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A Tale of Two Cities: The Modern Soothsayers

Five weeks on from the #GiletsJaunes, managerial elites in London conspire to chain the United Kingdom to ever closer union with the fate of Europe. There is something profoundly emblematic about the sight of Emmanuel Macron facing down the people of his once great nation.

Condescending, Napoleonic, and completely without self-awareness, he is the living embodiment of the vision of the anointed. As French citizens riot because of increases in their fuel taxes, he has been utterly indifferent in telling them to take their thin gruel because the predictive models of his shaman class say so. It is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Rousseauian top-down state versus the people that it subjugates.

Meanwhile, across the channel in London—where, despite their civic and intellectual history, the ruling class have long sought to mimic their Gallic counterparts— the Bank of England’s Mark Carney has been playing a similar game. He has been issuing regular doomsday forecasts based on predictive models by alleged experts. I wonder how much longer people are going to listen to these modern soothsayers. At this point, they are naked lobbyists for entrenched special interests. When reality fails to meet their expectations for the umpteenth time, how long will it take for the prophets to lose their authority in the eyes of the public and their self-appointed gatekeepers in the chattering class?

It has struck me recently just how much of our current political discourse is based on “forecasts.” In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work on behavioral economics, partly for his career-long demolition of how “experts” convey statistical information:

The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult to accept the limits of our forecasting ability.…The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future. (Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 218).

When someone deigns to tell you that they can predict the future, make no mistake: They are lying, whether or not they know it. We cannot predict the future, it is the ultimate in human hubris to pretend that we can. Of course, the managerial elites have all read Thinking Fast and Slow at this point, but such is their arrogance it never even occurs to them to imagine that the irrationality might be their own.

The current fetish for using predictive models to enforce political policy choices is no better than a class of priests telling the people “because God said so.” The Divine Right of Kings did not die with absolute monarchy. Democratic regimes that use illusory concepts such as “the social contract” or “the general will” brought about, what Herbert Spencer called in 1884, “the divine right of parliaments” (The Man Versus The State, p. 174)—something the people of both the U.K. and France are now witnessing in plain sight.

What interests me most about the current penchant for rule by predictive modeling is how effectively it disarms those of us who value reason and evidence. I am not a climate scientist and, chances are, neither are you. I am not an IMF “economist” or a statistician for a central bank, and, chances are, neither are you. For most people, the opportunity cost is too great to bridge this knowledge gap, so we must take it on faith alone (see Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions, pp. 305-38).

To use Aristotle’s terms, logos (reason and evidence) is replaced by ethos, a simple appeal to authority. We are compelled to trust in the expert, which boils down to little more than a character judgement. In rhetorical terms, it is often easier to sway people through ethos, which is mostly emotional and appeals to our heuristic biases, than it is by either reason or evidence which require more deliberative thought. I am reminded of John Calvin’s three solas:

Sola scriptura, “by scripture alone”
Sola fide, “by faith alone”
Sola gratia, “by grace alone”

Most people don’t have time to dig into the specialist literature, so they take the pronouncements of the soothsayers by faith alone and allow the current political elites—as the spokespersons for the diviners— to rule by grace.

—Ludwig von Mises, one of the great economists and liberals of the 20th century, analyzed the unfalsifiable logic of ideologies that use visions of the future to justify using force to allocate resources in the present arguing that it is “useless to argue with mystics and seers.” From his perspectives, Marxists were seers, envisaging a future paradise—

They base their assertions on intuition and are not prepared to submit them to rational examination. The Marxians pretend that what their inner voice proclaims is history’s self-revelation. If other people do not hear this voice, it is only proof that they are not chosen. It is insolence that those groping in darkness dare to contradict the inspired ones. Decency should impel them to creep into a corner and keep silent.…

And fascists, according to Mises, were mystics, attributing a spiritual essence not to a person’s individuality or achievements, but to his or her nationality and blood. 

Another group sees society as a biological phenomenon; it is the work of the voice of the blood, the bond uniting the offspring of common ancestors with these ancestors and with one another, and the mystical harmony between the ploughman and the soil he tills.…The voice of the blood, contend the German racists, mysteriously unifies all members of the German people. (Human Action, pp. 83, 166).

Mises was writing in 1949 after seeing one half of Europe devastated by fascism and the other half fall under the evil of socialism. The communist utopia is always around the next corner; the ultimate realization of the Übermensch, one conquest away; the next apocalypse, 12 years away; the next economic disaster, one Brexit away.

In the same book, Mises candidly outlined a cast iron law of politics:

Liberalism realizes that the rulers, who are always a minority, cannot lastingly remain in office if not supported by the consent of the majority of those ruled. Whatever the system of government may be, the foundation upon which it is built and rests is always the opinion of those ruled that to obey and to be loyal to this government better serves their own interests than insurrection and the establishment of another regime. The majority has the power to do away with an unpopular government and uses this power whenever it becomes convinced that its own welfare requires it. In the long run, there is no such thing as an unpopular government. (Human Action, pp. 189, 149-50).

This has never stopped being true, but as the failed predictions pile up, do the current elites in Europe even know? Time will tell, and one day in the future I can look back and pretend I predicted it.


Neema Parvini is senior lecturer in English at the University of Surrey. He also presents a podcast series called Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory.

Feature photo by William Lounsbury / Shutterstock.

90 Comments

  1. AllanJW says

    I’m sorry to say that this piece is the thinnest and most easily countered piece published here. For the first time it’s made me question the quality control in place at Quillette.

    After a superficial scene-setting, the author begins the substance of his piece by mentioning predictive modelling and states this;

    “we must take it on faith alone ..”

    There’s no kind way to put this but that is just plain wrong. I’m equally as dismissive of the validity of most economic and social modelling output as Mr Parvini but neither of us just has to take it on faith alone. As a member of a university teaching staff he is in the perfect position to know that’s not true; opposing models can be built and promulgated, differences of opinion can be expressed in a myriad of ways through a variety of channels, conferences can be attended at which alternative viewpoints are debated, support for counter arguments can be elicited. In short, the whole array of criticism can be deployed, and is, if one cares to look. We individuals need not become experts, we just need to look for those who are but hold differing views.

