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Stuart Birks

Should we believe the ‘experts’

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Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem, and because they yield few hard tests of what exists and what does not, they afford to the individual a luxury not given by physical phenomena. Within a considerable range, he is permitted to believe what he pleases. He may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable or otherwise to his taste (Galbraith, 1999, p.6) (J K Galbraith, noted economist and President of the American Economic Association in 1972).

In the critically important discussion about the actual solutions to real-world problems, no set of theoretical tools is likely to be fully adequate. Such problems are, almost by definition, too complex to allow theory to be applied simply and straightforwardly. (Buchanan, 1967, p.196) (J M Buchanan, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Economics)

We place a lot of weight on the word of authority figures, especially if they have qualifications and can call on supporting research. The media often report on research as if the findings are points of fact. Is this confidence misplaced?

There are three very simple points that should be remembered if we are to interpret this sort of information realistically. I describe them here in relation to theories as these are central to academic analyses, and use a recent claim by the Principal Family Court Judge as an illustration.

Theories are the product of attempts to identify a few key aspects and basic relationships. However, the three points apply to much of our thinking in general. We all build up our understanding, form opinions, and make decisions on the basis of simplified assessments. Consequently, these points should be useful for critical consideration of any position.

The three points are:

1.Theories are just analogies. They are not definitive descriptions of the phenomena to which they relate, and we cannot claim that they represent reality.

2.Evidence does not prove the validity a theory. It can only be consistent with the theory. There can be numerous alternative, consistent potential explanations. Many of these will be wrong, even though not disproved at that time.

3.Current wisdom is based on convention, that which is commonly accepted at this time and place. The same phenomena may be understood or interpreted quite differently in the past, or in the future, or elsewhere (by a different “conventional wisdom”).

An interview with Peter Boshier by Paul Holmes was broadcast on 29 June 2009. There transcript, at http:/ vnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news/q-paul-holmes-interviews-peter-boshier-2809634, contained this exchange:

PAUL Now your attitude to fathers, Judge. Bob McCroskey of Family First, a thorn in your side I guess, he quotes – well he got this through the Official Information Act, he says the Court remains unfair to fathers. He says 50/50 custody is granted in only 13% of cases, and women get sole custody in two thirds of cases, that hardly seems to be balanced equally between mothers and fathers.

PETER Mm, well one of the good things about the openness of the Court which I’ve been very very comfortable with, is the that we now publish our statistics, and they demonstrate that the times that men get care of their children, pretty much correspond with the times when they apply for them. So to the extent that mothers get care more than fathers, it’s almost exactly proportionate to the number of times that men and women apply. It’s uncanny.

The Judge is claiming that this uncanny statistic shows that the Family Court is not biased against fathers. Let’s look at the three points in turn, considering what they might mean in relation to this claim.

First, theories as analogies

When we use a theory, we are not describing the real world directly. Instead, we are saying, “Imagine if the real world were as in our theory/model”. We can consider theory as presenting an analogy of the real world. This is a very important point. Theories may help us to understand the real world, but they are simplifications, focusing on certain aspects only, and they are artificial constructs.

John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant, (http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html) makes this point very well. Six blind men wonder what an elephant looks like. They take turns to feel an elephant, each touching a different part. One feels the side and thinks the elephant is like a wall, another feels the leg and things the elephant is like a tree, and so on. They are each correct in terms of what they observe, but none of them really has an accurate overall impression of an elephant, and they are all interpreting the phenomenon in terms of another phenomenon about which they are familiar. Saxe goes on to say that, nevertheless, they are all adamant that their interpretation is the only valid one. This means that each assessment is incomplete, but this is not recognised. Individuals can be overly confident about their level of understanding. Moreover, as we have no way of knowing how the parts fit together, we are unlikely to get an accurate overall understanding by combining the perspectives. How would you combine a wall and a tree?

In relation to research and theorising, there can be many theories about the same phenomenon, each of which could be partly valid, but none of which is definitive. Groups of theories are commonly based on particular perspectives, assumptions and existing bodies of knowledge.

Also, dominant perspectives can change. Currently social and political analyses emphasise groupings along gender and ethnic lines, whereas fifty years ago class distinctions would have been used. So our understanding may be heavily influence by the fashion of the day.

In summary, experts are likely to be applying a selective lens, or ‘frame’. They may be relying on the validity of a particular set of simplifying assumptions, theories, and associated research findings. An analogy could be drawn with the person who searches under a lamp post because the light is better there. This is not just a misleading simplification. It can give an inflated impression of our understanding. There is a real danger that, by looking for simplified explanations, the expectation develops that phenomena are simpler than they really are.

