusion. When I say “the best available evidence,” I’m not talking about a handful of studies that are slightly less bogus than the competition. The best available evidence on the nature-nurture question is excellent. Twin and adoption studies aren’t quite as good as controlled laboratory experiments, but many are close. Thousands of research papers have applied these methods to hundreds of controversial questions. They reach an amazing consensus about what counts for kids.”—Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids

“Transfer of learning is universally accepted as the ultimate aim of teaching. However, achieving this goal is one of teaching’s most formidable problems. Researchers have been more successful in showing how people fail to transfer learning  than they have been in producing it, and teachers and employers alike bemoan students’ inability to use what they have learned. Despite the importance of transfer of learning, research findings over the past nine decades clearly show that as individuals, and as educational institutions, we have failed to achieve  transfer of learning on any significant level. For education to be effective, then, curricula must be designed with our eyes focused on transfer of learning, particularly for poorer students. For as Carl Bereiter observes “transfer is usually poorest with students who need it most.” And I should add, they need it most because they are poorest at transfer.”—Transfer Of Learning, Robert Haskell

Most of the disagreement among economists concerns “macroeconomics,’” which deals with nationwide or worldwide phenomena such as inflation, unemployment, and economic growth. Adherents of the various “schools” disagree a lot. Some of their disagreements reflect different judgments about the relative importance of, say, inflation versus unemployment. Others stem from basic disagreement on the ability of government policy to affect the total economy in predictable ways. Macroeconomics. however, is only a small part of the total science of economics. The vast majority of economic questions, and pubic policy issues fall in the realm of what is called microeconomics. And the vast majority of economists agree on the underlying economics of most micro issues, including rent controls, minimum wages, and the need to reduce pollution. Some may disagree on the policy implications of the analysis, but remarkably few disagree on the analysis itself. That economists agree on most micro issues became clear in the late seventies when the American Economic Review, the world’s largest-circulation economics journal, published an opinion poll of 211 economists. The poll found that 98 percent agreed with the statement “A ceding on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.” Similarly, 90 percent of economists agreed that “a minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers,” And 97 percent agreed with the statement “Tariffs and Import quotas reduce general economic welfare.” So why do people think economists disagree about everything? One reason Is that the media present all economic issues as if they are inherently controversial. The issues themselves are controversial, but the economics of the issues more often are not, A journalist writing a piece on free trade versus protectionism, for example, would be hard put to find an economist who will defend protectionism (economists know that free trade virtually always improves a nation’s economic well-being) But many journalists feel compelled to get “‘the other side” and present a “balanced view.” So they go to economists who work for protectionist interest groups like the National Association of Manufacturers or the AFL-CIO to get an opinion against free trade. Or they turn to a business person or labor leader whose industry faces tough competition from imports. The result is that readers and viewers get the false impression that economists are divided on free trade.”— Fortune Concise Encyclopaedia Of Economics

“Non-health-policy experts are probably shocked to hear my claims. Most students in my eight years of teaching health economics have simply not believed me, even after a semester of reviewing the evidence. Heroic medicine is just too central to our culture, a culture where economists like me have far less authority than doctors. Worse, even most standard textbooks in health economics fail to make the point clearly. Children are told that medicine is the reason we live longer than our ancestors, and our media tell us constantly of promising medical advances. Millions of doctors are well aware that most medical journal articles describe gains from particular medical treatments, and these doctors usually give patients optimistic views about particular treatments. In contrast, few doctors know that historians think medicine has played at best a minor role in our increased lifespans over the centuries. And only a few health policy experts now know about the dozens of studies of the aggregate health effects of medicine. Worse, these studies can seem muddled, with some showing positive, some showing negative, and some showing neutral effects of medicine on health. So I want to say loudly and clearly what has yet to be said loudly and clearly enough: In the aggregate, variations in medical spending usually show no statistically significant medical effect on health.”—Robin Hanson, Cut Medicine In Half

To be honest, when Robin Hanson first told me his views on health care, I thought he was a lone nut. A brilliant lone nut, but a lone nut nonetheless. Still, my conversations with Robin inspired me to grill every health expert I came across, and with time I came to realize the Shocking Truth: Robin’s views on the health benefits of medicine were quite mainstream. Robin’s unique contribution was not in his beliefs, but in the fact that he thought that his beliefs mattered for health policy. “Oh, everyone knows this stuff already.” But if that’s true, why aren’t there any presidential candidates eager to shout: “We need to drastically cut health care spending; half of it doesn’t do any good anyway”? The answer’s obvious: Their candidacies would go down in flames. Almost everyone who has looked at the data knows this stuff. But experts are tiny minority – and only a tiny minority of this tiny minority is eager to emphasize lessons that the world doesn’t want to hear.—Bryan Caplan, How Contrarian Is The Hansonian View of Medicine?

“Teachers like to think that no matter how useless their lessons appear, they are “teaching their students how to think.”  Under the heading of “Transfer of Learning,” educational psychologists have spent over a century looking for evidence that this sort of learning actually occurs.   The results are decidedly negative.  Learning is highly specific.  One decent summary: Transfer is especially important to learning theory and educational practice because very often the kinds of transfer hoped for do not occur. The classic investigation of this was conducted by the renowned educational psychologist E. L. Thorndike in the first decades of the 20th century. Thorndike examined the proposition that studies of Latin disciplined the mind, preparing people for better performance in other subject matters. Comparing the performance in other academic subjects of students who had taken Latin with those who had not, Thorndike (1923) found no advantage of Latin studies whatsoever. In other experiments, Thorndike and Woodworth (1901) sought, and generally failed to find, positive impact of one sort of learning on another. Thorndike’s early and troubling findings have reemerged again and again in other investigations.”—Bryan Caplan, Low Transfer Of Learning