    Perhaps Mr Parvini is unaware of where to look for economic heterodoxy and is merely revealing his own ignorance here.

    He moves shakily onwards to the cognitive error of the ‘appeal to authority’;

    “We are compelled to trust in the expert, which boils down to little more than a character judgement.”

    Again he makes the same mistake of extrapolating from the specific to the generic; HE may feel compelled but ‘we’ are not. We can avail ourselves of the views of experts in the field who hold alternative views; we can judge their output alongside that of the ideologues. He may be implying that there is an imbalance in the ‘share of voice’ for opposing views currently and that may be true but if it is then even more reason to judge the channels through which he receives his news rather than the content itself for proffering a monotonous diet of fudge. Look for those alternative channels, Mr Parvini, not just the most accessible.

    If in fact Mr Parvini makes any worthwhile point in this piece at all it may be that “Most people don’t have time ..”. Time to disentangle the bunkum from the bread, to confidently take a position on one side of the fence or the other. We are so often told this it may be felt to be a truism. I beg to differ. Humans tend to find time for those things they judge to be most important to them in the near term. Maybe Mr Parvini is just worried about issues that are not as high on the priority list of the majority of society as he thinks they should be.

    Who’s more technocratic and top-down now, hmm?

    A flaccid, disappointing piece, especially from someone in his position. I’m all ‘For’ inter-disciplinary activity, it can yield benefits, but perhaps this author needs to stick to the world of Shakespearean criticism and avoid opining on other matters.

    • Erica from The West Village says

      Thank you Roger Ebert for that tremendous review.

      Now..onto the piece itself instead of a story about how smart (and smarmy) you are. See how easy it is to troll? Try it less often and try building people up instead of tearing people down. You’ll enjoy life much more.

      The very nature of a bureaucracy is self-preservation, as Mr. Parvini notes. Our ability, or lack thereof, to deal with institutional forces that use Marxism or Socialism or Communism (or any ism) to establish power is not productive for a healthy society.

      That’s the beauty of the American Constitution. It anticipates all of these groups gaining power and then using it to beat down the masses. What the founders failed to take into account though was a legislative body so fearful of it’s own shadow that it no longer asserts its constitutional authority and instead yields to the judiciary and the ‘4th branch of the government’; the bureaucracy.

      Keep on writing Mr. Parvini. Not everyone likes vanilla ice cream, nor does everyone like chocolate ice cream..yet everyone likes ice cream.

      • Lydia says

        “The very nature of a bureaucracy is self-preservation, as Mr. Parvini notes. ”

        Bingo.

        Then, we have the tedious task of unraveling the predictive model from gov grants provided for the model and the “experts” qualifications. Making concepts complicated and in line with political agendas so only the experts understand them is job security. And of course, recognition from the same tribe.

    • Martin28 says

      Have you read the climate science? Truly read the science, and not just the consensus summaries? Do you really understand the complex computer models that are making predictions? If so, good for you, you can make up your own mind. But 99.9 percent of the population does not have the time, the resources, the background, or even the intellectual ability. They are certainly taking a lot on faith, and basing their political decisions on that faith. This would be fine if the experts were not subject to groupthink and social coercion. The epithet “climate denier” awaits those who disagree with the dominant narrative. That’s just one example. And that’s all to say that I think the author makes a good point, and that we need openness, tolerance, and above all, humility from the experts—especially when it comes to predicting the future.

      • Hiro Kawabata says

        “Have you read the climate science? Truly read the science, and not just the consensus summaries?”

        Yes.

        “Do you really understand the complex computer models that are making predictions?”

        Yes.

        “If so, good for you, you can make up your own mind.”

        Quite.

        Most of climate science is the worst junk science in the history of science.

        • hunter says

          Hiro,
          Well stated. So how come those who agree with you have been so effectively silenced?

      • I don’t read the climate science. I do read technical economics, including the Integrated Assessment Models of Nordhaus and others that analyze economics of climate change. I also read recent IPCC reports such as SR15 from October of this year.

        Parvini is too kind. The policies being proposed have nothing to do with fixing climate problems and everything to do with empowering elites who wish to manage us, “for our own good,” no doubt.

    • Richard Russell says

      Oh, dear–what a load of self-serving twaddle. AllanJW is evidently an expert of some kind…

    • Thank you for this comment. In fact this utterly unjournalistic article makes me question Quilette too.

    • @AllanJW

      Your criticism is tantamount to a criticism of skepticism. You should read the article in the climate (no pun intended) in which it was offered. Persons who investigate and questioned modeling are frequently tagged as “deniers” or “flat earthers”. The modelers demand faith and are quick to persecute any heretics who appeal to other authorities.
      “….Mr Parvini but neither of us just has to take it on faith alone. As a member of a university teaching staff…”

      As a member of a University teaching staff, Mr. Parvini has undoubtedly witnessed the fate of colleagues who failed to adhere to the modeling faith.

      “He moves shakily onwards to the cognitive error of the ‘appeal to authority’;”

      Once again please open your eyes to what is actually occurring, not to what you imagine the debate to be. When one questions modeling techniques, rather than receive a defense of those techniques the retort typically cites consensus or the CV of the modeling proponent.
      The debate you are imagining is the debate for which most skeptics yearn. Mr. Parvini’s article is a defense of skepticism.

      My personal modeling indicates that those who post their disappointment in Quillette publishing articles with which they disagree usually have the least illuminating comments. You of course are free to consult other authorities.

    • Man with the Axe says

      I am reminded of the classic example of a person who is suffering crushing headaches. He sees a brain surgeon who recommends immediate brain surgery. He gets a second opinion from a second surgeon who says he doesn’t need surgery and in fact the surgery is more dangerous than the disease.

      What should he do? Get a third opinion and go with the majority vote? Go with the surgeon about whom he has the best feeling?

