I’m an economist, I know nothing

One of the most difficult things about working in resource economics is being supposed to say something about stuff you actually haven’t a clue about. Does bottom trawling wreck the benthic ecosystem? How high are discard rates? Is the Plaice Box working? I don’t know, but to make an economic analysis I should.

It’s not like economics can’t deal with uncertainty. Sure, in the ideal situation we know everything: if A causes B, and we know the costs and benefits of A and B, we can do a cost-benefit analysis to tell whether A is a good idea. This is when the relation between A and B is deterministic. But mostly the relation between A and B is not.

The natural scientists could say “well, we don’t know for sure whether A leads to B, but what we can tell you is that the probability that A leads to B is 20%”. Most of the environmental economics textbooks call this risk, as opposed to uncertainty, which I will explain below. Risk is something we can deal with. For example, if B costs €100 then the expected value of the “B costs” of doing A is €20. You can also take into account that people don’t like risk, so perhaps they are willing to pay €25 to prevent B from happening if we do A. Note that this is €5 more than the expected value of the B costs; hence the costs of risk bearing are €5.

The natural scientists could also say “sorry, we have no idea. A could lead to B; it may also have no relation to B at all. We simply don’t know, and we can’t give you any probabilities either.” This is what the textbooks call uncertainty. Uncertainty is nastier to deal with (and, unfortunately, also more widespread) than risk. Under uncertainty all we could say is something like “if you do A, the worst that can happen is B; the best that can happen is no B.” There are strategies like maximin (choose the best of all worst outcomes), maximax (choose the best of all best outcomes), and minimax regret (choose the outcome that gives you, in the worst case, the least explaining to do), but that’s about all you can do.

The natural scientists could also say “it depends on who you ask. Some scientists say A probably leads to B, but others are not so sure. This is an ongoing debate in our field.” This is not so different from the previous case, and we could treat it similarly to uncertainty. Let’s call it a case of competing hypotheses.

The worst case, however, is where some scientists tell you “all the evidence suggests that A leads to B, and don’t let those evil impostors from the A institute tell you otherwise. They are paid by the A industry to deny our science.” No surprise that the A institute tells you that the idea that A could possibly lead to B is preposterous, and that anyone who claims that A leads to B is a leftist bureaucrat out to vilify the poor, hard-working entrepreneurs in the A industry, if not to establish an anti-A-ist communist state. Let’s call it a case of polarised hypotheses. Examples abound: genetically modified organisms, climate change, bottom trawling, MPAs.

The problem with polarised hypotheses is that the moment you choose to include a hypothesis in your uncertainty analysis you imply it is something to be taken seriously. I have no idea of climate science, and I don’t have the time to acquire all the knowledge that would enable me to distinguish the genuine scientists from the flat earthers. But I’m convinced that it is easy to take advantage of my ignorance, and that there are a lot of folks out there who try to do so. Is it a coincidence that one of the most prominent climate skeptics was once paid lavishly by the tobacco industry to deny the harmful effects of second-hand smoke? On the other hand, I’ve seen sufficient nonsense in the news (100 cod in the North Sea, all fish gone by 2048, dolphin meat in canned tuna) to be equally skeptical of the toxic combination of overzealous NGOs and lazy journalism.

So what do you do, as an ignorant economist who cannot fully judge the arguments? You check the messenger. Where does this person work? How much has he or she published, and in which journals? What is the disciplinary background of this person? (For example, one of the more prominent Dutch climate skeptics is an economist whose only peer-reviewed publications were in a journal specifically established to give climate skeptics the stage they can’t get elsewhere.) How much of what this person does is science and how much is advocacy? (I’m allergic to the kind of advocacy dressed as science that was behind, for example, the nonsensical claim that the planet’s ecosystem is worth $33 trillion every year. You can’t estimate this value, period.) I tend to pay much attention to contradictions: The Economist, for example, is an economically liberal newspaper that used to play down the threat of climate change, but nowadays it argues in favour of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. As far as I know Richard Tol, who is often quoted by climate skeptics, does not deny that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem. Funnily the skeptics never quote him on that; they only do so when he bashes wind power.

Yes, I know science is not made by majority votes, but that doesn’t mean that I should take into account every pseudoscientist with an opinion. And I know that reputation isn’t everything, and that many revolutionary insights were first ridiculed, but I can’t be a master of all. So I have little choice but to listen to the mainstream.

Overcoming cultural barriers

In 2010 I spent about four months in Santa Barbara, California to teach a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and to write a paper with Christopher Costello. I rented a single room in one of those suburbs that we Europeans only know from Steven Spielberg movies: green, spacy neighbourhoods with all single-story, detached houses. My landlord was a colourful guy named Charlie, who lived mainly from renting out the rooms in his house to students and the occasional visiting professor. He ran a mobile cafe (called Gay Cafe Santa Barbara) in one of those old-fashioned aluminum trailers, the proceeds of which went to some LGBTQ-friendly cause I still don’t fully comprehend. His son drove in a small sports car with the number plate “LESBIAN” which I’m sure was Charlie’s idea.

We got along quite well. Charlie had lived in The Netherlands for a few years, where he picked up some Dutch words and a love for Dutch spiced cakes. (He bought his cakes in the place where I replenished my stock of Indonesian bumbu – the Dutch have an exotic brand of homesickness.) We talked a lot about life in The Netherlands and in California, about politics (like many Californians, Charlie was a staunch Democrat), and other issues. In a place like California, where people are friendly but keep their distance, Charlie was the closest I had to a friend.

