Scott Adams on the Economic Way of Thinking
By Bryan Caplan
Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, thinks like an economist – and wants his readers to do the same:
I studied economics in college. One thing I’ve noticed is that other people who have studied economics tend to think a similar way. Some of the similarity is probably because it takes a certain kind of person to be interested in economics in the first place. But I’m convinced that the study of economics changes brains in a way I can identify after about five minutes of conversation. In particular, I think the study of economics makes you relatively immune to cognitive dissonance…
Cognitive dissonance is, at its core, the inability to recognize and accept other explanations. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the point. The more your brain is trained for economics, the less it is susceptible to cognitive dissonance, or so it seems.
Adams’ inspiration: Lomborg’s appearance on Bill Maher. Lomborg…
made the following points clearly and succinctly:
1. Global warming is real, and people are a major cause.
2. When considering the problems that global warming will cause, we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of global warming, such as fewer deaths from cold.
3. The oceans rose a foot in the last hundred years, and the world adapted, so the additional rise from global warming might not be as big a problem as people assume.
4. Developing economical fossil fuel alternatives is the only rational solution to global warming because countries such as China and India will use the cheapest fuel, period. If only the developed countries who can afford alternatives change their ways, it’s not enough to make a dent in the problem.
The Danish economist’s* argument doesn’t fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn’t denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn’t saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won’t be enough to help.
Neither Maher nor the other panelists understood Lomborg, even though, according to Adams, the transcript shows that his presentation was a model of clarity.
Maybe Adams is right about the cognitive dissonance, but I see a very different advantange of the economic way of thinking at work here: Literalism. Compared to most people, economists are very good at hearing what you said – not what you meant to say, or what the listener thinks you meant to say. In normal conversation, people focus on “what side you’re taking.” The neat thing about economics is that people who agree with your conclusion often heavily criticize your specific arguments.
If you want to see literalism honed to the peak of excellence, spend 15 minutes bouncing your favorite thoughts off of Robin Hanson – and say goodbye to a lot of your favorite thoughts!
* As far as I can tell, Lomborg’s background is in statistics and political science. But Adams is right to see a strong influence of economics on Lomborg’s work.
HT: Eric Crampton