August 11, 2012

Political beliefs vs. mainstream science

In scientific matters - thus in all matters - I tend to go with mainstream, orthodox expert opinion. I believe, like most experts in their respective fields, that planets, particles, stars, organisms, ecosystems, people, societies, and everything else follow relatively simple laws. I also believe that borders between knowledge fields are artificial, that there is only one knowledge and that certain ways to acquire knowledge are the most fruitful no matter the subject.

As a result of all this I hold a most unorthodox set of opinions. Mainstream experts say that humans are causing climate change, large losses of wild nature, pollution of coastal waters and the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria; that the use of pesticides in agriculture and modern food processing methods pose little health problems for humans; that there is no foreseeable shortage of natural resources for human use; that organisms, including human beings, are not perfectly rational when acting alone, and worse when acting collectively; or that property rights and free markets are generally better at creating prosperity than governments and coercion are. All these are standard, orthodox beliefs among the majority of experts in each respective field. I see a common set of knowledge-acquiring tools applied to different problems. I trust those tools. So I trust the beliefs they lead us to. Few people do.

Consistently trusting experts is not for everybody. It is easy to rely on experts to explain geeky facts of life, like the behavior of photons, galaxies or ants, that do not touch directly on our everyday emotions. But most people give up when confronted with scientific theories that reveal that their deeply and emotionally held religious or political beliefs have no empirical basis. Then people choose not to know, to believe that they are right no matter the experts and, if they are available (and they usually are), to side with heterodox experts.

Natural scientists are no exception. They typically loathe the most politically incorrect of all disciplines - mainstream economics. A few days ago, C. J. A. Bradshaw, a talented biologist, despised neoclassical economists in his blog and posted a drawing giving the finger to Adam Smith's invisible hand. This is akin to someone (say, an "intelligent design" creationist) despising mainstream evolutionary biologists and giving the finger to Darwin's natural selection.

Paul Krugman once wrote:
[B]ecause the basic methods are similar if not identical, economics and evolutionary theory are surprisingly similar. [R]ead a text on evolutionary theory, like John Maynard Smith's Evolutionary Genetics. You will be startled at how much it looks like a textbook on microeconomics. [...] What [evolutionary theory] does look like, to a remarkable degree, is - dare I say it? - neoclassical economics. And it offers very little comfort to those who want a refuge from the harsh discipline of maximization and equilibrium.

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