One morning I entered the living room and Charlie grinned at me sarcastically, asking: “have you been in the kitchen yet?” On the kitchen floor lay a paper waste bag, torn open where the paper was wet from the coffee grind I had put in it a few days before. Coffee grind spilled from the waste bag all over the kitchen floor. “You know,” Charlie said grimly, “I have once thrown a tenant out because he did this repeatedly.” No need to argue who cleaned up the mess and where wet waste like food and coffee grind went from that moment on. I had learned my lesson.

What went wrong here? Unlike European sinks, many American sinks are equipped with a disposal: an electric device that shreds kitchen waste into pieces small enough to pass through the plumbing system. Apparently, American plumbing systems are designed to deal with such solid waste without clogging. Charlie did tell me: don’t throw wet waste (coffee grind, sauce, tomatoes) in the paper waste bags, because they will tear open. Turn on the disposal, and throw your waste in the sink. “It’s not a sink, it’s a disposal,” he said. But when I had made coffee I just couldn’t get myself to throw it in the sink. In Europe we learn never to throw such stuff in the sink: you may flush it down the toilet if you need to, but sinks get clogged if you throw all kinds of solid stuff in them. Surely he couldn’t mean that I was to throw it in the sink? So I tried to press as much water as possible out of the coffee grind – and in the paper bag it went.

I was reminded of this episode when I thought about the issues in supervising students from cultures very different from my own. For example, I have found that some students from Southeast Asian countries are very reluctant to send their teacher or supervisor work in progress. For me as a supervisor this is a problem. I’d much rather be kept informed of a student’s progress, or lack thereof, than to be kept in the dark for very long. The longer it takes, the more time is wasted if it is done the wrong way. But apparently it doesn’t work like that in Southeast Asia. If you send something to your supervisor (a draft paper, say, or data analyses), you better make sure that it is perfect. Better to send a perfect document five minutes before the meeting than to send a rough draft two days earlier. With the result that neither I, nor our professor, have time to prepare for the meeting by reading the material.

We have tried several ways to convince these students that it is okay to send work in progress. Asking politely. Threatening to cancel the meeting if I don’t get the stuff on time. Explaining patiently why it is better to send incomplete material early than to send complete material late. Getting angry when I receive the material late. But just like I had to overcome a cultural barrier to throw my coffee grind in the sink disposal, I guess these students need to conquer a strong inner voice that says: “surely he can’t mean I’m supposed to send him this?” Yes, I do. I promise I won’t be angry.

A year of Grow Fins

I started this blog a year ago today. I didn’t have any expectations when I started it (I still don’t), so it’s difficult to say whether I’m satisfied with the frequency and the quality of my posts, the reactions, and the readership. But let me try to say a few things.

First of all, I have noticed that blogging forces me to think about the relevance of the work I do. If I go to a conference, what do I learn that I can explain to a lay person? If I publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, how does it relate to a non-academic reader? Another thing is that it forces me to follow not just the scientific literature, but also the public debate. Shortly after starting this blog I opened a Twitter account, and this is a great way to keep track of the debate if you manage to sift through the non-news from some users (look everyone, new boots!) and feel-good tweets from others (did you hug a tree today?). I follow the online news of some Dutch and UK newspapers but I don’t have a high esteem of most of them, except for The Economist, which is the only newspaper I actually pay for. But most news on fishing and other marine issues is too obscure to be published in any of these newspapers anyway, so that most of what you do read is based on press releases from environmental NGOs, or from scientific journals (Nature and Science, basically) that like to publish oversimplified and overgeneralised research (2048, anyone?). Twitter fills this gap nicely.

Second, I try to write one post per week but that’s more difficult than I thought. I cannot begin to grasp how David Zetland writes about 4-5 posts per week. (Perhaps I should write shorter posts, I know.) Sometimes I publish more, sometimes I write more but I save the posts for later. During my Vietnam trip I did this on purpose in order to publish them after my return. (Burglars have internet access, you know.)

Third, Blogger keeps the stats of its blogs so I can get some idea of what has been read and what has not been. In the past year I posted 78 posts, which altogether were read 3196 times. That may seem like a lot (almost 40 reads per post) but the numbers include a bot attack that generated a lot of artificial traffic. Keeping that in mind, the top 5 of most frequently read posts is:

Why economists argue with ecologists (4): Economics and thermodynamics 105
Yet another scientific fraud scandal in the Netherlands 85
Stuff I do: marine invasive species 56
At least they read my CV 48
The Stapel affair: it is worse than we thought and
The Living Planet Report (2): Ecological Footprint makes for nice reading but abominable science

One thing to mind, of course, is that older posts have had more time to be read, and hence get more reads, than newer posts. Here are the most used search terms that led readers to my blog:

dirk smeesters, dirk smeesters fraud, stapel smeesters, dirk smeesters cv
choke species, “choke species” 18
blog “marine economics” 10
laura dean acquisition editor
why economists argue with ecologists

I’m honoured people actually searched for my blog, although I wonder why you would search for a url rather than type it into the address bar of your browser. The two scientific fraud affairs (Diederik Stapel and Dirk Smeesters) were a lot in the news last year, which explains why people search for them, which explains the number of reads for my posts on this topic. Lots of scientists must also be wondering who is Laura Dean, and I’m happy that at least some people found my post where I referred to another blog that explains why this name is associated with one of countless predatory publishers.

But what I like most is that people searched for information on choke species, differences between economists and ecologists, and ecological footprint (not shown here), and found my blog. I know, if all those people were in one class room and I would be teaching them I’d call it a very small class. But it’s enough for me to keep on blogging.