September 23, 2012 | Graham

Fish rot from the head part 3: Why Lewandowsky’s “free market” questions are nonsense

Lewandowsky’s paper is cross-disciplinary. It combines psychology with economics and political science, but none of the authors has any academic qualifications in that area. As a result the questions that seek to measure adherence to “laissez-faire free-market economics” are nonsense.

To start “laissez-faire” (Fr, “to leave things be”) and “free market economics” are one and the same thing, so his terminology is inexact, at best.

This hazy thinking pervades his first question, and is made worse by his use of a four point answering system rather than the standard Likert scale.

Q1. “An economic system based on free markets unrestrained by government interference automatically works best to meet human needs.”

How to answer this question? Anyone who understands economics realises that “free markets” are actually a product of government as governments enforce, and often invent, the rules that make them work. So the question is a nonsense, and anyone with even slight familiarity with the theorists in this area would know that.¬†While there is a lunatic fringe who thinks government is completely unnecessary, it is tiny.

However, the options that one has is to either agree or strongly agree on the one hand, or disagree or strongly disagree on the other. So, you either side against “free markets” or for them, and signal your discontent or otherwise with the wording of the question by the degree to which you hold that opinion.

From memory I agreed. Because what the question expressed is an impossible system I assumed that he meant a free market system with minimal government interference. If he had given a neutral “neither agree nor disagree” then I may well have picked that. But forced to choose, the empirical evidence is in that the free market does work best to meet human needs (another ill-defined concept).

Lewandowsky then poses this question:

Q2. I support the free market system, but not at the expense of the environmental quality

Acute readers will realise straight away that this isn’t English. Apparently you can be a professor in an Australian university conducting commonwealth government funded research and yet not be able to express your survey questions in standard English.

But let’s assume that by “the environmental quality” he means “the quality of the natural environment”, it is still a nonsense proposition. Again, empirically we know that free market economies provide the best protection to the environment, so there is no choice to be made. But if one assumes there were a choice, what is that choice? It is not stated. If we don’t support the free market, what do we support? Communism?

If he had phrased the question “I support the free market system, but with safeguards to protect the quality of the natural environment” it would have made sense, but many of the free market adherents would also have shown up as being environmentally concerned. Asked this way a rational human, aware of the evidence, has to give some degree of support to the proposition, but in the process look as though they aren’t concerned about the environment.

I’m not going to micro-analyse the next four questions, but they suffer from the same defects as above. They have a defective scoring system, embody false dichotomies and straw cases, and are terminologically inexact (for example he brings in a further variation of free markets which are “free and unregulated markets”, which on top of everything else is a contradiction in terms).

The questions are:

Q3. The free-market system may be efficient for resource allocation, but is limited in its capacity to promote social justice

Q4. The preservation of the free-market system is more important than localised environmental concerns

Q5. Free and unregulated markets pose important threats to sustainable development

Q6. The free-market system is likely to promote unsustainable consumption

Another fault with his economic construct is that it purports to measure only one thing – adherence to free market economics – but without measuring the alternatives to the free market he has no way of accurately situating the economic views of his respondents. He also has no way of measuring the different types of free market belief.

What he should have done was to construct a matrix of economic beliefs from the free market to the command economy and then placed all of his respondents in that matrix. It is an approach commonly used in political science and would have cured most of the conceptual issues he has with economics.

By asking the questions he does, what he reveals is his personal bias that you have the free market on one side and the environment on the other.

But that is what his survey is all about. He equates free-market economics with anti-science and the environment with science. He then tries to equate free-market economics with conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories with anti-science.

In fact, he is the one who is anti-science demonstrated in poor survey construction, substandard understanding of concepts and meaningless statistical analysis of tiny samples, all techniques in search of the pre-manufactured conclusion that people who are skeptical of the IPCC reports are mad. This is a clear example of projection.

Posted by Graham at 11:36 am | Comments (2) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Graham, I’m quite partial to a good conspiracy theory. In any well run conspiracy, there is always someone at the helm who actually understand what he or she wants and exactly how to achieve it?
    Which is arguably more than you can say about/for most govts?
    The laissez-faire approach to deregulated free market enterprise is, I believe, more than anything else, responsible for the GFC!
    Responsible for giving sub-prime mortgages and or houses, to people who could afford neither.
    Killing the mortgage market in the process. And indeed, trying to offset or transfer risk, with the creation of safe as houses, mortgage derivatives, that 1, flooded the world with opaque financial instruments that now only have value, if used for a traditional purpose in an outback outhouse!
    Believe me, 64 trillions worth, of worthless paper, [and pardon the oxymoron,] is likely to keep us well resourced with outhouse paper for some centuries!
    And 2, kicked the debt can further down the road. Which now like so many chickens coming home to roost, must be accommodated/paid for?
    A very wise man, A republican Senator, once said on Q+A, that you always reach a point, where complexity becomes fraud!
    Many nation state Govts, found that derivatives enabled them to simply over spend, give back massive and in truth entirely unaffordable tax cuts, balance the budget and so on. Unfortunately, there is a time limit on these financial instruments; and that is around thirty years max.
    The very nonsense advocated in the critiqued example, is the very economic mayhem, that has created the un-repayable debt, that is all but killing the old economic powerhouses, that once powered up the global economy.
    We do need to find a way out of the terrible mess this visionless, too clever by half, flawed thinking has created!
    And doing what you’ve always done, while expecting a different result/outcome, is more of the lunatics running the asylum madness, that has the world teetering on the brink of another Great Depression, which if realized; and, given the size of the debt, could be the worst and most enduring one of all.
    For Australia, arguably the only way out is to grasp the nettle, and in public or govt owned and resourced enterprise, use the potentially mind blowingly huge, natural energy resources as we own, NO MATTER WHERE THEY LAY, to earn foreign capital. A trillion PA is potentially achievable, given the potential mind-numbing size of our largest energy resource, that lays to our immediate north?
    If these resources, then allow energy consumers to reduce their carbon output by around 75%, all while cutting in the economic afterburners, to once again create/engineer an environmentally responsible, endlessly sustainable, positive growth pattern; and put nations back to work, trade out of; and or, gradually pay down debt! Then in no way could this ever be perceived as any kind of negative outcome!
    Besides, the desirable economic change towards global sustainable energy outcomes still needs to be paid for!
    Ideally, this would be a far more desirable outcome all round, than allowing mindless austerity and history, to simply repeat.
    Alan B. Goulding.

    Comment by Alan B. Goulding — September 25, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  2. Alan, this has nothing to do with my post. I’m not sure why I shouldn’t remove it as being off-topic.

    But if free markets are the problem, how is it that Europe appears to be in a bigger mess than most, and Australia, which has one of the freest economies in the world, is in some of the best shape?

    Now, can we get back to Lewandowsky’s survey?

    Comment by Graham — September 30, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

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