      Or should he engage in a process in which “opposing models can be built and promulgated, differences of opinion can be expressed in a myriad of ways through a variety of channels, conferences can be attended at which alternative viewpoints are debated” and so forth?

      Ultimately, when it comes to the unknown, Neema Parvini is right. When the issue is complex there is no answer to be had from the experts.

    • It does appear that the author has throughly conflated the Reformed notions of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

      Both relate to the metaphysics of salvation but any good Lutheran or Calvinist will have no trouble placing the idea of truth based on human reasoning in the category of the covenant of works and something that requires that the audience always remember that human reasoning is fallible and so predictions about salvation, or anything else, based on reason alone are very unlikely to be accurate in the long run.

      Reliance on the opinion of experts is certainly a high church thing where obedience to the opnions of a priestly scholastic class is the sure and certain way to salvation. On it’s face, the quote attributed to Calvin has quite the opposite meaning although it does have some relevance to the partially reformed Anglicans and Lutherans and does apply to Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

    • Robinson says

      If you read Nassim Taleb (you really should), you’ll understand why these “models” are next to useless and many (most) of the people who promote them are charlatans (what he would call IYI – Intellectual Yet Idiot). I’m with Taleb on this.

  2. Aylwin says

    Oh dear. “Experts” in quotes. Yes, let’s run economies based on the insights of the masses and see how that goes. Note that the gilets jaunes of the “once great nation” (there’s a revelation of idiotic bias if ever I’ve seen one) have succeeded in their goal of a reversal on the fuel tax policy and are now just demonstrating for, erm, what exactly? And the tax fuel tax policy is exactly the kind of thing a government is designed to do… to create conditions that create better market outcomes (e.g. the lowering of CO2 emissions and creation of better energy tech)

    • Francis Urquhart says

      This comment is absolutely dripping with vision of the anointed. Your hidden assumption here is that you know better than all of the plebians you live around.

      >Yes, let’s run economies based on the insights of the masses

      What do you propose as an alternative? To run economies based on the insights of the elites? That has gone brilliantly in the past.

    • ga gamba says

      creation of better energy tech

      Given the choice, what would create better energy tech? Distorting the market in favour of electric vehicles (EV) or not distorting it and have EV makers provide vehicles that are genuinely competitive with the internal combustion engine (ICE)?

      In the distorted market, what incentive do EV and their component makers have to improve? Really, they’re just competing against other EV makers, who themselves are also beneficiaries of the distortion.

      In the US, the government gives significant tax breaks to those who buy EVs – I believe it’s up to $7500. Fifteen of the 27 European Union member states provide tax incentives for electrically chargeable vehicles, Who has the money to buy these? The middle-class and wealthier, i.e. the people least in need of tax breaks. Many of the gilets jaunes claim to be low-wage workers, and given they find a tax increase of 6.5 cents per litre for diesel and 2.9 cents for petrol back breaking (atop earlier increases of 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol), I doubt they have the tens of thousands of euros available to buy an EV or even qualify for a loan. Moreover, previous EU government policy, a distortion, encouraged people to buy diesel vehicles because it was “better for the environment.” We now know the lie that was based on. Further, demand for Tesla’s affordable Model 3 EV is so great the wait now exceeds two years. Should people be penalised with higher fuel taxes while they wait to buy the Model 3? Moreover, what funds the roads? It’s mostly fuel tax. Do EVs pay fuel tax? No. Do they impart wear and tear of the tarmac like ICE vehicles do? Indeed they do. So, not only are EV buyers beneficiaries of subsidies in the form of tax rebates, they also get free use of the public motorways.

      Due to their limited range before requiring a recharge, I suspect as more EVs enter the motorways we’ll see distortions in home prices as people seek to move well within round-trip range of their employers because people have other tasks to complete in their daily lives than simply driving back and forth to work.

      I’m perfectly content with the masses making as many decisions as possible without constantly being nudged by the government, often under advisement of experts such as economists, to do this and not do that. If the person makes a poor decision on their own, at least s/he understands it was their choice, even one made with imperfect knowledge. When it’s constant government meddling that distorts the market, manoeuvring people to make certain choices in lieu of other ones, people then blame the government, which further erodes faith in the system. Often this distrust then cascades into other domains of the government that had nothing to do with the distortive policies. .

      • Farris says

        “…in the long run of the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.”
        John Cowperthwaite Financial Secretary Hong Kong 1961-1971.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Farris
          Wasn’t Cowperthwaite the brilliant bloke who banned the publishing of economic statistics in Hong Kong? As a result Hong Kong prospered because people just got on with business and weren’t constantly worrying about “the economy.”

      • Gareth says

        One of the primary reasons for the (temporary) subsidies is to encourage uptake of the technology to more quickly bootstrap the new industry sector faster.

        The economies of scale required to compete with global IC vehicle manufacturers is very large, and the encumbents would have no problem discounting at a loss to kill an upstart competitor, because “shareholder value”.

        Most of these manufacturers are often heavily subsidised at a company level by governments, eg taxpayers, some of whom don’t even own a vehicle.

        So, when an excessively simplistic analysts is examined in further detail it seems to be based on preconceived notions that “someone with more than me is always getting a better deal. ”

        It is by those that can currently afford it being early adopters that the price will come down to the point that the optimum tech will be equally available, and isn’t that what we all want?

        • hunter says

          But with all things the climate consensus pushes, the reality is different:
          The poor subsidize the wealthy non-stop.
          And the subsidized industry, wind, solar or EV, remains the virtue pose and rent seeking of the wealthy.
          And the masses are expected to be silent as their costs increase more and their options are reduced.

      • Robinson says

        Why is the false dichotomy of one extreme over another always the go-to simile in discussions like this? Government is in the business of building the pathways we, the people, walk along. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they get it right. The goal here is to optimise it. But before you do that you really need an idea of what the destination is. We used to call this “vision”. I don’t see much of it about at the moment.

        It reminds me of the way pathways used to be made. Someone would design a path over the grass and concrete it over. After a few years, a second path had been worn into the soil by people avoiding the concreted path and choosing their own. Often it’s better not to design and construct the path at all, rather, to wait a while until it’s clear where the path should be.

