Will the experts save us from catastrophe?

This is from a touching story about the last two survivors from WWI:

In old age both men had an urgent message, so urgent that it almost exhausted their small supply of breath. “War’s stupid,” said Mr Allingham. “Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway.””T’isn’t worth it,” said Mr Patch. “War isn’t worth one life.” They did the job they were asked to do”””for 18 pence a flippin’ day.” And they knew that the German enemy, too, were fighting under compulsion. From the first day, Mr Patch made a pact with his mates on the Lewis gun that they wouldn’t shoot to kill, only to wound. As far as he knew, he kept his pledge. Even the German who tried to bayonet him in no-man’s-land was only to be brought down with bullets in the leg. Similarly Mr Allingham, billeted with a German family after the Armistice, gave them the two precious oranges he received from Dorothy for Christmas. “We were all victims,” said Mr Patch.

At 110 Mr Allingham went to Germany to meet Robert Meier, aged 109. For his birthday, Mr Meier””who was to die three months after they met””had been photographed grinning broadly in the spiked helmet of a Dreckfresser, literally a mud-eater, a German infantryman. He had last worn that gear on the Western Front. Chicken soup and oatflakes, he said in his sprightly way, had kept him going since. Side by side, the two old men were wheeled to the local war memorial, where they laid a wreath and, for a long, gentle moment, shook hands.

Mr Patch, too, went abroad at 106 to meet Charles Kuentz, aged 107. He took a bottle of Somerset cider; Mr Kuentz, who was to die the next year, brought a tin of Alsatian biscuits. Mr Kuentz had fought at Passchendaele, some few hundred yards from the British lines. He had been conscripted at 19, straight from grammar school, and he too, until the age of 100, had refused to talk about the war. They went together to the German cemetery at Langemarck, where 44,000 Germans were buried, and Mr Patch laid a wreath. He had got better at doing that; on the first occasion he’d been asked to he had simply sat and cried. At Langemarck, on impulse, he picked up an acorn from the ground and gave it to his “enemy”. “Now we are friends,” said Mr Kuentz.

This got me thinking about the British, American, French, and German leaders who killed those millions of young men.  And the European intellectuals of 1914, virtually all of whom supported the war.  And how in the halls of government in 1914 anyone with my anti-war opinion would have been regarded as an idealistic fool, not worth listening to.

As I get older I am more and more inclined to think we put too much faith in the authorities.  Or perhaps I should just say that I do, as this blog has lots of commenters who are skeptics.  I must admit that while I have been advocating NGDP futures targeting since 1986, I assumed the Fed would be smart enough to prevent a decline in NGDP even with the sort of ad hoc quasi-inflation targeting regime in place since the 1980s.  In the last year my respect for authority, which was never very high, has fallen to a new low.  As I read each interview in the Big Think, it becomes more and more obvious that the experts don’t have a clue as to what went wrong, nor how to fix the problem.  Indeed they don’t even agree with each other, and none of them agree with me.  Here are two more, with nothing about the Fed letting NGDP fall at its fastest rate since 1938:



Every so often I read about the amazing progress in biotech, how the technology to do genetic engineering keeps getting cheaper and more powerful every year.  Or how we are close to the point where any scientist will be able to use low cost equipment to create a deadly virus that spreads as easily as the common cold.  Well, actually I don’t read that observation, it’s just the thought that goes through my mind when I read the other stuff.

And then there is that particle accelerator in Switzerland.  New and unheard of energy will be released as they smash particles together at ever higher speeds.  Of course only a lunatic would think that these experiments are opening a Pandora’s box; potentially creating a black hole that could swallow the Earth.  After all, the experts assure us that (according to the laws of physics circa 2000) the machine is perfectly safe.

I don’t doubt that the machine is perfectly safe according to the laws of physics circa 2000.  But that’s not what worries me.  The laws of physics circa 2000 are almost completely different from the laws of physics circa 1900.  Here is what I wonder; is there any chance that something could go wrong according to the laws of physics circa 2100?  And where do I go to get that question answered?

Does this have anything to do with monetary policy?  Well, moving from the 4% trend inflation of the 1980s to the 2% trend inflation of the 2000s does produce efficiency gains, but also slightly increases the chance that the economy will slip into a liquidity trap.  As of 2007, most experts thought that a liquidity trap was highly unlikely, even though it had already happened in Japan.  I also thought it unlikely.  So the small gains from slightly lower inflation were thought to outweigh the fact that 4% inflation would prevent liquidity traps, and the associated devastating fall in NGDP and high unemployment that is often associated with liquidity traps.  Of course we now know they were wrong.  Ex post there was 100% chance of a liquidity “trap” in this decade.

Let’s hope the experts in biotech and physics are better at doing cost/benefit analysis than the economists who run monetary policy.  In particular, let’s hope they do a better job of weighing small but certain gains against vast losses that are deemed highly unlikely.  Let’s hope they don’t suffer the cognitive bias of placing an excessively small subjective probability on “unknown unknowns.”

Oh, and don’t forget that 2012 is barely 2 years away.

PS.  Robin Hanson has a much better example here.

PPS.  I plan one more post (off topic), and then a vacation.

