Friday, June 29, 2012

Settled Science?

For the past two years I have spoken to bright young high school seniors enrolled in summer programs at the University of Tennessee and at the University of Georgia. This year I told them why I envied them and yet was disappointed in their generation. The reason was accessibility of information. Today the cost of information is minimal. How much effort does it take to google? Yet most of the kids do not even take the effort. There is no excuse to accept anyone's opinion on anything. Nor is there any excuse not to answer any question. Once during the World Cup I asked my students if they were watching. More than a few said yes. I then asked that since it was called the FIFA World Cup, what FIFA meant. Not a one knew or had bother to look it up. I asked if they thought the earth was warming. Most said yes. I asked how did they know? None could cite any source on global warming. I said "shame on you". When I first heard about global warming I was tempted to reject it merely because of its proponents were mainly on the left - and people whose views I categorically rejected. However, I said that they may be right with regard to global warming and I just rejected their solutions for it. So I did my google research and lo and behold I found an impressive literature from scientists who had reached the opposite conclusion. When Al Gore said it was "settled science" I become a full blown skeptic of the then conventional "wisdom". The conflicting literature said that it was not settled science and Gore was trying to silence the growing wave of criticism. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as "settled science." New species are discovered all the time that make scientists question their existing hypothesis. We see discoveries in physics, astronomy, all the hard sciences all the time. We also see results of medical studies that invalidate previous studies. Is coffee good or bad for you? Is exercise good or bad? Is wheat germ good or bad? Is sugar good or bad. Is alcohol good or bad? The answer is "Yes". Although economists are still arguing over macrotheories that have changed little since I was in graduate school in the 1960s, the closest thing we have come to as settled science is microeconomics. The principles laid out by the founding fathers of economics - Adam Smith, David Recardo,J-B Say, Francois Quesnay, Alfred Marshall, Josef Schumpeter - have met the test of time. Basic supply and demand, the foundation of economics is as true today as it has been since the beginning of humanity on the planet. The reaction to incentives and disincentives is in the main predictable as was codified by Smith. Even the role of government is as true today as it was in 1776. Not many sciences can claim that. So perhaps there is such a thing as "settled science". It is microeconomics.

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