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Monthly Archives: July 2011

The more I think about this Andrew Gelman post, the more ridiculous it seems.  Gelman argues that economists, especially popular economists, use a pair of contradictory arguments to explain phenomena:

1. People are rational and respond to incentives. Behavior that looks irrational is actually completely rational once you think like an economist.

2. People are irrational and they need economists, with their open minds, to show them how to be rational and efficient.

In the comments, he clarifies his position:

My problem with some pop-economics is not with the use of arguments 1 or 2 but rather with what seems to me as the arbitrariness of the choice, accompanied by blithe certainty in its correctness.  This looks more to me like ideology than science.

I have no problem criticizing economists for their blithe certainty, a criticism I’d also to apply to just about everyone, myself included.  But I don’t follow Gelman’s criticism of the fact that economists apply different models to different situations.  This happens in all disciplines, including Gelman’s field of statistics.  For instance, statisticians often apply one of the following arguments:

  1. Phenomenon X follows a normal distribution.
  2. Phenomenon X follows a log-normal distribution.

1 and 2 are entirely contradictory, and to a non-statistician, it would appear entirely arbitrary whether to apply 1 or 2.  But to a statistician, there is a logic (part science, part art) as to whether to apply 1, 2, both, or neither.  Similarly, it may appear arbitrary to Gelman whether to assume rationality or non-rationality in a particular situation, when there is a consistent logic apparent to economists.  Ultimately, models should be judged based on the reliability of their predictions, not perceived arbitrariness by outsiders.

Liberal Massimo Pigliucci on libertarians:

Now I have acquired yet another reason to dislike [Larry] Summers, while reading Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I highly recommend to my libertarian friends, as much as I realize of course that it will be entirely wasted on them.

Libertarian John Goodman on liberals (in a post David Henderson describes as a home  run):

I generally try to avoid ethical discussions with my friends on the left for two reasons. First, with respect to actual legislation they seem incapable of distinguishing what really happened from their ideal vision of what should have happened. More fundamentally, I find that people on the left seem incapable of thinking rationally about the ethics of public policy.

I find these comments fascinating, firstly because they’re basically equal and opposite, and secondly because they’re entirely self-defeating.  Both read, essentially, as: “My intellectual opponents are idiots.  Why won’t they listen to me?”  The answer to the question comes from the preceding statement, but not in the way the authors suppose.  It’s trivial to show that neither libertarians nor liberals are, exclusively, idiots.  It’s also trivial to show that libertarians and liberals generally don’t like to be called idiots, and don’t listen to people who treat them as such.

Pigliucci, Goodman and Henderson have a choice to make.  They can continue to insult each other, toe their party lines, and reinforce the boundaries between themselves.  Or they can recognize that complicated systems can be understood in multiple ways, respect each other, try to better understand where the other side is coming from, and work to bridge the gap.

One purpose of this blog has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy of discussion, having received insufficient attention.

Today I followed Tyler Cowen’s link to Mike McGovern’s essay about development economics.  Development economics is a topic I don’t understand well but consider highly important and under-discussed.  It’s also a meta-analysis, exploring different ways to think about problems.  For instance:

The difference between poets and economists…there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points…Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.

I wasn’t expecting to find philosophy of science (or philosophy of poetry) in an essay about third world development, but I think this type of thinking is necessary to address the particulars of third world development.  It’s a slightly morbid point of view; most people who want to solve problems want to do something; instead I want to think about thinking.  But actions are driven by views, and views and driven by the way we think about the world; when we don’t analyze the ways we think, we’re more likely to hold misguided views and take misguided actions.

McGovern’s assessment of development economics is shaped by his philosophy of science; in the above paragraph, he first criticizes economists for trying to be scientists, and then criticizes economists for being bad scientists.  The two criticisms contradict, and don’t account for the fact that throughout history, hard science regularly maintains contradictory points of view, whether in cosmology or mathematics.

My concerns about McGovern’s philosophy of science should dismiss what’s he written; his concerns about development economists may have more to do with their rhetoric than their scientific thinking.  On the whole, his essay is a really interesting read, and I’ll continue to think about it throughout the day.

Happy July 4th.