When To Be Suspicious

Once in a while you will stumble across a sentence that goes something like “theology says…”, “philosophy says..”, or “economics says..”. That is, I would argue, the time to be suspicious.  I’m not saying that what follows will be necessarily false.  Just inherently suspicious.

These are broad fields. With plenty of disagreement. And  radically opposed schools. They are not a unified and objective source which can be consulted directly.

Here’s what could be happening:

1. The creation of an authority with a unified voice which doesn’t exist (you can’t consult “economics” and get one answer unless you narrow your query to a particular school of economics or a particular source).

2. The person may be referring to a general consensus (ie. 80% of modern economists believe such and such), but this can be problematic because it is assuming that a non-consensus view can’t be true (often without providing any supporting evidence).

Sometimes a writer will build a whole framework of ideas supported on that often weak leg of “[XYZ] says..”.

One recent example of this is Matthew Yglesias’ recent article over at Slate.  I have no desire to defend any politicians mention in the article. However,  when Matthew says “Economics says he shouldn’t”,  I believe he is creating a consensus that doesn’t exist. He pretends that economics speaks with one voice on an issue in an area that is highly controversial.

I would recommend that the next time we are tempted to say something like “economics says”, do this instead:

  • Narrow what you are saying to a particular school of thought within the field. ie: “Austrian economics says” or “19th century Methodist theology says”   (it still may be a questionable consensus you are referring to, but at least you are making it less sweeping).
  • Narrow what you are saying by tying it to a personal experience. ie: “My survey of economics tells me that”

And, above all, if you are a reader, please squint your eyes a little and grunt when you see an appeal to the consensus of an entire field that is not narrowed and qualified in some way.

2 Responses to “When To Be Suspicious”

  1. This is called “reification.”

    Good warning.

  2. Ben says:

    Well said.

    On a related note, my time spent listening to NPR has waned of late because I’m tired of “the economy” being the most authorative voice. Economism is so lonely.


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