Plumb Lines

May 11, 2009

Monetary Theory is Like Physics

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 5:46 pm

After hearing someone perorate this weekend about why the United States should return posthaste to a gold standard, I came to the conclusion that monetary theory is a lot more like physics than the rest of Economics is.

Like physics,

-Its conclusions are hard for the general public to understand

-Many of these hard-to-understand conclusions are not at all controversial, and are in fact widely agreed upon

-These conclusions have significant effects at the level of ordinary life

I am skeptical of technocracies of all kinds. Lots of technical disciplines have evolved institutional defenses against the kind of arguments that would embarrass the technicians or cost them their jobs. Studying analytic philosophy of language and linguistics will convince you that a lot of what the philosophers of language are doing has nothing to do with actual human language (as interesting as their conclusions may be for logic or computer science). People who study Kripke for a living routinely make assertions of the form “Language is like X,” when any linguist could think of a dozen kinds of languages, constructions, or sentences that are nothing like X.

Nonetheless, there are some disciplines whose internal conversations are extremely inaccessible for laymen, and whose conclusions may nonetheless be almost certainly true and uncontroversial among experts. Few people disagree that physics is like this. An educated layman can figure out that the Earth revolves around the Sun by studying the motion of the planets intently, but while an educated layman might be able to follow debates about wave function collapse, he will just have to take the debate’s major contours on faith. On these topics, we ought to defer to experts with extreme prejudice.

What other disciplines are like this?

David Schaengold


1 Comment »

  1. In terms of public policy, the discipline that immediately comes to mind is climate science. I can follow the broad contours of arguments put forward by both climate alarmists and skeptics, but I don’t have enough expertise to evaluate the accuracy of global warming projections.

    Comment by Will — May 12, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

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