What does this tell us about Peter Boshier’s uncanny statistic? There is not too much to say on this point as he has not described his reasoning. He should really be asked to explain himself. It is clear that he does not see the need for something approaching gender equality in relation to care of children. It is not clear whether he is talking about sole or shared care, and whether he is saying that the first to apply is most likely to be granted care. He seems to think that only those fathers who apply for care of their children actually want to care for them, thereby dismissing interim arrangements and perceived attitudes in the court as relevant factors. He may be assuming that male and female applicants are equally competent caregivers. Moreover, it may be that he is just using the statistic as a rhetorical device to give the appearance of support for his position, and that leads on to my second point.

Second, evidence as prove of a theory

We can use information about the real world to see which theories appear to be the most realistic or accurate (or most often realistic or accurate).

There is a problem when it comes to evidence, however. Much of our use of evidence to assess theories is in terms of asking if the evidence and the theory are consistent. In particular, statistical tests can only determine how well the numbers match. The tests are not affected in any way by what the numbers may represent. In a classic illustration considering relationships with the price level, Hendry (1980) showed that his time series data on cumulative rainfall gave a better fit than money supply! The results met statistical criteria, but had little or no economic value.

According to Plato, writing 2,400 years ago, Socrates warned of the risk of believing that we know and understand more than we actually do. He suggested that such an inflated belief was worse than being aware of our limited understanding. It is a real danger, and too often we fall into the trap of overstating the meaning of a match between theory and evidence.

Why is this? Evidence can only show whether our observations are consistent with the theory, or, to word it slightly differently, whether they fail to contradict, or go against, the theory. This does not prove that the theory is correct. For a long time people thought that the sun went round the earth, and much of the evidence available to them was consistent with this view (it failed to disprove the view). There is evidence of sea level changes around New Zealand over past millennia. The level of the sea could have changed, or it could have stayed the same while the land has risen or fallen, or both could have altered. In other words, evidence that is consistent with a particular theory does not necessarily mean that that theory correctly explains a phenomenon. The theory would give just one of possibly a very large number of potential explanations, many of which could in fact be false.

Friedman (1953, p.9) made this point very clearly when he said:

Observed facts are necessarily finite in number; possible hypotheses, infinite. If there is one hypothesis that is consistent with the available evidence, there are always an infinite number that are.

If there is one theory that is supported by the evidence, then there may be an infinite number that are so supported (not contradicted) by that evidence. The existence of evidence that supports a theory does not make the theory the only possible explanation of the evidence.

You will often hear someone say, “Evidence shows…”, or “Evidence proves…”, or even, “Scientists have proved…”. When you do, you can say in reply, “No, all we know is that the evidence used was consistent with this explanation, and may be consistent with numerous other explanations also”. Many researchers claim more than this from their findings. So, according to Socrates, by making this point you could show yourself to be wiser than the researchers.

This is where we can really explore Judge Boshier’s claim. He has presented a statistical finding and used it to support his position. For simplicity, let’s assume that there is no shared care, one applicant per case, all cases involving as male and a female parent, and 100 cases in total. In 20 cases men apply for custody, and in 80 women apply, with awards going 20 to 80 also. What positions might then be supported by this data? Here are a few:

1)We can start with my initial supposition, custody is only and always given to the applicant, in which case awards and applications uncannily match.

2)Now let’s consider if only some applications are successful. Imagine half of male applicants succeed, so of every 20 applicants, 10 get custody. If 20 men get custody, another 10 of the 80 men who don’t apply also get custody. Success rates for males are 50% for applicants and 12.5% for non-applicants, So what happens for the women? Of the 80 women who do apply, 70 (87.5%) are successful, and of the 20 women who do not apply, 10 (50%) get custody. These rates are far from equal for men and women, and suggest bias if men and women are equally capable.

3)We could take case (2) and add some reason to believe that men are poorer cares than women, which could justify the gender difference in rates.

4)We could take case (3), plus additional information (if it exists) that better male carers tend to partner better female carers, so that for most couples the female is a better carer. If so, and the child always goes to the better carer, the statistics could support a claim that there is bias against mothers.

