Economic Doctoring And Tradeoff Types

“Should economists be advocates or engineers?” asks Noah Smith. Tradeoffs reveal how reliably they perform as either.

Smith worries that his trade’s “engineering” aspects are being sacrificed for “political advocacy” (e.g. some economists act like “a free-market priesthood,” not as neutral experts). He cites Google’s “real secret sauce” to illustrate good econ-engineering: rock-star economist Hal Varian, who designed their profusely profitable ad auctioning system.

Great, but how else are economists like engineers? Consider “tradeoffs”: Most economists believe “that there is a tradeoff between prosperity and income equality.” Yet the IMF finds “no observed tradeoff between [redistribution] and… economic growth.” Do engineers have such disputes?

1. Mechanistic tradeoffs: Engineering has direct iron-law tradeoffs, like car weight vs. fuel efficiency. Would cars built using economics-like tradeoffs be safe? When engineers don’t know why something works, they won’t build without knowing under what conditions it does.

2. Micro-deviancy: Microeconomics might have iron-law engineering-like tradeoffs, but engineering never uses components whose behaviors can deviate from prior patterns.

3. Macro-flip-flops: macroeconomics is even less engineering-like. Apparently economists may have gotten the “basic relationship” between interest rates and inflation “exactly wrong.”

4. Complexity-matched: Are economies like engines or bridges? No, they’re trickier. Not even climate systems or ecologies have parts that change behaviors as rapidly as people in markets.

7. Model tendencies: Models are relationships encoded. Despite well understood micro-level  relationships climate models aren’t great. Economic modellers face complexities compounded by weaker relationships. Thanks to multi-step cascading effects and diffusely coupled psychologically contingent behaviors, composite “tradeoffs” are likely indirect and unmechanistic. They’re tendencies not tradeoffs.

5. Economic doctoring: Economists are more like medics than engineers. Doctors don’t build what they work on; they have good science in some areas but much remains unknown.

6. Medieval doctrines: Despite having hyper-modern math-models, economists seemingly use medieval-medic-level doctrines. They grasp some basics (engineering-like bones and bleeding)  but few systemic “mechanisms” or treatments are known (and “diagnoses” always lead to bloodletting).

8. Ethics trading: To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult for people to advocate what their salary depends on them not advocating. Since political interests fund much economic research (e.g. Mercatus Center underwritten by "staunchly anti-regulatory” groups) are pre-commitments skewing research and interpretations? Just politics (and regulatory capture) “disguised as science”?

Good economists make clear their uncertainties, often nobody really knows (here, here). Socrates said, “Admitting ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.” Economists please wise up. 


Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.