Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Commenter Patch asks a question

"Have the best mainstream economists been favored with top publications, policy jobs, academic positions, congressional testimonies etc, in the past 50 years because they do good work?"

Yes. Yes, that's precisely why these things happen.

16 comments:

  1. Dan,

    Before I continue with my comments, I just want to clarify that when I question whether or not "Mainstream economists" do good work, I am not meaning it as an insult. Essentially, I am referring to: Do I think the underlying theories (including the theories about particular empirical methods) are right? I am not making a comment about their skill at what they do.

    "That all has an important place. However, I don't want to overstate the case. If you can't get published doing non-mathematical economics in good journals, it may be because your non-mathematical economics is not good economics."

    Certainly. Not every article has good economics. But the answer to the central question (what you answered above), clearly defines how people approach the issue. You answer one way, and I would answer in the other.

    "Indeed, unless economics is different from every other science that seems like the most sensible explanation of what's going on."

    The derogatory term used for this is physics envy. And it is also a core proposition of Austrian economics that the physical world of chemistry, biology, and physics is radically different than the social sciences. Just because the hard sciences have found great success with math does not mean economists will.

    "It need not be this way. Austrian economics doesn't have to be hermetically sealed. Austrian economics doesn't have to be non-mathematized. You could easily mathematize all of that and thereby make it much more rigorous. And there are many Austrians that don't balk at the prospect of breaking the hermetic seal. Unfortunately there's a large subculture that likes the seal, and this subculture has a powerful friend in Washington at the moment."

    While I do think that the theories of economists cannot be dealt with by empirical research and instead through deduction by assuming self evident propositions, I am not against empirical research for understanding history. But this empirical research of economic history is different than the cliometric research of modern economic history. But I don't believe that mathematizing Austrian theories makes them more economically rigorous-it only makes them more mathematically rigorous.

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    1. "The derogatory term used for this is physics envy. And it is also a core proposition of Austrian economics that the physical world of chemistry, biology, and physics is radically different than the social sciences. Just because the hard sciences have found great success with math does not mean economists will."

      You misunderstand me. I'm not saying that because other scientists use math, economics ought to be done with math (although that should probably signal something to you).

      I'm saying that in general mainstream science is good science (or at least the best science out of all the contenders - obviously science advances). It would be very odd if in the case of economics mainstream science is bad science and non-mainstream science is good science.

      It has nothing to do with physics envy.

      Also - "hard science" is a stupid and vacuous term.

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    2. Again, the general mainstream science refers to the sciences of biology, chemistry,and physics (and are its methods appropriate for the social sciences?)

      And hard science is a good term, since it can refer to the sciences where there are quantitative constants and unmotivated particles.

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    3. I don't know what that first sentence is supposed to mean. What is a "mainstream science"? My point is that science eliminates bad or inadequate arguments and privileges good arguments. We should expect the same when it comes to economics.

      I don't know why you're getting into method, or why you're acting like physics, biology, and chemistry share a method (unless by that you just mean the scientific method - in which case of course it's appropriate).

      Our subjects of study have no less quantitative constants or unmotivated particles than biology's subjects of study. Economists are biologists, after all. Primatologists, to be exact.

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    4. "obviously science advances"

      Sometimes it does, sometimes it regresses. Certainly, the history of economic thought isn't one of continually becoming better and progressing. Some really bad theories have reared their ugly heads from time to time. In fact, this is true of many things other than economic science, as well.

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    5. You were the first one who used mainstream science in a sentence. I'm referring to the methods you are saying all sciences use (and since some use successfully, all should use). Scientific method, mathematical equations and modelling etc., all of which work in the natural sciences because there are quantitative constants and unmotivated particles, among other reasons.

      And I can't see how the human mind has quantitative constants and is unmotivated. Clearly we all have a conscious and think we are purposeful beings, you and I couldn't be having this conversation without this. Could you give a quantitative constant in the social realm of economics?

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    6. re: "My point is that science eliminates bad or inadequate arguments and privileges good arguments."

