Economistical Arrogance

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A lot of people think economists are arrogant. We are, even those of us who pretend we aren't. When we talk together, we laugh at how badly people without economics training think. We pity them, and wish everybody had to take a good economics course, not for the subject matter, but to learn how to think better.

I'm writing this up because I foresee having to explain it on many occasions. I will be discussing university administrators and say that economists are smarter. I will be discussing epidemiologists and say economists are smarter. I will be discussing politicans and say economists are smarter. People will get offended and call me arrogant and not want to believe what I am saying.

But the first question, and really the only important one, is whether I'm right. Are economists actually smarter than university administrators, epidemiologists, and politicians? The question of whether they are arrogant is interesting, perhaps, but it's not relevan to whether they are going to analyze situations better than university administrators, epidemiologists, and politicians, and give you better advice. When you need to make a decision, you don't look for the most humble person to give you advice, you look for the smartest. (Or at least the wisest, but we will come to that distinction later.)

So are economists smarter? The answer is obviously yes. You will probably, if forced to say yes or no, admit that you think people with PhD's are smarter than people without them. You will resist by saying that lots of people without PhD's are smarter than lots of economists, but that is only because you weren't trained very well in how to think and write. When one says "X's are taller than Y's," one doesn't mean that every X is taller than every Y. Any reasonable person would agree than men are taller than women, even though some women are taller than some men. We are talking about the average member, or the typical member, or the sum of the group---which are all different concepts but are close enough that we don't usually worry about the fine distinctions.  In just the same way, I mean that economists are smarter than university administrators. And it does not contradict that statement that many university administrators *are* economists--- though rarely are they the smartest economists (one example was Hugo Sonnenschein as President of the University of Chicago). 

PhD's are smarter than the general population. It takes above-average intelligence to pass PhD courses and write a dissertation. It even takes above-average intelligence to gain admission to a PhD program. Most of them require the GRE test, which is pretty similar to the SAT and ACT tests: a test mostly of intelligence but also of general education. As I recall, GRE scores in Physics are the highest, and then comes Philosophy with Economics close behind and then the rest of the pack. Perhaps I'll look that up some day to confirm; it does seem as if Math PhD students would be smarter than any of the rest, but perhaps they fall down so badly in verbal intelligence that they aren't. At any rate, PhD's are intelligent, and people with economics PhD's are above average for PhD's.

I think I could also find data to show that PhD students are far above law students and medical students in intelligence. Certainly my personal experience indicates that it is much easier to get into a top law or medical program than a top economics PhD program, and that is probably just as true of average programs. Very likely--- though I could well be wrong--- Harvard Law students are smarter than Indiana Economics PhD students, but we are talking of averages across programs.