Dangers of Interpreting Silence

Writing at EconLog, David Henderson has an excellent short article on his experiences circulating a letter on the 1990 Invasion of Iraq, namely the political claim at the time that Saddam could use his power over the oil market to inflict harm on our economy.

The economics of his argument is interesting enough, but I want to draw attention to some prominent names who did not sign his letter:

Gary Becker
Paul Samuelson
Sam Peltzman

All three are highly renowned economists, and two are Nobel laureates.  Why did they refuse to sign the letter?  Did they know something Henderson did not?  Did they disagree with the analysis?

Fortunately, Henderson gives us some insight into the matter:

Gary S. Becker: I agree with the economic point you made. But I won’t sign. I’m not a signer. Also, Saddam Hussein is a threat in other ways. But I agree that the threat does not arise from his power over the price of oil.

Paul A. Samuelson: This war isn’t about the price of oil.

Henderson: Maybe it’s not but that’s the justification that’s being given by Bush and Baker. [I should have said “one of the main justifications.”]

Samuelson: It is and it isn’t. But I won’t sign.

Henderson: Do you agree with my analysis?

Samuelson: I don’t have any quarrel with your analysis.

Henderson: If I’m ever asked, can I quote you to that effect?

Samuelson: (Pause.) Sure. Your analysis was correct.


Sam Peltzman: The analysis is right but I won’t sign.

Henderson: Can I quote you as saying the analysis is right?

Peltzman: Why do you want to quote me?

Henderson: You’re a name. You said the same thing that Paul Samuelson, Murray Weidenbaum, and Gary Becker said. You guys are names. Can I quote you?

Peltzman: Sure. I don’t care.

All three men agreed with the economic analysis but refused to sign for other reasons.  Without this information, however, it might have been concluded by an analyst that Becker, Samuelson, and Peltzman disagreed with the fundamental analysis; a conclusion we now know would have been incorrect.

Fortunately for us, Henderson was able to keep meticulous records of these conversations.  But if we did not have that record (or could still ask Peltzman as he is still alive), we would have to rely on the evidence of what was actually said/done.  The silence of Becker, Samuelson, and Peltzman would provide no evidence of their opinion on Henderson’s letter.

This story is important given a recent debate on whether or not Jim Buchanan and Public Choice was inherently racist, or somehow a reaction to integration movements in the US.  Nancy MacLean and her supporters have recently constructed an argument that Buchanan was silent on the possibility of his ideas being used to perpetuate segregation and therefore tacitly endorsed such behavior (note this is a switch from MacLean’s position in her book where she claims such support was more manifest).  But they are making the mistake of arguing from lack of evidence.  It would be akin to saying Becker must have opposed Henderson’s argument because Becker did not sign.

Lack of evidence is not the same as evidence.  It is not evidence that I am Batman just because I and Batman have never been seen in the same room.  Likewise, it is not evidence Buchanan was a segregationist or sympathetic to them just because he was silent on the issue.

6 thoughts on “Dangers of Interpreting Silence

  1. “however, it might have been concluded by an analyst that Becker, Samuelson, and Peltzman disagreed with the fundamental analysis”

    Only by an analyst who simply thinks in binary terms. Just because someone does not say yes does not automatically mean they say no (“not yes” does not mean no). I find it surprising the number of people who make such an unwarranted assumption. I find it even stranger that the person who does not say yes is often not even asked why (whether the answer is believable or not is entirely another matter).


      • I don’t know the particular case. What does Buchanan say? I’ve found people, even serious people, are likely to say anything about other people that they can use to further their own agenda if they think they can get away with it. I agree with you claims are not supported without evidence.

        Along the same line, not supporting a position but agreeing not to actively fight it sometimes allows one to pick their battles and gain support for something they want next time from places they don’t ordinarily get support.


          • I don’t know which is worse, those who make baseless claims or those who believe or further support those claims. For some reason, op-eds seem to be accepted as factual/serious news now.

            Maybe we just have too much useless information floating around. I’m not into believing mind-reading economists myself regardless of how “serious” they may be.


  2. Good point, Jon.

    Silence may also mean “I won’t be drawn into that ridiculous argument about whether or not I’ve stopped beating my wife.”


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