      You give this kind of argument a lot; most notably with respect to legislation and government policy. One of the most basic tenets of the concept of evolution is that the fittest survive, but that says nothing about whether the fittest are also the "best" according to some sort of objective (e.g. social welfare). The process of evolution has nothing to do with "progress" in the sense of there being absolute improvement. I think you're aware of these things, but your argument here, and at other times, steps very close to that type of interpretation.

      When you say that science rewards good arguments what does that even mean? What is good? That's where things get interesting. Evolution via natural selection just means that genes that more readily reproduce increase in frequency. The same goes for scholarly work or policy. But nothing immediate can be said about whether the outcomes of those processes are desirable or improving. You have to go a step further by 1.) stating the objective that an outcome can be compared against and 2.) identify the kinds of outcomes a given evolutionary process is choosing.

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    7. re: "I'm referring to the methods you are saying all sciences use (and since some use successfully, all should use)."

      No. Please go back and read my original comment. I said: "If you can't get published doing non-mathematical economics in good journals, it may be because your non-mathematical economics is not good economics. Indeed, unless economics is different from every other science that seems like the most sensible explanation of what's going on."

      Unless economics is different from every other science, the most sensible explanation is that your work didn't get in because it isn't good enough to get in. If that was unclear this is the second time I'm clarifying it, Patch.

      re: "And I can't see how the human mind has quantitative constants and is unmotivated."

      Of course it doesn't have quantitative constants and of course it's motivated. It's just like biology in that sense.

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    8. edarniw -
      I agree completely on the extent to which "fitness" and "best" coincide, but you'll need to explain a little more why that applies to science. Evolutionary fitness just means the ability to survive and propagate. I'm not entirely clear on the analog to that in science. The question to ask is how does a scientist get a body of his or her work regularly published in major journals? The answer is "by convincing a very wide spectrum of his or her peers that he or she is providing the most useful explanation of the world around us compared to other competing research". That also happens to coincide with the definition of "good science".

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    9. "No. Please go back and read my original comment. I said: "If you can't get published doing non-mathematical economics in good journals, it may be because your non-mathematical economics is not good economics. Indeed, unless economics is different from every other science that seems like the most sensible explanation of what's going on."

      Unless economics is different from every other science, the most sensible explanation is that your work didn't get in because it isn't good enough to get in. If that was unclear this is the second time I'm clarifying it, Patch."

      I still think the above sentence I wrote is correct due to the below comments:

      "You misunderstand me. I'm not saying that because other scientists use math, economics ought to be done with math (although that should probably signal something to you).

      I'm saying that in general mainstream science is good science (or at least the best science out of all the contenders - obviously science advances). It would be very odd if in the case of economics mainstream science is bad science and non-mainstream science is good science."

      "Of course it doesn't have quantitative constants and of course it's motivated. It's just like biology in that sense."

      Um, so is my stomach motivated when it produces chemicals? The night after I sleep are my muscle fibers "motivated" to rebuild themselves? Clearly not. However, I am motivated to eat a sandwich for lunch, or go to the gym and workout, or go to bed at a reasonable time at night.

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    10. Is a chimpanzee motivated to eat fruit, get rest, and compete with other chimps for mates?

      These alleged fundamental differences are almost entirely bunk. We're primatologists.

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    11. To the extent hat we impute our understanding of animals and a weak idea of consciousness to apes. Can we get in the mind of an ape without using our sophisticated consciousness to explore it? No. Again, is my stomach motivated to digest the food I just ate different than my motivation to consume a pizza?

      All this time I could have gotten some extra science credits towards my degree, damn!

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    12. Patch I never said there wasn't a difference on stomachs. Why do you keep bringing up stomachs?

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  2. Whether you agree with the paradigm that top published economists work in shouldn't cloud the fact that most of the time if you really understand the article you'll probably agree with at least part of it. I think, though, that it shouldn't be uncontroversial that there are barriers to entry that stop a lot of good articles from being published in these journals.

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  3. Out of curiosity Daniel, would you have a problem if any Representative or Senator requested an econophysicist's testimony on economic matters?

    How would you react?

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