Here's Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, suggesting that Experts in Their Disciplines respect the watch-word. Expertise in your domain, he argues, does not grant special powers.
Domain dependence is the phenomenon that prompts people to adopt a different approach or worldview depending on the domain.He extends the argument, to deal with the problems that arise when Politicians feel compelled to Do Something, and constituents sometimes want Something Favorable To Be Done For Them.
For example, cities are complex adaptive systems. When I point that out, there is general agreement. When I take the next step and explain how the natural inclination of planners to try and control these systems – to calculate growth rates, predict absorption rates, zone property based on their projections for market demand, etc… -- is folly, that it actually demonstrates their severe lack of understanding, readers here cheer. We need more humility in the face of this complexity, an understanding that would prompt us to think and act more incrementally.
When I say that traffic is a complex adaptive system, again, the feedback here is a general consensus. When engineers try to project traffic and model how real people will respond to their schemes, they are demonstrating their severe lack of understanding of complexity. I point that out and you applaud. Engineers need more humility in the face of complexity. They need to understand the limits of their knowledge and adopt a more modest, more incremental, mindset.
When we switch domains to the economy – the ultimate complex, adaptive system – the consensus vanishes. All of a sudden, our ability to project in the face of overwhelming complexity is considered sound, despite the horrific track record. Our confidence amid massive intervention away from anything resembling a market economy is supreme. There is no need for modest, no need for humility. We got this one under control, Chuck, and you sound like an idiot when you question it. (By the way, let’s not talk about 2008 – that was someone else’s mistake.)Indeed. And pay careful attention to changes in the initial conditions, and to the equations of motion.
A large reason for this switch is that, unlike cities or traffic, economics is deeply intertwined with our national politics. Or more precisely, with the rhetoric of our national politics (since both parties have overwhelmingly embraced our current monetary policy, relegating real criticism of the Federal Reserve to the likes of Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren). The undisciplined mind can apply a humble logic to complex adaptive systems in one domain and then, when overwhelmed by their political sentiment, find themselves ungrounded in another.
The same thinking applies to other complex, adaptive systems such as the human body and climate change. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve avoided talking about the latter for five years now because, if your (politics-inspired) reaction on the economy is consistently like this, you’re going to go berserk when I explain either our (a) complete inability to predict climate change with any degree of confidence or (b) what a humble approach looks like in the face of that. If you’d like some insight on that line of thinking, read this from Nassim Taleb.
Even scarier, with a complex, adaptive system, the same input in similar circumstances at a different time could yield wildly different results. Just because you were right once – or a thousand times – doesn’t mean you will be right the next time. And when you consider what we’re betting here on being right, well….you should be scared too.Yes. And after the mocking that Secretary Rumsfeld took about his "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," the folks who Make Policy for Our Good are going to err on the side of seeming certain, even if wrong.
What drives me insane about most economists is the lack of humility, the supreme confidence in their own ability to understand what they are doing. It is the same thing that drives me crazy about engineers, planners, economic development advisors and the whole range of professions that profess to use simple equations to explain infinite complexity. They don’t know what they think they know.
I think history will someday look back at this entire period of time -- the “American Century” through to whenever the next economic order is established – as the age of hubris, a time where unprecedented affluence allowed society’s leaders to develop an Icarus complex, an unfounded belief in their own capacities, sowing the seeds of their own demise.Perhaps, as Mr Marohn concludes, it is better to be asking the right questions rather than worrying about the right answers.