A naïve view of the beneficence of democracy has long since been ripped apart by public choice economics. Honest empirical work on the democracy => growth causal link suggests that the effect is basically nil. In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery why democracy works even in the mediocre fashion that it does work, in view of rational voter ignorance, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, and other public choice insights, and I think the explanation of the mystery has a lot to do with overlapping webs of altruism among fellow nationals. –Nathan Smith, Why Nations Fail, A Contrarian Take

“On any economic issue where foreigners are involved, the public tends to see exploitation rather than mutually advantageous trade. Most of the public claims that “companies sending jobs overseas” is a “major reason” why the economy is not doing better; very few economists agree. The same holds for immigration: most economists see it as a non-problem, but almost no non-economists concur. Similarly, even though economists have often criticized foreign aid, few see it as a serious problem for the U.S. economy, for the simple reason that foreign aid is a miniscule fraction of the federal budget. A large majority of the public, in contrast, sees foreign aid as a heavy drain on donor economies. Unlike economists, the general public almost sees employment as an end in itself, a outlook Bastiat  memorably derided as “Sisyphism.” They are accordingly distressed when jobs are lost for almost any reason. Economists, in contrast, see progress whenever the economy manages to produce the same output with fewer workers.Economists generally view downsizing as good for the economy, an idea non-economists utterly reject. Economists do not worry about technological unemployment; the public takes this possibility fairly seriously. Non-economists tend to attribute higher prices to conspiracies rather than market forces. In a similar vein, economists see profits and executive pay as vital incentives for good performance. Most of the public, in contrast, looks upon the current level of profits and executive pay as a drag on economic performance. Economists think that economic conditions have improved and will continue to do so. The public sees almost the opposite pattern: they hold that living standards declined over the past two decades, and doubt whether the next generation will be more prosperous than the current one. In addition, the public thinks the economy is beset by severe problems that most economists see as manageable: the deficit, welfare dependency, and high taxes, to take three examples. Some critics point to economists’ self-serving bias.  Economists have large incomes and high job security. But, income level has no effect on economic beliefs at all, and job security only a minor one. High-income non-economists with tenure think like normal members of the public, not economists. Other critics point to economists’ conservative ideological bias. The truth, though, is that the typical economist is a moderate Democrat. Controlling for party identification and ideology tends if anything to increase the size of the belief gap between economists and the public.”—Bryan Caplan, Economists Versus the Public on Economic Policy

“Political scientists have documented, for example, that roughly half of United States citizens do not know that each state has two senators, and only a quarter realize that senators serve six-year terms. It is hard to see how voters can hold politicians accountable for their performance if they do not even know who did what for how long. Valuable as such study of narrowly political illiteracy is, I believe it only hits the tip of the iceberg. The primary activity of modern governments is to determine economic policies: which services the government supplies itself and which it leaves to private markets, how open the economy is to foreign trade, what regulations to impose. Even if voters knew our constitutional structure and their representatives’ voting records by heart, intelligent policies would be unlikely to emerge if a large fraction of voters suffered from economic illiteracy. Unfortunately, a large fraction of voters do suffer from economic illiteracy. Indeed, it is fair to say that an ample majority does not understand the basics of how markets work. The problem is not that voters lack thorough expertise in economics, or make an occasional careless error. We still call someone “literate” even if they misspell a word every now and then. Most voters lack elementary understanding of economics.”—Bryan Caplan, Straight Talk About Economic Literacy

“The trouble with hitting children, they tell you, is that it will make them more aggressive. The logic is persuasive. By spanking your child, you are providing him or her with a model of aggressive behavior. You are teaching your child that it’s okay to hurt people in order to make them do what you want. For many years I believed this story and, in good faith, passed it on to the readers of my child development textbooks. I didn’t notice that we also provide children with models for many other things that we don’t want them to do and that they don’t in fact do, such as leaving the house whenever they feel like it. And models for many things that we want them to do but they don’t do, such as eating broccoli. Asian Americans and African Americans tend to pay less attention to European-American advice-givers and hence are less averse to spanking a child. It is middle-class European Americans who currently abjure the use of spankings and who favor instead the use of time-outs. Perhaps the white people are too credulous. Most of the research on punishment—the research on which the advice-givers base their advice—is as worthless as Judith Wallerstein’s study of the children of divorce. One of the reasons it is worthless is that researchers often fail to take into account the subcultural differences in child-rearing styles. Middle-class white kids are spanked less and also tend to be less aggressive, so if a study lumps together kids from middle-class white neighborhoods with kids from low-income black neighborhoods, the researchers are almost guaranteed to find a correlation between spanking and aggressiveness. Their hopes will be dashed, however, if they include too many Asian Americans among their subjects, because these parents do use physical punishment but they don’t have aggressive kids. They aren’t talking about genes. They hardly ever do. I don’t know why. If you backed them into a corner, very few of them would deny that psychological characteristics are in part inherited, which means passed from parents to children. But somehow they are able to block this understanding from their minds when they do their research and write it up for publication. I’ve been speaking of physical punishment within the normal range—an ordinary spanking from time to time. Surely I’m not crazy enough to tell you that punishment beyond the normal range—the physical abuse of children—has no lasting psychological effects on its victims? No, not that crazy. For one thing, severe abuse can produce physical injury—including brain damage—with long-lasting or permanent effects. Another possible long-term consequence is posttraumatic stress disorder. But we are looking here at a very wide range of parental behaviors. For abuse not severe enough to produce either of these results, it is not clear to me that there are any psychological effects that children  take with them when they leave home. There may be, but there is no conclusive evidence of it.”—Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption

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