August 12, 2015

Potentially counter-productive

Comment on Lars Syll on ‘Economics departments — breeding generation after generation of idiot savants’


You say: “The problem is that the economists don’t use any serious science at all!” That, of course, is correct and what they in effect do has been called cargo cult science by Feynman.*

What you don't seem to realize is that orthodox economics, the main object of your critique, has been developed by engineers, physicists and the like.

“What happened after roughly 1870 was that the analogical barrier to a social mechanics was breached decisively by the influx of a cohort of scientists and engineers trained specifically in physics who conceived their project to be nothing less than becoming the guarantors of the scientific character of political economy: among others, this cohort included William Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, Irving Fisher, Vilfredo Pareto, and a whole host of others.” (Mirowski, 1991, p. 147)

The same happens at the moment with the EconoPhysics crowd.** What these people do is to apply the tools that they have become acquainted with in their courses to economics, and this is essentially what their neoclassical forefathers did without much success (2013). Beginning with Veblen and Marshall, others have tried to apply biology, Darwinism, or the theory of evolution.

For some reason all this borrowing from other sciences did not work. Just the contrary. “Thus many are inclined to blame inappropriate copying of physics for the willingness of neoclassicals to tolerate bizarrely unrealistic assumptions ...” (Porter, 1994, p. 128)

It seems to be pretty obvious that economists independently of their background have suffered in the past from a lack of scientific instinct, creativity, imagination and — last not least — serendipity.***

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2013). Toolism! A Critique of EconoPhysics. SSRN Working Paper Series, 2257841: 1–13. URL
Mirowski, P. (1991). The When, the How and the Why of Mathematical Expression in the History of Economic Analysis. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1): 145–157. URL
Porter, T. M. (1994). Rigor and Practicality: Rival Ideals of Quantification in Nineteenth-Century Economics. In P. Mirowski (Ed.), Natural Images in Economic Thought, pages 128–170. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* See the post ‘Economics as scientific South Seas
** See the EconoPhysics blog
*** See ‘Secular intellectual stagnation’ on Lars Syll’s parallel thread or here