Should we believe the experts?
NZCPR Guest Forum
Director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation, Massey University.
29 July 2009
Should we believe the ‘experts’
Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem, and because they yield few hard tests of what exists and what does not, they afford to the individual a luxury not given by physical phenomena. Within a considerable range, he is permitted to believe what he pleases. He may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable or otherwise to his taste.
(Galbraith, 1999, p.6) (J K Galbraith, noted economist and President of the American Economic Association in 1972)
In the critically important discussion about the actual solutions to real-world problems, no set of theoretical tools is likely to be fully adequate. Such problems are, almost by definition, too complex to allow theory to be applied simply and straightforwardly. (Buchanan, 1967, p.196) (J M Buchanan, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Economics)
We place a lot of weight on the word of authority figures, especially if they have qualifications and can call on supporting research. The media often report on research as if the findings are points of fact. Is this confidence misplaced?
There are three very simple points that should be remembered if we are to interpret this sort of information realistically. I describe them here in relation to theories as these are central to academic analyses, and use a recent claim by the Principal Family Court Judge as an illustration.