This is a follow-up question to Why do economists disagree so much?

I know little about economics - just enough to know that it's a complex field I don't understand. However I see economic arguments in the media quite often. Since I don't understand economics, how should I make sense of the economics politicians might argue?

For example, in the Scottish independence debate, there are people who say Scotland is economically better off independent and people who say the reverse. Clearly they can't both be right. Ubiquitous's answer in the linked question indicates that this difference in opinion is because we aren't sure what will happen after Scottish independence, and the two camps make different assumptions as to what is more likely. Well and good, but that doesn't tell me how to vote (assuming economics is my main concern).

Hence the question: given that I can't evaluate economic arguments myself, how can I tell who to vote for? Is there a way to tell if a certain view is more fringe than the other? Can I just count the number of economists with a certain view? Can I go by fame? Popularity? Or just flip a coin?

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    $\begingroup$ How is that different from any other field? $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Jun 5 '18 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker in other fields, experts disagree less (e.g. safety of nuclear power) or it comes down to personal values (e.g. Ireland's legalization of abortion). $\endgroup$ – Allure Jun 5 '18 at 3:54

For most purposes, economics is not effectively understood in 10-second segments or catchy phrases used by politicians.

Generally, a willingness to openly acknowledge that something is complex, and to acknowledge merit to empirical evidence and/or ethical argumentation on multiple sides of a debate, is a good indication that what follows has at least some merit. Presentation of an issue which is preoccupied with fun-sounding insults, or promoting black/white thinking on a question, is unlikely to be based on quality analysis.

Differentiating between acknowledgment of complexity, as opposed to obfuscation, is also important. If complexity is acknowledged and some other analysis claims "ah HA, you admit you don't know, stooopid, because you said it's complex", then don't pay any attention to the people producing the second 'analysis', unless wanting to understand the nature of their manipulation.

Another strong indicator for a non-expert to guess at the quality of arguments is the transparency in who funds the research. If there is no disclosure of the funding, the research output should be treated as worthless unless you have specific abilities to understand the analytical methods and data inputs. An independent researcher may explicitly declare that no external funding was provided, as compared with someone paid to produce a pre-determined result who may not disclose anything. Disclosing funding sources at least allows a non-expert to observe that the conclusion does or does not align with whoever paid for it. This can be gamed, but a couple minutes of online research should most often be sufficient to determine if it's likely to be BS -- compare a) a web search ending with unnamed corporations or funding organizations with no detail about who/what/when/why of some front organization, and no ability to contact any person from the front organization, as opposed to b) a web search that leads you to a named organization registered in a specific jurisdiction with a named board of directors and an explicit mission statement.

Also, this is fundamentally not an economics question. The thematic area is more "how can a non-expert evaluate any expert claim?"


I'm afraid economists can offer little guidance on that issue. Apart from the fact that you ask an implicit normative question (how should people behave?) where most economists tend to be positivists, there is no clear answer to your question.

As unsatisfying as that may seem it is actually quite common in science as Michael Greinecker pointed out, and people deal with it on a daily basis.

As an example: suppose you wanted to plan an outdoor party in roughly two weeks, so you check the weather reports, to pick the best day. There is a good chance that these will differ per source you consult, and if you'd asked any of them which day you should pick they would give different answers. Does that prevent you from setting a date? Probably not. How did you pick the date? You tell me, but you probably used the advice of the person you trusted most or the advice that most weather(wo)men agreed on. It's much the same in economics. We agree on first principles and general predictions, but making precise predictions far into the future is difficult.

About the only way in science and economics to make long term predictions is relying on long-term averages (or similar techniques) but these predictions are by their construction very general. Again an anology: is climate change a real thing and can we predict average temperature increases under different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions? Yes, and relatively precisely at that. Can we predict the exact weather two weeks from now? No, and we probably never will.

Similarly we can predict that there will be a lot of economic turmoil if Scotland became independent (especially if they rejoined or stayed in the EU) because of all the laws and border issues that would have to be clarified, but predicting with great certainty wether the net effect is positive or negative is hard to impossible.

Perhaps economists should put up disclaimers at such predictions (some of them probably do) but then again we don't do that for weather reports either.

  • $\begingroup$ We don't usually have to vote based on weather predictions though. I don't actually remember much science debated in public policy. Things like the global warming controversy and water fluoridation controversy have clear scientific consensus. Others such as controlling tobacco don't actually deal with science, since the science on the health effects of tobacco is well established. $\endgroup$ – Allure Jun 6 '18 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Allure: unfortunately most of the economics issues that you have to vote on (this or that program) are like predicting the weather next month. Except for obviously horribly ideas, the effects are hard to predict. Look how long it took for a Clinton vs Trump CGE tax paper to get published. Now in primaries you have to chose between 20 candidates. Good luck scientifically evaluating all their economic proposals. $\endgroup$ – Fizz May 6 at 5:05

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