    • ADM64 says

      No government in all of history has ever been able to “run” the oldest human activity, agriculture. The very belief that “we” can run economies is itself the problem.

      • neoteny says

        the oldest human activity, agriculture

        The oldest settled human activity: before the Agricultural Revolution, there were other human activities (hunting, gathering of wild plant material &c).

    • Jay Salhi says

      “to create conditions that create better market outcomes (e.g. the lowering of CO2 emissions and creation of better energy tech)”

      1. So burdening the working poor with higher energy prices is a better market outcome?

      2. How will taxing the most heavily taxed population in Europe even more lead to the creation of better energy tech?

      3. Cheap, abundant energy is needed to power the economy and enable the innovation that may one day lead to the creation of better energy tech that may replace fossil fuels (such tech does not currently exist). Carbon taxes are not the answer.

    • derek says

      What do you think a free market economy does? It is the sum of decisions of millions of people.

      The planned economies of the EU are the source of the unrest.

      And do you know what single technological innovation has had the most effect on CO2 emissions? Fracking, which found enormous amounts of natural gas making it possible to replace coal burning electrical generation plants.

      Tell me what expert, what economist, what government agency came up with that technology?

      • @derek-
        “Tell me what expert, what economist, what government agency came up with that technology?”

        This illustrates the problem with Mr. Parvini’s essay.

        The word “expert” is used so loosely as to be meaningless.
        Fracking was in fact developed by experts- geologists, engineers, financial analysts and many others.
        And like all experts, they put together you guessed it, predictive models of how the system would behave, both physically and financially, using the same econometric models as government agencies.

        But see, you and Mr. Parvini already know this, everyone does. So when you use the word “expert” in this abstract way it becomes impossible to tell what it is that you and he are actually talking about.

        • Michael Greenberg says

          Nope, fracking was developed by outliers who didn’t listen to the experts telling them it was not feasible.

    • Good point, Aylwin. We believe in democracy…now if only those damn people will just vote the way we experts know is best for them.

    • hunter says

      Yet not a single climate consensus driven policy has had the effect of reducing CO2 or influencing the climate.
      France, whise government is deliberately moving away from the only actual CO2 free power system, will only become worse, not better, in terms of energy costs and CO2.
      Germany’s extremely expensive climate driven policies is now openly admitting failure to reduce CO2.
      Energy is in important ways the equivalent of freedom.
      Making energy more expensive and less reliable is the goal if the so-called Greens.

  3. Jan de Jong says

    I like this piece. The climate alarm issue is a good example. Fashion rules unfortunately, physics not so much.

  4. Yanick L says

    What’s the argument here? Our predictive models aren’t perfect, so we shouldn’t consider them when making decisions which affect the future? I strongly disagree with this position and I don’t think the author even begins to make his point beyond a (in my opinion, unjustified) comparison between predictive modeling and mysticism. This is one of the weakest pieces on Quillette.

    • Neema Parvini says

      The point is the bast majority of people have no of knowing if these models are accurate or not and so are forced to put faith in the intellectual class “who know better”. Your argument seems to be that this is as things should be and woe betide he who questions it. My argument is that this attitude is how useful idiots are created.

      • Yanick L says

        Thanks for the reply. Yes, I can agree that there is a need for the modelers to communicate better with the public so that someone who wants to see the details of the model and not have to rely on other people’s expertise can do so. This is made difficult by the fact that these models are complicated, filled with math, somewhat difficult to explain, and not so accurate that their demonstration is made trivial.

        This said, that’s not how I originally read your text; it seems to claim that the “alleged experts” are “lying, whether they know it or not”, and that models should not inform policy-making. That seemed a bit extreme, because modeling is just a tool that helps us try to avoid those failure modes which we can, to some degree, anticipate; I don’t think they actively drive us towards catastrophic failures. As such, they still seem useful to me. I think that was the main point of disagreement.

        I would agree with the more modest claim that governing by “a model said it” without going through the motions of explaining to the public what a model says and why it is useful is a recipe that creates a disconnect between the general population and the decision-makers.

      • ga gamba says

        Dr Parvini,

        I always enjoy your articles.

        Not only do the masses not question what’s put before them, often the journalists themselves fail to report the findings accurately. This can be attributed to basic ignorance of the subject. It can also be found in more deceptive reporting, such as cherry picking certain preferred findings whilst omitting the caveats. Journalists cmay also skew public perception by failing to report at all research that contravenes preferred narratives. Journalists compound this problem by failing to hyperlink the study in their reports, or hyperlinking to other news reports that have committed the same fouls.

      • Lydia says

        Exactly! And I appreciate your mentioning Calvin’s use of solas to control. My arch enemy. But here is the rub. Calvin viewed himself as a sort of philosopher king annointed to teach and control the ignorant. So basically, he escaped the totally depraved and unable categories for humans due to his special anointed status . I see similar parallels among our govt and expert classes.

      • Much as I like your post, Dr. Parvini, I must point out we *do* have a test of the accuracy of experts’ claims about their models. If they could predict well, they’d be rich- there’s a futures market for almost everything. So we do have a way of knowing. In fact, most experts predict poorly…your point.

        That’s not a defense of ignorance nor attack in intellectual inquiry. But it’s a refutation of experts who demand we accept their pronouncements on faith. That’s your point, I think. And you are quite right.

    • Richard Russell says

      That’s right: we shouldn’t use predictive models–they don’t work, and very often lead to catastrophic societal/political decisions and policies. It’s just “Theatre des Experts”…

    • Gareth says

      @Yanick L

      The point is when science becomes dogma and shuns or punishes those who question the dominant members of the relevant “club”, then it is no longer science, but religion.

      Once this occurs genuine progress is stifled and sub optimal decisions are made across society up to the highest levels, sometimes causing more harm than the real or perceived problem.

  5. It is hard to read this piece without sensing a bit of dishonesty in it, where the an appeal to “The People” and various dark descriptions of aristocratic elite are tossed out, but then discarded once the author gets to his real agenda.

