Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying “Isn’t that cool!” But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to “balance” their story.
As Ezra and Kevin Drum point out, this is straightforwardly wrong on the merits: economists have a huge amount of influence over actual public policy, while admiration for physicists doesn’t get you too much beyond the “Isn’t that cool!” level, and occasional appearances on late-night radio. (It’s like conservatives complaining that most university professors are liberal, while they control the government, corporations, and the military.) Atrios and Echidne also point out that the single chosen example of economic wisdom, that the minimum wage raises unemployment, is wrong. And that physicists have quite the demonstrable track record of making statements about the universe that seem counterintuitive at first glance, but turn out to be right.
In fact, I think these three sentences point to a definite failure on the part of physicists to successfully get their message across. We physicists talk about crazy things all the time — extra dimensions, black holes, quark confinement, wavefunction collapse, conservation of momentum, the Earth moving around the Sun. Things that, on their face, seem to be incompatible with our everyday experience. But we don’t just throw these ideas out there randomly; they are hypotheses that we’re driven to by the constraints put upon us by the data. Some of these ideas may turn out to be wrong, and some may be right, and we have certain well-tested procedures for sorting them out. (In the wake of Milton Friedmann’s death, folks have been re-arguing his contention that successful predictions from an economic model are more important than correct assumptions underlying it. I would hope that both are important.) Unfortunately — and to a signficant extent this is our own fault — it’s not always clear to the person on the street which ideas are speculative and which have come to be accepted, nor is it clear that we have good reasons even for the wildest speculations.
But the idea that three dimensions are purple and two are twisted clockwise — that’s intriguing. I’ll have to look into it.
Update: Robin Hanson expands on what he meant about the minimum wage.