Scientists are supposed to reach their conclusions after doing research and weighing the evidence but, in economics, conclusions can come first, with economists supporting a thesis that fits their moral worldview.
Two questions: is it good or bad that professional athletes earn 400 times what nurses do, and is string theory a dead end? Each question goes to the heart of its discipline. Yet while you probably answered the first, you’d hold an opinion on the prospects of string theory only if you’ve studied physics.
That annoys economists, who wonder why everyone feels free to join economic debates instead of leaving them to the experts, as they do with physics or medicine. What economists don’t usually admit is that, on a range of topics they examine, they often had an answer to the question before they began their studies. Scientists are supposed to reach their conclusions after doing research and weighing the evidence but, in economics, conclusions can come first, with economists gravitating towards a thesis that fits their moral worldview.
That shouldn’t surprise us. Economics has always been an ethical and social exercise, its purpose being to produce the rules by which a community organises its production. It’s not accidental that Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations (1776) is often seen as the founding text of economics, was a moral philosopher. Yet ever after, it was the holy grail of economists to make their art into a science, using it to uncover the codes supposedly buried in their heart of human existence. They experimented with mathematics and pondered Charles Darwin’s revolution in biology, but it would be the late 19th century before economics finally found a model for itself. It found it in physics.
Alfred Marshall, one of the architects of the ‘marginal revolution’ that gave birth to modern economics, no doubt had the predisposition that inclined him towards a physical view of the world. A former seminarian who enjoyed unwinding with long walks in the Scottish highlands, he was undoubtedly attracted to the view of a universe that was inherently orderly. Yet the marginalists had another reason to adopt the physical view of the world. Physics was then emerging as the most canonical of the sciences. As a model, it had no rival. Besides, with a few basic assumptions, the physical model seemed to transfer rather neatly to human behaviour.
Think, for example, of that high-school lesson on energy transfer. You stick a piece of hot iron into a bucket of cold water, steam rises, the rod cools, and the water warms until the two eventually reach the same temperature: equilibrium. Well, you can similarly think of the hot iron as a shopkeeper, the bucket of water as a customer, and energy as money. The item the shopkeeper has to sell is hot – everyone wants it – but, as a customer, your empty purse makes you a bucket of cold water. Either the shopkeeper drops the price to reach equilibrium with you, or waits until a hotter customer, one with a full wallet, enters the shop. That way, the handbag will sell at an equilibrium-price more pleasing to the shopkeeper.
That’s sort of how the marginalists conceived of market transactions. Some of the early marginalists went so far as to explicitly liken pleasure, or what they would call utility, to energy. From there, it was a short leap to say market transactions revealed the laws of nature. In the 1930s, Lionel Robbins laid down the basic commandments of the discipline when he said that the premises on which economics was founded followed from ‘deduction from simple assumptions reflecting very elementary facts of general experience’, and as such were ‘as universal as the laws of mathematics or mechanics, and as little capable of “suspension”’.
Ah yes, general experience. What did Albert Einstein allegedly say about common sense? A funny thing happened on its way to becoming a science: economics seldom tested its premises empirically. Only in recent years has there been serious investigation of its core assumptions and, all too often, they’ve been found wanting.
Unlike in physics, there are no universal and immutable laws of economics. You can’t will gravity out of existence. But as the recurrence of speculative bubbles shows, you can unleash ‘animal spirits’ so that human behaviour and prices themselves defy economic gravity. Change the social context – in economic parlance, change the incentive structure – and people will alter their behaviour to adapt to the new framework.
That’s something that ‘physics envy’ can’t capture – that the social nature of human beings makes any laws of behaviour tentative and contextual. In fact, the very term ‘social science’ is probably best seen as an oxymoron. In the early years of the neoclassical revival, in the 1970s, the Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief warned against the drift that had begun in economics towards what was subsequently called ‘physics envy’. Noting that human data differed from that in the natural sciences by its fluid nature, Leontief said that economists would do better to spend less time perfecting their mathematics, and more time getting down and dirty with their data.
However, he also acknowledged his warning would likely fall on deaf ears. The apogee of economic ‘scientism’ came in the 1990s, a decade in which economists such as Alan Greenspan were lionised as gurus, Bill Clinton was describing globalisation as a force of nature to which governments had to submit, and whizzkid experts such as Jeffrey Sachs were jetting into one country after another advising former communists how to re-align their countries with this presumed natural order.
Hindsight has revealed the misplaced hubris of that decade, one during which Greenspan helped to fuel a speculative bubble that nearly destroyed the world economy, and the Soviet Union’s failed reform knocked seven years off its life expectancy. Many economists, Sachs included, defend themselves on the grounds that their advice was not actually taken: bad politics got in the way of good economics.
But that only vindicates Leontief’s point. Economies are social constructs. That necessarily entails politics. Precisely because economic policies affect them so profoundly, people take much more interest in them than they do in physics debates. The method of economists at the turn of the century was to go through data-sets looking for patterns – economics at 30,000 feet (sometimes, literally). Had they instead taken Leontief’s advice, and spent more time on the ground getting to know their subjects, they might have been able to anticipate the ways that politics would affect their models.