    Mr. Parvini’s real point here is to attack the current preference of economists for predictive modeling in favor of, well, it’s not quite clear what. So without a suggested alternative, his argument can’t really be engaged.

    Like a lot of populist appeals, the invocations of moneyed elites versus common people are not plausible.
    Does Mr. Parvini suggest the common people confiscate their wealth via taxation or something? Doubtful, since he also invokes Mises.

    He also argues that the nations are governed by experts, and makes the twin arguments they are both self serving and blind to their own incompetence.

    But again, without some countervailing argument, what conclusion are we to draw? That expertise doesn’t matter? Or that we just need better experts?

    These dangling unanswered questions suggest that there is something else lurking behind this argument, something Mr. Parvini won’t say outright.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Chip

      This seems to be the most useful comment here. Indeed the experts get things wrong, but what alternative is offered? Contrary to many here, I’d say Mr. Parvini’s case is almost trivially true, but no alternative is offered. And no, the bulk of the people are not going to get degrees in economics such that they can usefully form their own opinions. We are stuck with the ‘experts’.

      • “This seems to be the most useful comment here”

        @Ray Andrews, what do you mean “most useful comment here”? It’s the most useful comment anywhere!

        You and others limited to their earth minds read the article. I read the mind BEHIND the article. I know what Macron is thinking. I know what Donald Trump is thinking, and I try to tell you all at every opportunity, but nobody listens. And in particular, I know what the author is thinking, rather than just what he writes down for us to see, hence my comment about his “real agenda.”

        I know what you’re thinking about what I’m thinking about what you’re thinking. to answer your question, I was abducted by beings from the Middle Dimension who gave me my abilities to look into other people’s deep minds (or lack of minds, as is more often the case). I can sense right now that you are skeptical, but that’s understandable. My Kingdom is not of this world; it is of the Middle Dimension. I live in Los Angeles, which is a spiritual vortex. I have been sent to this comments board to bring the light. I am the bridegroom. My compassion is infinite.

        In fact, my real name isn’t “Chip.” If you knew my real name, you’d be amazed. It’s YUGE.

      • Gareth says

        @Ray Andrews

        So, you equate having a degree with being an expert.

        Straight away you reveal that you are drinking the kool aid at full strength and not even aware enough to know it.

        What a degree gets you is right to gain entrance to membership of the “club” or professional fraternity/guild associated, which may be withdrawn if you don’t conform to a fairly rigid set of rules and expectations.

        A significant portion of the population are able enough to evaluate much of the expert opinion, maybe at a lower level of fidelity or confidence, especially with info on the Internet and application of critical thinking. Just depends on interest and free time. eg It doesn’t take 3 years of PhD work to call bullshit on a badly designed study, or poor statistical inferences, sometimes it takes minutes.

        True progress more often than not comes from those outside the “club”, sometimes former members who saw the need to not conform to progress, sometimes total outsiders.

        Lots of references are available how in review groups it is the outsider or novice that potentially has the most to contribute, thos ingrained in the club are inclined to “group think” far too much.

        PS : I have a four year degree in electrical engineering and belong to the relevant “club”, but try to dilute the kool aid wherever relevant. I work with many trades and technical people without degrees who are equally or more useful than many qualified engineers. School teaches you to be good at school, then the real world kicks in and a whole new game emerges.

      • The alternative? Perhaps it is to not allow experts to attempt engineering society. It works well if we leave people to manage their own affairs. You disagree?

    • Peter from Oz says

      The problem isn’t with economists or experts, but with the idea that governments should be tying to run the economy. Like climate, the economy is far to complex for anyone to understand.
      Government must be reduced. Experts should have to sell their expertise on the open market, not to power hungry politicians who like nothing better than another excuse to interfere in our lives.

    • @chip

      >” … we just need better experts?”

      We need more honest experts. Those who won’t run sneaky, hidden agendas, nor suppress facts that disagree with said agendas, nor refuse public debate with informed critics.

      Yes, I know Pollyanna said that too.

    • Lydia says

      “So without a suggested alternative, his argument can’t really be engaged.”

      That’s obvious. History is evidence when it comes to economics. And the fact that we rarely analyze our programs or economic decisions and question the results. Why? Egos, political clout, etc, etc.

      But we do have historical evidence for what definitely does not work. Because humans are not robots. They change their behavior to such depending on what’s best for themselves and their family. That behavior can be good or bad depending on the situation presented.

      The models are always in effort to control people.

    • hunter says

      So unless a person offers the alternative, their critique of the status quo is invalid, if I understand you correctly?

  6. PaulNu says

    Why isn’t there a standard measure of the success rate for prognosticators of all sorts? I can look up a hundred different stats and tell which athletes are best, but I have no idea which of my local weather forecasters is best. I would like to know which economists are objectively best based on the accuracy of their past predictions. I want to know which politicians have most accurately predicted the effects of their new laws and regulations and social programs.

    This sort of information seems like it would be very valuable in a lot of different fields. This seems like an opportunity for an institution to really make a name for itself by filling this as yet unmet need.

    • AC Harper says

      The only thing I can think of like this (I expect there are more, but not as visible) is the business section of newspapers which often provide an analysis of different fund managers performance over the previous year. Regrettably I can’t work out if a successful fund manager is particularly good or just lucky. Even the ‘bad ones’ are occasionally more successful than their more consensus driven competitors.

      Now imagine ‘proper’ analysis of government budgetary success and/or economic modelling. If the results are poor then unforeseen circumstances will be blamed. If results are good, no-one is going to own up to being lucky.

      I used to keep the ‘year ahead’ astrological predictions in the end-of-year edition of magazines. I never found any reliable correlation with ‘events’ later (I wasn’t expecting any, so retrospective justifications never gained traction).

      So I guess if there was to be a University Department keeping track of prognostications in various fields then the bulk of their effort would be spent in recording the assumptions going into a prognostication, and the remaining work in identifying what would count as success *before* the model was allowed to run. This would at least minimise the post-hoc excuses.

