On Bryan Caplan’s Question

Bryan Caplan asked an interesting question on Twitter the other day:

I’m not sure if you can see what I voted for, but I am fairly sure you could have guessed!

But if you think about it a little bit, it’s actually not all that easy to answer this question. As with all good questions, there are nuances and layers. First, I asked my excellent research assistant to tell me more about what the phrase “epistemic value” might mean:

The phrase “epistemic value” refers to the degree to which a belief or piece of information contributes to our knowledge or understanding of the world. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature and scope of knowledge, and epistemic value is a term that is often used in discussions within this field.
Beliefs or pieces of information that have high epistemic value are those that are reliable, accurate, and well-supported by evidence. Conversely, beliefs or pieces of information that have low epistemic value are those that are unreliable, inaccurate, or poorly supported by evidence.
In general, beliefs or pieces of information that have high epistemic value are more valuable to us than those that have low epistemic value, because they are more likely to help us understand the world and make well-informed decisions.


I’ve always thought of the word epistemic as ‘ about knowledge’, or ‘about knowing’. And the phrase ‘epistemic value’ seems to be – as expected – very similar. But that phrase in the first sentence of my RA’s answer is worth thinking about a little bit: ‘the degree to which a belief or piece of information contributes to our knowledge or understanding of the world’.

Now that makes the answer to Bryan’s question more difficult! To the extent that the top empirical papers of the last 5-10 years have been written using economic principles (and I see no reason to assume that this is not the case), they end up telling us more about the world than the principles that they have used. This has literally got to be true by definition.

They might tell us conditions under which, for a given geography and a given time period, these principles are upheld (or not). They might quantify the relationship between two variables, again for a given geography and a given time period. They might explain apparent violations of these principles, and explain why such phenomena occur.

To give you a simple, but completely hypothetical example – imagine a paper that examines how people change their consumption patters in the face of high inflation in America in the year 2021. That wouldn’t make it a ‘top empirical econ paper’ of course – but leave that be for the moment. Standard econ theory will predict that consumers will respond to changing prices by changing their patterns of consumption (more fillers in your burger patties rather than only meat, for example). And this hypothetical paper of ours not only confirms this, but also quantifies it for a geography (USA) for a particular time period (2021).

But that would mean that the epistemic value of this paper is actually more than the wisdom of standard intro econ textbooks. Because your standard econ text will tell you that this will happen, but the textbook will be unable to tell you the extent to which this will be true for a given country for a given time period. That ‘piece of information’ re: the extent is an addition to the knowledge that we get from a standard econ text, and so by definition the paper has more epistemic value.

Whoops. I chose the first option in Bryan’s tweet, and it would seem that I am wrong.

Or am I?

For the year 2021, for the nation of the United States of America, the epistemic value of that paper is higher than the wisdom of a standard intro econ textbook. But the wisdom of the standard econ intro text will apply to all other geographies in the world in the year 2021, and will apply for all geographies for all years to come.

The paper wins in the specific, but becomes by definition inapplicable in the case of the general.

Time to roll out one of my favorite guns from my arsenal:

What are you optimizing for?

If you want more epistemic value for a given space and a given time, option 3 from Bryan’s tweet. If you want more epistemic value in general, option 1 from Bryan’s tweet.

And for having written this post, my own answer still remains option 1, but this post helps me understand that I should ask one of my favorite questions more often.

What say you?