August 06, 2009

Because People And Economies Are So Much Alike?

Christina Romer, chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers, today compared the economy to a sick patient.

"Suppose that you go to your doctor for a strep throat. And he or she prescribes an antibiotic. Sometime after you get the prescription and maybe even after you've taken the first pill, your fever spikes. Do you decide that the medicine is useless? Do you conclude that the antibiotic caused the infection to get worse? Surely not. You probably conclude that the illness was more serious than you and the doctor thought and are very glad you saw the doctor and started taking the medicine when you did."
I wish people would stop trying to use logic when they don't know what they're doing. What we have here is a mixture of two fallacies: a false analogy and begging the question. A false analogy results when you attempt to compare two things that have only a superficial similarity. Here, Romer tries to compare a prescription's effect on an illness to the stimulus's effect on the economy. To be fair, I suppose the analogy is not so much false, as it is incomplete. After all, if we really want to examine the analogy, we might point out that there are a number of reasons your fever might spike after taking a pill. The medicine might have some serious side effects (some of which might be worse than the original illness). The patient might also be allergic to the medication, in which case the patient would certainly have been better off not taking it in the first place. A good doctor might take those possibilities into account.

The bigger problem is the "begging the question" falacy, which results when one assumes that the very point being argued has already been proved. For example, arguing that women should not be allowed into men's clubs because they're for men only. Isn't the question being argued whether or not the clubs should be for men only? And that's essentially what Romer does. You'll notice she says the doctor prescribes "an antibiotic." Since we all know that antibiotics are an accepted and effective treatment for strep throat, of course we might not conclude that the antibiotic is useless or harmful (barring the conditions in the previous paragraph). But isn't the question at hand whether or not the antibiotic (the stimulus) is an effective treatment for the strep throat (bad economy)? To initially equate the stimulus with an acknowledged successful treatment is a clear "begging the question" fallacy. A more accurate analogy would have been to compare a doctor giving a patient a prescription that is untested, or that other doctors have speculated to be potentially harmful. In that case, I think a fever spike after taking that first pill would have caused our patient a great deal of alarm, and in fact may have been the result of the medication. In that case, a good doctor might very well take the patient off of that medication and try another one. I only hope others out there can spot the flaws in her logic.

One last thought: If I took a pill and afterwards my fever spiked, or any other symptom showed up, I very well might be justified in thinking the pill is the cause. I certainly wouldn't dismiss the idea as "surely" as Romer does because I care about my health. Perhaps Romer's flawed medical analogy should actually give us important insight into the administration's views on health care...

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