The ubiquitous economist, the media, and Plato

It is odd.  No other discipline in the social science gets away with being considered by the media as a jack of all trades as the economist does.  Think about it.  If you go to a neurosurgeon with a question about pancreatic cancer he or she may giggle but they will not answer your question.  Why would you ask an econometrician about say for example a provincial budget?  You would think at the very least the journalist in question would ask if there expert really was an expert in the field of public finance. It is pretty easy to figure that out.  Go to their website and look at their CV and try to answer a series of simple questions:

Does the economist in question of the relevant training in public finance?

Did they write their dissertation on public finance?

Do they teach courses on public finance?

Are any of their peer reviewed papers on public finance?

Do other experts in the field of public finance consider them to be experts on public finance?

I would humbly suggest that the economist in question needs to score at least two out of five on the questionnaire.  And it won’t take any more than 30 minutes of your googling time to get the picture.

If the only answer that you can come with is he or she must know more than yourself because they are a prof and you are not then what you are probing is rhetoric not a considered effort at the truth of the matter.  Punditry, in short.  Which is fine, but then introduce your favourite ubiquitous economist as a pundit not an economist.

So here is one of my favourite passages from Plato’s the Gorgias:

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Gor. Well, Socrates, I suppose that if the pupil does chance not to know them, he will have to learn of me these things as well.

Soc. Say no more, for there you are right; and so he whom you make a rhetorician must either know the nature of the just and unjust already, or he must be taught by you.

Gor. Certainly.

Anyway I realise I have lost my audience by this point, but on the slim chance you are still here, will you just please read it again.

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