« Paul Krugman: Now That's Rich | Main | Obama-Biden »

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Doctors vs Economists"

Chris Dillow says this "not to demean doctors, but to elevate economists":

Doctors vs economists, Stumbling and Mumbling: The BBC are offering two series glorifying the medical profession: Superdoctors, which presents the “cutting edge” of medicine, and Blood and Guts, Michael Mosley’s whiggish view of the history of surgery “from butchery to brilliance.”

Which raises a question. Why do doctors  get such great publicity and acclaim when economists don’t?

For all its excellence, the medical profession still leaves a lot to be desired. Medical errors kill tens of thousands a year; doctors still have little idea how to treat many complaints such as gout, the common cold, backache or many degenerative diseases; and their treatment of the mentally ill is still often atrocious.

And yet, for all this, doctors get much less obloquy than we economists get for our frequent failures to forecast recession - even though our errors are less costly than doctors’.  Why is this? Here are some possibilities:

1. Survivorship bias. A man who’s been cured by a doctor lives to tell everyone. A man who’s been killed by one stays quiet. Economists’ “victims” - those stupid enough to believe forecasts- don’t keep schtum.
2. Publication bias. New medical research is often presented as an exciting breakthrough. Economic research rarely lends itself to such glowing headlines.
3. The fight against nature. If doctors are unable to cure disease, this is seen not as a failure of their intellect, but rather as testament to the force of hostility of nature, against which they are heroically battling. What people fail to see is that economic forecasting is also a fight against a powerful force - the existence of free will. The reason for this is simple; economic activity next year is a function of the choices people will make then. But because they have free will, we cannot predict these choices. In this light, what’s astonishing is not that forecasts are wrong, but that they are ever right at all.
4. Selective judgment. Economists get judged, wholly wrongly, on their weakest activity - economic forecasting - whereas doctors get judged on their strongest.
5. Our greater antecedents. Economics has progressed in all sorts of ways. We know now, for example, that protectionism is generally a bad idea; that inflation targeting is a better monetary framework than fixed exchange rates; that countries can’t get rich merely by heavy capital investment, and so on. And yet it’s harder to present the history of economics as pure progress, as Michael Mosley does for surgery. One reason for this, perhaps, is that the great economists of the past were genuinely brilliant whereas their medical contemporaries were quacks, charlatans and butchers.  At the same time as Paul Samuelson was  creating foundations of the economics we learn today, Walter Freeman was hammering ice-picks into people - and he was regarded as a pioneer at the time. And let’s not even consider Adam Smith’s medical contemporaries.

Now, I say all this not to demean doctors, but to elevate economists. Our profession - at its best - should not be regarded as in anyway inferior to the natural sciences.

    Posted by on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 04:05 PM in Economics, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (55)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Doctors vs Economists":


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.