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7 Responses to “Will the experts save us from catastrophe?”

  1. Gravatar of Don the libertarian Democrat Don the libertarian Democrat
    24. December 2009 at 11:16

    From Burke:

    “… all that wise men ever aim at is to keep things from coming to the worst. Those who expect perfect reformations, either deceive or are deceived miserably.”

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. December 2009 at 11:41

    Don the Burkean Democrat. 🙂

    Well put.

  3. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    24. December 2009 at 15:50

    Wrt the collider. Earth routinely experiences cosmic ray collisions with energies, far far above the experiment mentioned.

    WRT deadly diseases, its already been done. When we and the Russians agreed to not use biowarfare, they took that as a sign that they could get an easy lead in biowarfare agents. They have some of the scariest stuff on the planet.

    WRT experts: The internet has created a situation where detailed information about the actions of those in power are easily available. This allows us to read about what they do and then say, “hey wait, I’m smarter than that.” Soon we realize that the emperor has no clothes. In truth, I think it will lead to a better, more distributed power structure. Arnold Kling talks about this in his book… basically those who know are very different than those who have power to do things.

  4. Gravatar of david david
    24. December 2009 at 20:14

    Arnold Kling has similar thoughts regarding the First World War.

    But I suspect that a Kling-style dismissal of expertise is not justified. Maxwell’s equations in their 2000 form apply just as well as they did in their 1900 form in nearly all instances; we have merely begun to expect them to apply in all instances, including ones that we only discovered after 1900.

    Likewise there has been some goalpost-shifting in economics; twenty years of Great Moderation have encouraged us to expect that depressions have quietly ceased to be relevant. Compare the earlier conventional wisdom of expecting massive oscillations in AD.

    Appearances aside, there is after all a large cross-party agreement that stimulus of some kind was required; the dispute arises over relative effectiveness. So we’ve gotten somewhere in seventy years, hooray!

    Or to put it another way, the economy is moving in many ways which economics now dismisses as unimportant. Maybe a 2100 Sumner will rage against the ignorance of our generation in allowing individuals to monopolize computing time (which arguably has increasing returns to scale, even if we never hit some Kurzweillian ideal). Of course we should have seen some disaster coming, didn’t we have all these luminaries even warning us about it?

    But of course, if you don’t feel inclined to worry about these sort of known unknowns, perhaps you can sympathize with physicists who dismiss unknown unknowns 😉

    (And then there’s also the separate issue of whether there are any better options. Kling is confident that decentralization would allow those with knowledge to gain the power to act on it; this doesn’t seem persuasive to me.)

  5. Gravatar of saintsimon saintsimon
    25. December 2009 at 06:43

    this post makes no sense – the anti-war stuff is driven by emotion and sentiment, no scientific method can elucidate it to a degree that will allow for the transcending of history, so what it’s doing in the post is beyond me since your main issue seems to be about matters of scientific method concerning ‘certainty’ – but our whole tradition of scientific inquiry is based on a healthy skepticism towards avowals of absolute truth – failure is fundamental to the game – so again, what’s the point of the post? That regardless of levels of expertise and sophistication and subtlety humans still manage to do stupid things? Ok. Think we’re all pretty clear on that one.

  6. Gravatar of Joseph Davidson Joseph Davidson
    25. December 2009 at 08:11

    As you sit and read this post, very large numbers of cosmic ray particles much more powerful than anything that the LHC in Switzerland produces are striking our planet. This has been going on for billions of years, and so far we have not been swallowed up by a black hole.

  7. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    26. December 2009 at 10:48

    Doc Merlin, Yes, I knew about the cosmic rays, and I should add that I am much more concerned about biotech than the particle accelerator. But I recall reading that a few physicists were worried–does anyone know the reason?

    Regarding biotech, I am less worried about the Russians than a unibomber type who believes Earth’s environment would be better off with 1 billion people, rather than 7 billion.

    David, You said;

    “But I suspect that a Kling-style dismissal of expertise is not justified. Maxwell’s equations in their 2000 form apply just as well as they did in their 1900 form in nearly all instances; we have merely begun to expect them to apply in all instances, including ones that we only discovered after 1900.”

    But it is equally true that much of the laws of physics were created after 1900. The standard model, relativity, etc. In 1900 no one knew that smashing two pieces of plutonium together could destroy a city. Of course they also lacked the technology. Still, isn’t that at least a tiny bit of uncertainty about the effects of the accelerator? If this is nothing new, if cosmic rays have higher energy, then why all the excitement about new discoveries that might flow from the machine? Why build the machine if it produces nothing new?

    You said;

    “Appearances aside, there is after all a large cross-party agreement that stimulus of some kind was required; the dispute arises over relative effectiveness. So we’ve gotten somewhere in seventy years, hooray!”

    I agree, and have also made this point in my blog.

    Saintsimon, No my main point isn’t about scientific expertise. It is about authority. About what the experts believe–including experts in foreign policy.

    Obviously my touching story wasn’t an argument against WWI. Every thinking person already knows WWI was a monstrous crime, and that it was committed by exactly the type of person we entrust to run our affairs today–the “best and the brightest” in the field of diplomacy.

    Joseph, True, but see my response to the others.

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