  7. Interesting, but:-
    “In the long run, there is no such thing as an unpopular government.”
    That depends on how long a run Mises meant. Very unpopular and utterly tyrannical governments have lasted for centuries and been the norm for most of the world for most of history.

  8. James Lee says

    I enjoyed the article, thanks.

    A key issue for me is the lack of accountability of our technocratic elites… as Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, our experts face little to zero consequences for disastrous decision after disastrous decision.

    In the USA, the neocon elites told us that Iraq would adopt Western norms and celebrate their “liberators”. The aggressive policy was spurred on by progressive media outlets like the New York Times and CNN. Instead, we had internecine slaughter and a power vacuum that supported the growth of ISIS.

    Hillary was a key figure behind the assassination of Qaddafi in Libya. But somehow we didn’t see the genesis of a new Western style democracy. No, we saw the establishment of open air slave markets and the flooding into Europe of economic migrants through a failed state.

    The 1980s foreign policy in Afghanistan armed and trained the precursors to Al Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden himself, to fight the Soviets. That worked out real well.

    And yet the panoply of neocons who supported many of these disasters–including Max Boot, David Frum, John Bolton, and Hillary herself– are still in positions of influence.

    As to the 2008 economic crash, there was zero penalty paid by our financial elites. When they dangerously gamble and win, they keep the profits. When they dangerously gamble and lose, the public pays for the losses.

    A society run in this manner is unlikely to continue. But as the author suggests, our elites appear to be well sheltered from the consequences of poor decisions.

    As Macron said, “let them eat cake.” Didn’t he?

    • Stephanie says

      @ James, some accountability is certainly lacking, but you can blame Bill Clinton for the US having to bail out the banks. His housing policy compelled banks to lend to sub-prime borrowers, promising to cover for the inevitable losses. Just like with the US’ misadventures in the Muslim world, the fundamental problem is that elites tend to think everyone is essentially the same as them. Having spent all their formative years at universities where people from all over the world are homogeneously similar to them, they can’t help but project that onto everyone else. Why wouldn’t a poor person be able to afford a house? Why wouldn’t Arabs be happy to be free?

  9. I am amused (not in a good way) at how “economist” is repeatedly in scare quotes. Also amused at praise aimed at Ludwig von Mises for taking unfalsifiable musings to task, even while his own economic theory is based entirely on unfalsifiable axioms and an explicit rejection of the need for empirical validation. This reads like a B-rate Nassim Taleb. Not good.

    • neoteny says

      his own economic theory is based entirely on unfalsifiable axioms and an explicit rejection of the need for empirical validation

      All axioms are unfalsifiable.

      As far as empirical validation goes: if someone showed up at your door and claimed that she constructed a right triangle for which the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t hold, how much effort (resources) would you expend to validate such a claim?

  10. Ned Flanders says

    I don’t really agree with your comment, but I commend your use of the trumpism “Not good” to conclude it.

  11. Dr. Parvini, thanks for the article. Always nice to see Mises in the mix. I just wish you had pointed out the conflict of interest that almost all these experts have, namely their dependence – or at least desired dependence – on free government money, in the form of jobs, grants, university subsidization, etc.

  12. Michael Savage says

    No one seriously thinks we can predict the future in the sense of reading history forwards. That’s a straw man. Forecasts like the Bank of England’s are probabilistic assessments of possible scenarios. If you think expert models are no better than soothsayers, you can bet against them.

    • hunter says

      Yet we are putting Trillions into the models of the climate consensus models.
      Inspite if a pesky failure of actually working.

  13. prince says

    I really liked the article.

    A very dangerous phenomenon is the quest of major social and economical engineering based on a long term prediction of the future.

    We are getting better at short term predictions. We can forecast the weather up to 5 days in advance with a decent accuracy. A central bank can analyze the impact of raising the rates by a quarter of a point with reasonable chances of success.

    But we are just terrible at predicting anything is more than an incremental, short term adjustment of the present. Trying to predict the stock market a year from now isn’t possible. Predicting the impact of a interest rate increase done 18 months in future is not something any central bank will do. Predicting the climate two or eight decades from today borders on lunacy.

    Any long term prediction is virtually falsifiable at the time of prediction. Today we can laugh at the 9 feet manure depth predicted for London’s streets based on the growth trajectory of the city population and the correlated growth in the number of horses needed to operate the city. But it took decades for this prediction to be recognized as false.

    “Predictions are hard, especially of the future” said Yogi Berra.

    As an intellectual exercise long terms predictions are fine. But as a social engineering tool which has massive implications for our way of life their siren call must be resisted at all cost.

    • Rick Phillips says

      I have been close to a fair bit of modeling in my day. Modeling is a useful exercise. Modeling is also a useful guide for decision makers providing the modeler ensures decision makers are aware of the limitations and uncertainties surrounding a particular model result. A model’s most useful attribute is that it requires the modeler (assuming an honest modeler) to try and figure out why the model’s results fail to reflect observed reality.

      The problem with modelers in decision making areas with significant potential for political controversy is that they seem to be under enormous pressure to be unequivocal. This leads to suppression of insights into the uncertainties associated with the model’s equations and the data that drives them. Once an area becomes political there is also significant incentive to dismiss and/or attempt to suppress criticism of the model and/or supporting data.

      It is a poor modeler who succumbs to a decision maker’s and/or PR need for certainty. In a world where the need for advocacy trumps the need for truth there have, unfortunately, been too many examples of model results being made the equivalent of the tablets that Moses brought down from the mount.

      • Gareth says

        @Rick Phillips
        Most models on their own are poor to average use even assuming they take a reasonable subset of relevant factors into account.

        But in many cases, even simplified models used in conjunction with sensitivity analysis start yielding useful real world results.

        Yet, it is very rare for anything other than a single “result” to be published in any kind of general media.

        Similar to the uselessness of quoting an average without accompanying info like std dev, median and/or sample size, a single model state output as an answer gives no idea as to the robustness/stability of the result to varying model parameters.

