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ERDOĞAN ALKİN > Does the public believe what economists say?

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At the latest meeting of the American Economic Association, besides delving into discussions on scientific issues presented in papers, a little group of economists focused on the dismal science’s image problem, The Economist recently reported. In short, they suggested that despite views to the contrary, economists actually agreed on many issues but noted that the public did not really care that much about what they agreed upon. The famous magazine gave some interesting examples from the United States on what economists said and what people believed.

Although a majority of economists believe that stimulus packages lowered the unemployment rate, nearly half of the public does not share the belief. Again, while a majority of economists think that the “buy American policy” makes no important contribution to employment in the manufacturing sector, people believe the opposite. For economists, while it is hard to predict stock prices, it is not so for the public.

Does this erode the confidence of economists? Perhaps. Some of them say it is still more important to pay attention to economic stability instead of economic growth, and some European governments are following their advice. However, some other prominent economists defend the idea that growth is currently more important than stability in terms of creating jobs and ending the crisis.

It is not easy for common people to decide which argument is right and which is wrong. As such, only a professional economist can give the correct answer regardless of whether they are trusted or not. But are they dependable? Or which is dependable: economists or the science of economics? It must be accepted that, even though there are so many brilliant economists, the science of economics has not yet come up with brilliant theories to explicitly explain newly emerged economic problems. The absence of new theories naturally prevents the timely design of effective economic policies against economic maladies that generally emerge unexpectedly.

As a social science, economics gives some advantages to its professionals which do not exist in the positive sciences. For example, if a new crisis occurs as some economists are predicting, the defenders of this pessimistic projection will become famous, even though they won’t provide any measure to prevent the catastrophe. However, if this crisis never occurs, nobody will blame them. It means that there is no risk of losing fame even if a pessimistic prediction does not come to pass; instead, there is always a chance to become famous. If the history of economic thought is examined thoroughly, it is easily observed that most of the biggest names were pessimistic about the future of both national and international economies, but their pessimistic predictions never became reality.

In short, the science of economics needs new theories to explain new problems and develop new policies to fight against the maladies these problems create. Unfortunately, these new problems have a very complex nature. The big difference between the social and the natural sciences is the subject with which the two branches of knowledge deal. While social sciences deal with human behavior which changes often, almost unexpectedly, natural sciences investigate laws of nature, which don’t change as frequently.

However, this big and important difference between the two groups of sciences must not impede the efforts of the new generation of professional economists to construct new theories to explain newly emerging problems. Otherwise, modern man will continue to feel helpless in the face of every economic crisis as much as a caveman did thousands of years ago in the face of every natural disaster.

February/11/2013

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