Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Happiness’

The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

Advertisements

Electing Happiness

There is so much to say about the continuing research into happiness and other indicators of wellbeing. I’m so excited that smart economists like Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank are devoting time to it. Over at the Aspen Ideas Festival they have a must-watch discussion on the latest data. Wolfers collapsed any remaining support for the “Easterlin paradox” and provided completely compelling evidence for a correlation between raising income and rising happiness/life satisfaction. Here’s a graph the New York Times made using Wolfers’ and Stevenson’s research.

Given that high correlation of happiness and rising wealth along with the fairly strong predictive power of the change real disposable income for presidential vote percentage I couldn’t help but wonder if the rate of change in happiness would be even more predictive of presidential elections.

It’s plausible to think that an individual’s change in life satisfaction would be even more highly correlated than income changes since it picks up more factors that might influence someone’s vote. I’m skeptical of any single metric to predict an election, but think my hypothesis has potential to have a higher correlation than many other measures. In contrast, the unemployment rate and change in gross federal debt presumably don’t necessarily have an obvious and direct effect on a particular voter. What could be more direct and encompassing of how issues effect voters than change in subjective wellbeing?

It’s important to look at the change in happiness for voters, not, for example, average happiness. If you look at page 57/figure 20 of Happiness and Income over Time in the United States (average happiness) we see a slightly downward sloping line, but that’s most likely due to the fact that income gains haven’t spread evenly. Similarly, I imagine that’s why GDP growth isn’t as predictive as some might expect.

I don’t have enough data myself to test my hypothesis, but I’d be very curious of the results if any interested political scientist wants a project. Any readers have any thoughts or critiques?

[update: July 18th]: John Sides of The Monkey Cage helpfully clears up some of my questions on this topic. Here’s his email response to me in full:

Dan,

The challenge is that, as far as I know, there aren’t good indicators of happiness going back very far.  A typical economic forecasting model for presidential elections will start in 1952 or so.  The Stevenson-Wolfers paper reports on a handful of early studies, but most of the data is much more recent.  The General Social Survey goes back to 1972, so encompasses 10 elections — still relatively few on which to base inferences.  (This is Silver’s critique of the forecasting models, obviously.)

In general, though, I am sympathetic to the notion that subjective well-being might tap some politically relevant feelings that aren’t captured by GDP or income growth.

Best,
John

I suspected that might be a problem; we’ll have to wait for more data to see if my hypothesis is confirmed. It has some potential though. More frequent measures of subjective satisfaction may be necessary as well.

I strongly recommend everyone to read John Sides and the other contributors at The Monkey Cage – an essential resource for anyone interested in political science.

%d bloggers like this: