A No­bel Prize against lib­erty

The com­mit­tee seems to have lost touch with ac­tual sci­ence

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Deirdre McCloskey

On Oct. 14, Ab­hi­jit Ban­er­jee and Es­ther Du­flo (Mr. Ban­er­jee and Ms. Du­flo are mar­ried: She was his stu­dent), both of M.I.T., and Michael Kre­mer of Har­vard, won the No­bel Me­mo­rial Prize in Eco­nom­ics for “field stud­ies” in poor coun­tries. That is, the No­belists — Es­ther Du­flo is the youngest ever and the sec­ond woman in the 50-year his­tory of the prize — per­formed nu­mer­ous ex­per­i­ments in which they give one group a treat­ment, such as eye­glasses to Chi­nese chil­dren learn­ing to read, and use a matched group as a con­trol. The con­trol group doesn’t get the glasses. Ques­tion: How much bet­ter do the glasses-chil­dren do in learn­ing to read?

The idea is to im­i­tate in eco­nom­ics what is called in medicine the “gold stan­dard” of ran­dom­ized tri­als. The mak­ers of field ex­per­i­ment claim they mine sci­en­tific gold. If the glasses-chil­dren do a lot bet­ter in read­ing, then the econ­o­mists can rec­om­mend the pol­icy of giv­ing eye­glasses to chil­dren with poor vi­sion, like rec­om­mend­ing a baby as­pirin a day if you’ve al­ready had a heart at­tack. Doc­tor’s or­ders. Give the kids eye­glasses, do not give peo­ple mos­quito nets, and on and on to thou­sands of med­i­cal-eco­nomic pre­scrip­tions. World poverty solved. And above all we’ve been sci­en­tific about it.

What could go wrong?

Plenty. The eye­glass ex­am­ple is not hy­po­thet­i­cal. Three fol­low­ers of the No­belists, the econ­o­mists Glewwe, Park and Zhao, re­ported in 2012 on its suc­cess for 19,000 school chil­dren with bad sight. With fi­nanc­ing from the World Bank, thou­sands were given glasses at $2 a pair, and did learn Chi­nese char­ac­ters. Thou­sands were not given glasses, and didn’t.

Any prob­lems here? In 2016, two other econ­o­mists, Stephen T. Zil­iak and Ed­ward R. Teather-Posadas, stud­ied the ex­per­i­ment.

They un­cov­ered dev­as­tat­ing er­rors in the use of sta­tis­tics by the field ex­per­i­menters and their sup­port­ers. Many other econ­o­mists, such as the No­belists An­gus Deaton and James Heck­man, also have grave wor­ries of a tech­ni­cal sort about field ex­per­i­ments. A big one is in­fer­ring from a study in a lo­cale to a rec­om­men­da­tion for a na­tional pol­icy. Ed­u­ca­tional ex­per­i­ments have been mis­lead­ing this way, as the philoso­pher of sci­ence Nancy Cartwright has ar­gued.

But Messrs. Zil­iak and Teather-Posadas make also the, shall we say, blind­ingly ob­vi­ous point that we know al­ready that a child who can­not see will not be able to read the al­pha­bet, not to speak of hun­dreds of Chi­nese char­ac­ters. The ex­per­i­ment is, to use a tech­ni­cal word, stupid. It’s like the joke about the ex­per­i­ment to test whether para­chutes work. Throw 10 peo­ple with para­chutes out of an air­plane at 5,000 feet. Then throw 10 with­out. Sci­ence sat­is­fied.

Messrs. Zil­iak and Teather-Posadas re­mark that the eye­glasses ex­per­i­ment, and a good deal of the work of the No­belists, is as star­tlingly un­eth­i­cal, and stupid, as the no­to­ri­ous Tuskegee syphilis ex­per­i­ment run from 1931 to as late as 1971. African-Amer­i­can men were ran­domly as­signed to not get the peni­cillin that the med­i­cal sci­en­tists from the U.S. Depart­ment of Health al­ready knew cured the dis­ease.