        Blame probably lies with both the originator/communicator and the media publisher/editor in different ways. Everyone in the study chain needs to lift their game to retain engagement and relevance with the public, who are often the actual funding source or wear the consequences of uninformed decisions and policy.

  14. Rick Phillips says

    One possible avenue to address the criticism associated with the more complex “black box” analysis associated with, for example only, climate change modeling; would be to run raw temperature, or sea level data series through standard and relatively simple financial market analysis.

    This type of analysis is particularly adept at determining trends, momentum, variances and cycles (and the strength of same) without necessarily assuming causality and perhaps less controversially. Such data is after all simply a time series like the price data that underlies financial analysis. Correlation and relative strength analysis is also possible again without assuming causality.

    Such analysis would be another way of looking at changes through time and if whole time series were included address criticisms about the perhaps inappropriate use of particular comparison bases or starting dates in analysis that attempts to support or refute model outcomes. Of course this assumes the raw data is consistent over time and I understand this is at issue in some cases. I think the onus would be on the analyst to clearly explain any modifications to the underlying data set.

    The search and confirmation of causal factors of course follows such analysis assuming it turns up something interesting.

    If anyone is aware of this approach being applied I would be grateful for a look at it. At present I admit to some confusion with the state of analysis done in support of what is truly significant policy making (in the case of our example)…. at worst I have at least some sympathy with @Hiro Kawabata’s comment above.

    • Jackson Howard says

      Very simple and even fully analytical climate models have been developped in the early days.
      As we say in physics : working from first principles can provide great insight.

      I can only recommend “Learning from a simple model” : http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/04/learning-from-a-simple-model/

      Which is very well done and involves zero “controversial” science. (Or we might as well ditch physics completly and call it a day)

      And it did. Arrhenius analytical model is trivial to understand, and great at showing the elementary mechanics at play. It’s just that computers allow to include more detailed interactions, finer meshes etc… but at their core, they are far from difficult to understand.

      As for complex models being unreliable, I can only disagree. Adaptative mesh simulation for airflow work great, MC for particle physics and radiotherapy works great, Meterological models became accurate to 5 days and so on. It seems to me that models are accused not to work only when their predictions do not accomodate one’s ideology.

      As for the OP : I find the piece quite flimsy and erring on the very postmodernist notion that everything and anything is a valid opinion. Expertise is a very much needed thing, our economic system would not run without it. Then again, I clearly distinguish expertise from credencials, which should correlate, but at times are not.

      Finally : Macron policy is pretty much work law deregulation + new moving tax burden from the upper quintile to the lower one. No wonder it blew up. The worse part is that the “green” fuel tax would have been used mostly to fund the ineffectual french state, and not green tech.

      French work law deregulation was really a good move, as red tape really hampered the small and medium businesses. A business friendly environnement and weaker syndicates was something badly needed in France.

  15. Interesting article and comment thread.

    One thing that’s missing from the conversation is the distinction between the climate science itself and the RESPONSE to the climate science. Bjorn Lomborg does not dispute the validity of climate science modeling but points out that carbon-based solutions are a poor way to prioritize costs compared to all the various other ways we might be spending those billions of dollars, which can achieve far more predictable effects right now (in such areas as poverty, disease, nutrition, female contraception, etc.)

    Another point concerns the “vision of the anointed” concept as applied to the specific case of climate science. I am familiar with Sowell’s theme, but I have never been persuaded that it applies very well to climate science, and indeed, I think this may be a sort of blind spot for Sowell, which I say hesitantly because he is such a genius. But there seems a distinction to be made between large-scale social engineering projects (such as Marxist or feminist-influenced) and climate models. First, the climate modelers themselves aren’t necessarily advocating policy–if they were, those policies might rightly be viewed with skepticism. They are simply attempting to make predictions based on what is presumably the greatest degree of expertise available to make them.

    In short, Macron’s error, as far as I can tell, is not “believing” climate science, but failing to calibrate an appropriate response to that crisis. Reducing carbon emissions in France is not going to achieve much bang for the buck, vis-a-vis global temperatures. I am personally persuaded that the most realistic solution to global warming will be geo-engineered atmospheric methods, call me crazy.

    • hunter says

      Climate science has as little to do with the climate consensus as Evolutionary science had to do with the eugenics policies that were embraced by the elites and mass media of the day.

  16. Rick Phillips says

    There seem to be a number of communications issues not addressed by the simple model.

    The problem as I see it from a educating the public perspective is that the model outputs have been criticized on the basis that those results do not seem to match observed data unless that data is modified. Working from first principles may provide a persuasive rational for an effect but “forcing” the data to conform less so. There are rationales provided for this of course but they need to be better explained.

    With respect to the economics, I refer you to Nordhaus (who recently won the Noble prize for his work on the economics of climate change) and in particular to Table 1 or 4 DICE’s Relative Benefits of Different Climate Policies found for example at https://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2018/MurphyNordhaus.html
    Economic models are sometimes even denser than other models but notwithstanding that his results deserve a significant policy discussion. His results suggest trillions (as opposed to billions) in costs and few scenarios where allocating those trillions results in current targets being met.

    I can only assume that policy makers are concerned about low probability but catastrophic outcomes and seek to reduce the potential for those. Otherwise Lomborg’s group has a point that needs to be addressed by more convincing argument.

  17. janby says

    Thought this might be of interest for discussion.

    Philip Tetlock, a UPenn professor and co-author of “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,” concluded the following:

    1] people suck at forecasting the future,
    2] experts predicting the future about as well as dart-throwing chimps and the more FAMOUS they are, the WORSE they do, and
    3] a small subset of “experts” he calls SUPERFORECASTERS are actually pretty good at making predictions.

    The latter group are NOT experts in the normal sense; rather, they are intelligent folks who calculate probabilities using an “outside view” and refrain from letting personal beliefs or confirmation bias occlude their analyses. Their process stands in clear contrast to the talking-head so-called experts saturating our media. Tetlock divides predictors into camps:

    THE HEDGEHOG [poor predictors, over-confident, use words like “moreover,” “impossible,” or “certainly,” satisfied with conclusions so don’t subject them to continual reexamination]

    THE FOXES [successful predictors, pragmatic, open-minded, constantly question their own assumptions, aggregate info from a wide variety of sources, couch their language in possibilities/probabilities and deploy words like “however,” “but,” “although” and “on the other hand,” NEVER totally satisfied with conclusions and subject them to continual reexamination which is an attitude Tetlock calls “perpetual beta.”]

