Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Experts, Bloggers, and Public Discourse

An interesting post over at Crooked Timber on an article by Clive Crook on how blogs are ruining economic debate somehow manages to avoid most of the interesting questions raised by the question itself. The question about the effect of low-level, publicly available economic discourse becomes more interesting when one remembers a similar situation, early in the decade, involving global warming and the "Skeptical Environmentalist". Ironically, back then it was the economically-minded who tended to focus on disunities in the scientific arena on climate change.

Now, in economics, we see the authority of economic "experts" challenged by those whose familiarity with economic theory comes largely through the blog/editorials of Paul Krugman or Tyler Cohen. And personally, I'm receptive to the idea that these issues should be fought out by scientists and experts.
But I would feel much more comfortable in that opinion if I had more faith in the discipline of economics. It is clear that mainstream economic thinking should be doubted, but not clear how this should happen. In other words, the question is about the relation between experts and debates within a discipline and non-experts outside the discipline who feel the need to have an opinion on the pressing issues of our time.

One opinion might be that the "interference" of the public and the loss of credibility of economists is actually a valuable occurrence. One might view this as a necessary test of the strength of the prevailing views in economics, and argue that in the case of global warming, the test was successfully met by the scientific community of climatologists. Based on this perspective, these occasional clashes strengthen disciplines and create higher standards for debate. Economics will certainly emerge from this recession a different field, although if it will be a better one remains to be seen.

On the contrary, the potential consequences of involving the "masses" in expert debates seem problematic, based on the examples mentioned so far. On the one hand, having an informed public seems like a good thing, even if it tends to be informed in partisan, often irrational ways. On the other hand, at some point policy decisions need to be made based on some sort of expert knowledge. If the average layperson feels as though they not only disagree with the decision the government is making, but are also privy to a better understanding of the problem (through their favorite blogger) than the experts themselves, this might lead democratic leaders to shift their agendas. Or put off action on climate change until a scientific "consensus" is reached. While this phenomenon is nothing new, the increasing interconnectedness between "science" and policy makes this a pressing issue our democracy that other disciplines will probably also have to face in the future.

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