Given this willful blindness, the current reaction against economists is understandable. In response, a ‘data revolution’ has prompted many economists to do more grunt work with their data, while engaging in public debates about the practicality of their work. Less science, more social. That is a recipe for an economics that might yet redeem the experts.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
‘IQ tests just measure how good you are at doing IQ tests.’ This is the argument that is almost always made when intelligence-testing is mentioned. It’s often promoted by people who are, otherwise, highly scientifically literate. You wouldn’t catch them arguing that climate change is a myth or that vaccines might cause autism. But saying that IQ tests are useless is just as wrong as these notions: in fact, decades of well-replicated research point to IQ tests as some of the most reliable and valid instruments in all of psychological science.
So what does an IQ test – which might consist of, for example, shape-based puzzles, timings of how quickly you can check through lists of meaningless symbols, memory tests, and vocabulary measures – actually tell you? The strongest correlation is perhaps unsurprising: an IQ score is highly predictive of how people will do in school. One large study found that IQ scores at age 11 correlated 0.8 (on a scale of -1 to 1) with school grades at age 16. Surely this gives us some basis for calling these measures ‘intelligence tests’. But that’s just the beginning: higher IQ scores are predictive of more occupational success, higher income, and better physical and mental health. Perhaps the most arresting finding is that IQ scores taken in childhood are predictive of mortality. Smarter people live longer, and this association is still there after controlling for social class.
Neuroscientists and geneticists have also made good progress in understanding human intelligence. Meta-analyses of hundreds of studies confirm that people with larger brains tend to get higher scores on IQ tests, and research on more specific brain regions and features continues apace. We know from studies of twins, and from studies done directly on DNA, that intelligence test scores are heritable: a substantial portion of the intelligence differences between people are due to genetics. We’ve already begun to find some of the specific genes that might be responsible for these differences, and further findings are on the way.
People make the mistake of assuming that intelligence is immutable because it has been linked to genetic and neural features, and because it seems highly stable across the lifespan. One’s IQ score, they think, is set in stone, condemning you to a poorer life if it’s below-average. This is a mistake. There’s nothing in principle to suggest that we can’t raise people’s IQ scores, at least to a degree (though many recent attempts to do so have been non-starters). Indeed, IQ scores have been rising inexorably across the years, in a process called the Flynn Effect, for (non-genetic) reasons that aren’t yet clear. Another mistake is to think that anyone has ever claimed that an IQ score ‘sums up’ a person. This is another falsehood, since all IQ researchers would readily accept that personality, motivation, and a host of other factors – including luck – are all crucial for success in life.
It would be foolish to deny that there are any skeletons in IQ-testing’s closet. Many, though by no means all, of the originators of the tests were involved with the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, and it’s reasonable to be appalled at some of the uses to which IQ tests were originally put. But these concerns are irrelevant to the main question of whether an IQ score, taken today, can tell you anything about a person. Facts are facts, and the validity of intelligence test scores is amply backed by voluminous evidence.
As all the studies linked above show, IQ tests are useful in a wide variety of situations, from education to medicine to the world of work. We need IQ tests to help us understand how the brain ages, and how we can help it age more healthily. We need IQ tests to help us work out how to boost people’s intelligence, and thus to boost their productivity. Perhaps, above all, IQ tests are one of the tools with which psychologists can dissect and examine human intelligence: we’d be extremely unwise to continue to ignore their insights.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Forget multi-vitamins, pick up a happy spouse instead. This study suggests the enormous upward effect of having a partner who has a happy nature.
A study of 1,981 middle-aged heterosexual couples revealed that people who had happy spouses were notably more likely to report better health over time.
"This finding significantly broadens assumptions about the relationship between happiness and health, suggesting a unique social link," said the study's principal investigator Professor William Chopik, who teaches psychology at Michigan State University. "Simply having a happy partner may enhance health as much as striving to be happy oneself."
Building on the previous findings that happy people are generally healthy, Chopik wanted to zero in on the effects that interpersonal relationships have on health. He sees at least three reasons why a happy partner might make you healthier (even if you are not happy yourself): happy partners can provide more support, they might get the unhappy people involved in healthy activities like sleeping and eating well, as well as exercising. And lastly, it's just easier to deal with happy people.
"Simply knowing that one's partner is satisfied with his or her individual circumstances may temper a person's need to seek self-destructive outlets, such as drinking or drugs, and may more generally offer contentment in ways that afford health benefits down the road," said Chopik.
The study's six-year survey involved couples from 50 to 94, with 84% of the participants being white, 8% African-American and 6% Hispanic. There were no differences shown between husbands and wives.
The authors themselves caution that more research needs to be done. In particular, the paper warns that "causality cannot be definitively discerned with these data" and hopes that future studies will also look at different groups of people, not just the mainly older white married couples. The researchers also propose that new studies on the subject could benefit from using data that is gathered in a more objective way than being self-reported.