The econ­o­mists, like the med­i­cal re­searchers, seem to have lost touch with their proper role. They are not eth­i­cally as­signed to mas­ter our lives. The mas­ter­ing as­sign­ment is what they as­sume when they fo­cus on “pol­icy,” un­der­stood as trick­ing or brib­ing or co­erc­ing peo­ple to do what’s best. It sounds fine, un­til you re­al­ize that it is what your mother did to you when you were 2 years old, and had prop­erly stopped do­ing to you by the time you were 21. The field ex­per­i­menters scorn adult lib­erty. And that is the other way many econ­o­mists have lost touch. As noted by econ­o­mist Wil­liam East­erly, an­other critic of the ex­per­i­men­tal work, and as ar­gued at length by your re­porter in nu­mer­ous books, the real way to solve world poverty is lib­erty. Not du­bi­ous, fid­dly, bossy lit­tle poli­cies handed down from the elite.

How do Mr. East­erly and I know? We look around as eco­nomic sci­en­tists, and see that when In­dia in 1991 gave up Gand­hian il­lib­er­al­ism, and when China in 1978 gave up Maoist il­lib­er­al­ism, and when Ja­pan in 1868 gave up Toku­gawan il­lib­er­al­ism, and when in 1776 the Blessed Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Na­tions” crushed the case for il­lib­er­al­ism, the poor were en­riched. By 3,000 per­cent.

And the No­bel com­mit­tee seems to have lost touch with ac­tual sci­ence, which does not make a fetish out of method, which closely watches its ethics, and which is guided by ac­tual, non-stupid cu­riosi­ties. When the great physi­cist, a No­bel win­ner, Richard Feyn­man sus­pected that the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter had hap­pened be­cause the seals hard­ened and broke on an un­usu­ally cold day, he tested it by dunk­ing a piece of the rub­ber seal into a glass of ice water, and break­ing it in front of the other com­mis­sion­ers. When the his­to­rian Lord Ac­ton found that power tends to cor­rupt, and ab­so­lute power cor­rupts ab­so­lutely, he got it from a life­time of study­ing how all great men are bad. That’s sci­ence. Even eco­nomic sci­ence.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is an econ­o­mist and his­to­rian. Her lat­est book is “Why Lib­er­al­ism Works: How True Lib­eral Val­ues Pro­duce a Freer, More Equal, Pros­per­ous World for All” (Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2019).

about Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Some might find Mr. San­ders’ un­re­lent­ing con­sis­tency ad­mirable in its way. Fine. But how much in­tel­lec­tual dex­ter­ity, re­ally, does it re­quire to just keep say­ing the same thing for years on end? A real test of Mr. San­ders’ flex­i­bil­ity would be to ask whether he has ever, in his life, changed his mind about some­thing.

Mr. Bi­den, by con­trast, is at­tempt­ing some­thing far more chal­leng­ing: re­pu­di­at­ing just about ev­ery­thing he had stood for in his five decades of public ser­vice. The 1990s crime bill, his sem­i­nal piece of leg­is­la­tion that put more cops on the beat, stiff­ened fed­eral prison sen­tences, and helped con­trib­ute to vast crime de­clines? He now ex­presses re­gret for it. The Iraq in­va­sion, which he cham­pi­oned as chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tee? He now claims, laugh­ably, to have op­posed that mis­ad­ven­ture. The Hyde Amend­ment, which pro­hibits spend­ing tax­payer dol­lars on abor­tions? He backed it through­out his ca­reer, but now op­poses it.

This level of flip-flop­ping would be hard for any politi­cian, let alone a 76-yearold, to sell con­vinc­ingly. Even Mick Jag­ger might not seem so young if, rather than sing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for the umpteen­t­hou­sandth time, he were forced to all of a sud­den start belt­ing out “Hey Jude.”

Ethan Ep­stein is deputy opin­ion ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. Con­tact him at eep­[email protected]­ing­ton­times.com or on Twit­ter @ethanep­sti­i­i­ine.

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