5)We could refine (4). Parents can be principally carers or principally earners. If a father is a better earner than the mother, it may be decided that he should be given that role even if he is also a better carer (economists would refer to the principle of “comparative advantage”). Fathers wanting custody would have to be sufficiently superior as carers to outweigh the perceived advantage as an earner (and payer). Under these assumptions, there is no bias against men, but rather the criteria penalise the man for having built up his earning power. (What signals might this be giving the next generation of men?)

6)It may be that fewer men apply because they perceive a bias. Consequently only men with a strong case would apply, in which event they should be more successful than women. In this situation, the data could reflect a bias against men.

7)Conversely, better and more involved fathers may be more concerned about the risks of losing in court, so they could be less likely to apply for custody. This might mean that the poorer success rate of the fathers who do apply is justified, but that this is due to the signals given by the court. Individual outcomes may be unbiased, but there could be systemic failure.

It would appear that Judge Boshier, in drawing his conclusion, is unaware of many of the possibilities. This leads on to my third point.

Third, wisdom and convention

Caldwell makes a relevant point when he describes “conventionalists”:

The conventionalist view stresses the organizational function of theories: theory construction is undertaken to organize a complex of facts into a coherent whole…In this view, theories are…posited for a time as being true by convention, given consensus within a community of scholars. (Caldwell, 1980, p.367)

You may be familiar with the term, “conventional wisdom”. J K Galbraith defines it as “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability” (Galbraith, 1999, p.8). There is generally an accepted body of knowledge that is passed on by scholars, as in the textbooks of the day. Many aspects may be subject to telling criticism and are likely to change over time. Moreover, these changes may not be improvements on earlier ideas. Instead, they may reflect different emphases, changed social values, or even the preferred explanations of influential groups in society.

Another term that could be related to “conventional wisdom” is “best practice”, the generally accepted way of doing things. Many will simply adhere to these conventions, propounding the view that current knowledge and methodology are correct. There may even be strong resistance to alternative approaches. For example, Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, described ‘normal science’ as, “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by a professional education” (Kuhn, 1970, p.5). He says, further:

“Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community’s willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost.” (Kuhn, 1970, p.5)

Galbraith also suggests that challenges to established views are unlikely to be effective when he says, “The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable” (Galbraith, 1999, p.9). He suggests that support of that wisdom is both a requirement for attaining, and an expectation of those who have attained, high office. History may not view such advocates so kindly, but they are rewarded in the present. Establishment figures are expected to propound the established (dominant) viewpoints.

We like people who can give answers with confidence and an air of authority. Bourdieu (1998) refers to ‘fast thinkers’, people seen in the media who can present commonly-held views unhesitatingly and with assurance. This is expected, encouraged and rewarded, but we may be fooling ourselves. Do people who speak with authority really understand what they are saying, and do they believe it themselves?

So what might this tell us about Judge Boshier’s claim? One possibility is that the Family Court is operating under the belief that it is unbiased. There would therefore be a tendency to interpret any evidence in a way that is consistent with that belief. Once such an interpretation has been found, there would be no need to dig further as prior beliefs have been supported (and possibly reinforced). Those who do not subscribe to these prior beliefs are less likely to be convinced, but, to the “experts”, this is simply because they are self-interested and ill-informed.

I hope that this illustrates how we could generate better discussion and debate by challenging people on the three points above. For example: (i) Does the theory apply in the real world? (ii) What other explanations might there be? (iii) What framework are you using to draw these conclusions? It would be good to see these questions asked more often.


Judge Boshier mentions court statistics on award of care. Recently released data suggest that there has been no marked increase in award of care (sole or joint) to fathers since the mid-1980s (see table 3 of the paper available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1153630). This is despite current measures for shared care being much broader than in the past.


Bourdieu, P. (1998). On television (P. P. Ferguson, Trans.). New York: New Press

Buchanan, J. M. (1967). Public goods in theory and practice: A note on the Minasian-Samuelson discussion. Journal of Law and Economics, 10, 193-197.

Caldwell, B. J. (1980). A critique of Friedman’s methodological instrumentalism. Southern Economic Journal, 47(2), 366-374.

Friedman, M. (1953). The methodology of positive economics. In M. Friedman (Ed.), Essays in positive economics (pp. 3-43). Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Galbraith, J. K. (1999). The affluent society (New ed.). London: Penguin

Hendry, D. F. (1980). Econometrics – Alchemy or Science? Economica, 47(188), 387-406.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2 ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plato (Approx 380 B.C.E.). Apology, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

[Recent papers on related topics can be found at: http://ssrn.com/author=675820]