#100wordreview – Quack Policy. Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism (Jamie Whyte) [Book]


I found this IEA publication very difficult to read, because almost every paragraph is flawed; sometimes logically, often evidentially and at times morally. The book takes what any undergrad might learn in Econ101 and applies it to current challenges and policy responses in health and climate change. All with gusto and arrogance. Whyte has little regard for the policy context, or for much of economic thought from the last 40 years. Most arguments depend on false analogies, which are painful to read. In the author’s own words: “Science progresses by ignoring mere opinion, expert or otherwise”. Thank goodness for that.

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8 thoughts on “#100wordreview – Quack Policy. Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism (Jamie Whyte) [Book]

    1. Hi Jamie,

      I don’t have the time or inclination to get into a debate. Others might. Theory vs evidence debates are rarely fruitful anyway.

      It’s weeks since I read Quack Policy, so examples are no longer fresh in my mind. I think most of the logical errors stem from your beyond-tenuous analogies. Your kimchee analogy is particularly weak. What is the purpose of these analogies if not to mislead readers by directing them away from the true context of the policy you oppose? (that’s a rhetorical question!). Evidentially, you are outstandingly selective. If there’s a policy you don’t like you simply argue for the inclusion of additional costs and benefits that lend to an outcome consistent with your views; anyone can do this. You appear to fail to realise the nature of decision making. To do nothing is still a policy decision. If you think that this is the policy that would maximise social welfare then by all means prove it with evidence, don’t just criticise policy on the grounds that there is uncertainty. When I mention moral flaws I refer to inconsistencies in your moral arguments, rather than that you yourself are immoral! I’m struggling to remember an examples of this, but the way you criticise the moral confidence of others (e.g. the ‘listers’) while maintaining immense confidence in your own assumptions is something to behold!

      I think the main problem is that you believe yourself to be speaking from an apolitical position, but you clearly are not. You demonstrate a blind faith in theories without offering a drop of evidence to defend them, which, when you are criticising evidence-based policies, leaves you without a leg to stand on. It’s a shame really. I thought there were some really interesting ideas lurking in the second half of the manuscript, but they are entirely overshadowed by the hubris of your own anti-paternalism. I think works of this nature do a great disservice to the discipline of economics (and to the economists striving to be thought of as on a par with dentists).

      Ultimately, there is no point in demanding (what you see as) the perfect, when it means chucking out the good. This is not useful in policy debates or economics. We aren’t studying mathematics here. It isn’t even physics. Outcomes are seldom perfect.

      As I say, I don’t have time to argue, but please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong.

  1. You haven’t given a single example of the errors that you say pollute almost every paragraph, so I cannot say why you are wrong.

    It is a cheap trick to accuse someone of making certain errors, provide no evidence, and then declare that you are too busy to do so. If you really are too busy to make your case, you should not have made the accusations.

    1. Interesting idea. So you believe that one who makes an accusation has a responsibility to engage in a debate with the accused, even if they have no desire to do so? To what end? Surely it’s OK for me to just state my opinion; I don’t expect or even hope for readers to accept it.

      Clearly you feel hard done by though, which is fair enough. I’ll give you some examples to chomp on if that’s what you’d like. It’s only fair (given my claim of “almost every paragraph”) that I choose an excerpt randomly (as far as that’s possible on a computer screen!). 25 strokes of my scroll wheel and we have…… page 58. Let’s see…

      First sentence of the first new paragraph: “This means that the cleaning costs of living with a smoker almost certainly exceed the health costs.” Erm. No. That’s nonsense. You haven’t provided any evidence of the incremental cleaning costs of living with a smoker (let alone the marginal cost resulting from any increase/reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked). Furthermore, you are “almost” certain… that’s quite a claim to make in a book in which you criticise the implementation of policy based on uncertain evidence, and you have zero evidence to support your claim. This sentence alone fails logically (vis a vis your “this means…” claim), evidentially (given that you are making an evidence-based argument without any evidence) and, in my opinion, morally (firstly because it highlights an inconsistency in your principles with regard to the role of evidence and certainty, and secondly because I find it reprehensible to attach equal worth to an individual’s health as to an individual’s cleaning bill).

      … I’ll not bother with the rest of the page. Hope this satisfies.

  2. I do provide evidence that the cleaning costs exceed the health costs. It comes before the sentence you quote. It is sketchy but intentionally so, because all that matters for my argument is that the cleaning costs are material. Once you see that they are, the question is why the government should prevent people from accepting the health costs of passive smoking when it does not prevent them from accepting cleaning costs of it. What is the relevant difference between health costs and cleaning costs? That is the question those who want to ban smoking in enclosed public places need to answer, and the exact size of the health and cleaning costs is neither here nor there.

    Your claim that it is “reprehensible to attach equal worth to an individual’s health as to an individual’s cleaning bill” is a perfect statement of the bigotry I meant the chapter to expose. Health is not the only good. It must be traded off against other scarce goods. If people value their health highly, then any decent method for measuring health costs will capture this and assign high costs to even small increases in the chance of illness or premature death. But, once this is done, there is nothing reprehensible about treating health costs the same as any other cost. Indeed, that is the whole point of the value-of-a-statistical life approach. It helps the authorities make sensible decisions about trade-offs involving health. So, far from being “reprehensible to attach equal worth to an individual’s health as to an individual’s cleaning bill”, it would be reprehensible not to. Anyone who refuses to must be over-weighting health — applying a valuation higher than that of the individuals involved.

    If you really do find trade-offs between health and cleaning reprehensible, how do you go about your business as a health economist? Or perhaps you are a health theologian.

    1. You don’t provide evidence. Check again. Sure, I’m a health theologian. There are many relevant differences between health costs and cleaning costs that mean they’re of unequal import in policymaking. I’m not going to guide you through the literature.

      1. “I’m a health theologian”
        Is that another way of saying ‘health fanatic’? It doesn’t sound very scientific. Anyway, thank you for bringing this book to my attention – I suspect I will enjoy it a lot more than you did.. 🙂

    2. This is not an economic argument but a normative, value judgement couched to make it sound like you are stating objective facts and Chris Sampson is a moral fanatic. If part of your argument is that we should take into account all relevant costs in a cost-benefit analysis, then I agree, but I’m not sure anyone wouldn’t. However, you seem to mix up factual statements about ‘what is’ with normative statements about ‘what ought to be’. Yes, people have developed methods to try to monetise health and life (there are good economic and statistical arguments against these by the way), and perhaps we can then give health and cleaning the same monetary weighting. But, this is very different to affording them the same moral weight. Perhaps you want to make the case that ethics and morality should not play a role in policy making, but this would be foolish since (1) policies are a product of the social and political climate in which they were conceived and are thus necessarily moral, and (2) no pro-growth policy or money-saving policy would be off limits – kill the old anyone? Maybe there is a little reductio ad absurdum in the latter point; but, if you accept that killing people to save money shouldn’t be done, whatever the monetary value, then you may be accepting a place for morality in policy making. Even if you accept the policy, you are still aware of the moral sentiment and it influences your judgement. An economic analysis could estimate the monetary benefit of the killing the old policy, but what would be the point?

      Clearly then, I agree that researched is influenced in a political way – it is a social practice after all – but you are no different! At a more fundamental level you make an epistemic fallacy – you argue about what the value of health is in terms of what we know about what the value of health is, so you can’t claim that the value of health is commensurable with the value of cleaning because we can measure both of their values. Whether they are commensurable or not depends on what they are not how we know about them or in what units they could be measured in.

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