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.