  18. Morgan Foster says

    “We are compelled to trust in the expert, which boils down to little more than a character judgement. ”

    Something not discussed enough, in my opinion, in pieces such as this, is trust on the part of the governed. There are plenty of failed predictive models – failed in the sense that what was predicted was not at all what happened – which leads to skepticism of new, untested models from yet more experts.

    But aside from this, there’s an increasing sense that many experts are dishonest. They cheat. They lie. Enough of them are caught each year and disavowed by their universities. They are easily discovered on the internet by the governed, people who prior to its development didn’t have the time or the opportunity to discover these cheats.

    And it seems that more and more of the governed have family members in academia who are willing to talk about peer pressure, the political necessity of staying within the lines of consensus for tenure and promotion, and even the unsavory game of peer reviewed journals.

    So, gone are the days when the governed – the gilets jaunes – are willing to assume that a climatologist or an economist, for example, is more honest and trustworthy than a person of their own class. And if a climatologist, writing about climate change, is presumed to be no more honest than a randomly chosen forklift driver, then the governed will continue to find it difficult to place their trust in experts.

    • We should trust in the experts they are correct, because they are experts. Name one thing the experts have gotten wrong in ahhhhh nutrition etc. I can’t remember can we eat eggs now or are they bad for us. Now let’s add ten thousand more variables and predict what happens 100 years from now.

  19. hunter says

    London, with its non-rational anti-science “Extinction Rebellion” is now trading places as the city of death and madness in the 21st century rewrite of “A Tale of Two Cities”.
    Macron Antoinette is basically saying, “Let them drive Teslas” to the masses who are finally waking up to the madness of the climate consensus.
    It will be an exciting time. In the Chinese curse sense of the phrase….

  20. Pierre Pendre says

    I can’t say if government credibility is at an all time low but Mrs May’s, as she tries to convince us that her sell-out is the Brexit people voted for, is surely not far off rock bottom. It’s as if she’s asking: “Who’re you plebs going to believe, me or the evidence?”

    Since Carney and Hammond are both remainers and head organisations whose track record in getting things wrong is impeccable, their forecasts of no deal catastrophes are treated like broken druidical pots from a clapped out dig; interesting but irrelevant. People are grasping that governments are not neutral. They have interests of heir and their interests are not necessarily the same as those of the people they govern. When the two do not coincide, they abuse their power to secure their own interests.

    The Brexit scare stories the media peddle almost all originate with the government. (This is the same media, bedrock of democracy blah blah, that jeered at the EU unrelentingly for the last 50 years.) People no longer know what to believe. This is Mrs May’s intention. People who are confused – and this includes the average MP – are easier to shepherd in a desired direction which in this case is back to the EU fold.

    At this stage, it’s not clear whether the clean Brexit a majority want will happen. I hope it does and if it doesn’t I will give my support to whoever looks most likely to smash Britain’s sham democracy and, along the way, grind the meretricous Tory party to a dust so fine that it will be impossible to recreate in any shape or form.

    As a rule of thumb, I believe that whatever is the settled opinion of the Great&Good to be wrong and even if I hadn’t favoured it long beforehand, I would be for Brexit whatever the cost. About what the pro-EU experts and self-appointed panjandrums think, I do not a damn give. This is a once only chance.

  21. Maybe the mistrust comes from being governed by folks put in place due to skin color, genitals, and now, who they have sex with. We have chosen to prioritize these things in the place of competence. (Worst case scenario perceived competency). Even the lib tards that created this do not inherently trust based on non competent factors. Why would you.

  22. Robert Farrar says

    I like Quillette, but I am shocked to see you publishing such a silly piece.

    Let’s have a look at the claim that “most people don’t have time to dig into the specialist literature…” Before Britain’s EU referendum there was a slim book published by the politically neutral Electoral Reform Society that gave some basic information about what the EU is, and then set out the arguments for remaining and leaving, in a pretty balanced way, quoting politicians and commentators on either side. The book was about 90 pages long and could be read in a couple of hours. It was available in all bookshops, prominently displayed by the till. But presumably very few people bothered to read it, because the morning after voting to leave the EU, the most popular Google search in the UK was, “What is the EU?”

    Two years and a half years later, it appears most people in Britain still have little idea what the EU actually is and does, presumably because they have been too lazy to pick up a book or to spend time researching online, where the sum total of human knowledge is available for their perusal, free of charge.

    If you choose to believe that you “don’t have time to dig into the specialist literature,” then by implication you must be OK with other people, for example politicians and bureaucrats, doing that research on your behalf and taking those decisions for you. And I would then suggest that you are in no position to complain about things being stitched up by “elites”.

    But if you are too busy or lazy to do some research yourself when important questions arise, and you don’t want “elites” to take decisions for you, how exactly do you propose that anything gets decided? Should we just fight it all out on the streets? Would that yield the most rational outcome?

    The EU is a peace project that, sadly, now finds itself an easy target for the paranoid on both sides of the political spectrum. The people who are standing up for it are the centrists — people who want to continue to live their lives, trading and mixing with their neighbours in a fair and friendly way. And Quilette should be standing up for it too.

    • Robert, your comment is one of the silliest things ever published on Quillette. “EU is a peace project” is ridiculous. It is about imposing a central bureaucracy on the supposedly benighted citizens of European countries.

  23. This piece strikes me as little more than one elite individual appealing to the masses to do the dirty work they can’t do themselves. Are their elites who use “the people” nefariously? Surely. But the only logical conclusion of your piece is we must remove these elites in some way. It’s a story as old as time. There will always be experts. Hierarchies will become corrupted. Surely some have. But the idea of a world without experts? Experts are not mystics. The scientific method is not mysticism. You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

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