Can Economists and Humanists Ever Be Friends?
July 17, 2018 4:34 AM   Subscribe

One discipline reduces behavior to elegantly simple rules; the other wallows in our full, complex particularity. What can they learn from each other?
posted by spaceburglar (11 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't it the empirical process and academic publishing trends that lead to reductionist approaches in both fields?

Also, neoliberal economic research is not made autistic by its own design, but by those of its handlers.

Seems to miss the plot.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:56 AM on July 17, 2018

As long as economists continue to laud Milton Friedman instead of acknowledging what a horrible human being he was, no.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:36 AM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can economists and humans ever be friends?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:37 AM on July 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

Can economists and humans ever be friends?

The economists and the humanists should be friends
Oh the economists and the humanists should be friends
One side says that there are rules
The other says we act like fools
But that's no reason why they can't be friends

posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:09 AM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

As the long-suffering philosopher wife of an economist, it is very rare for me to defend economists in any capacity but, you know...not all economists are Robin Hanson.

posted by The Toad at 8:16 AM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

you know...not all economists are Robin Hanson.

Well yes, just as not all economists are not Milton Friedman. That doesn't change that Hanson (who, let me remind the audience, tried to argue that wealth redistribution is immoral via a horribly misogynistic "analogy" using "sex redistribution" (i.e. sanctioned rape)) holds a position of no small honor within the community, much like Friedman did. The problem is that the community of economists seems a bit too comfortable with positions that are harmful to our communities.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is one of my all time favorite graphs, from a paper called "The Empirical Economist’s Toolkit: From Models to Methods" published in 2015.

Look at that magnificent flat line on the left side, and it's flat as far back as you want to go. The idea that economists should empirically test their theories - that the "queen of the social sciences" should be doing actual science instead of telling each other ghost stories with graph paper - hasn't been around as long as The Simpsons has been on the air.
posted by mhoye at 8:39 AM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does an economist know what a friend is or do they have some terminology for it to clarify that sort of relationship in terms of economics so nobody would mistakenly thing they would do anything for selfless reasons?
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:58 AM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

at least this is is mostly about microeconomists this time. (i actually enjoyed the article; thanks spaceburglar). as an economist with responsibility for teaching undergraduates in a liberal arts setting i personally see a lot of value in intellectual switching, understanding how an economist thinks about a particular issue, without trying too much to convince my students that it is the only way to think about an issue. (I just finished, much belatedly, Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century which devotes a bit too much space, imo, relating the careful empirical work Piketty and his various coauthors have done to 19th century literature. But I'm an economist and the book's written for a general audience, so maybe it just wasn't for me). (It is a little funny for the article to say that utility is divorced from morality, but I think the social choice branch of economic theory is a little silo'd, in part because it relies on understanding deep behavioral preferences that aren't directly observable, which the quasi-experimental folks have punted on).

I had missed Robin Hanson's creepy-ass comments. Those are creepy-ass comments and not realizing they are creepy-ass comments reflects either dis-engenuity or an intellectual and moral failure. (I also had never heard of the guy prior to this post. GMU is a strange department). Re: Milton Friedman, however, I will concede that there is a weird Chile-sized black hole in the profession vis-a-vis his contributions. Economists should wrestle with it more than we have; the best analogy I can come up with in the humanities might be someone like Heidegger. Except I think philosophers have grappled more with Heidegger than economists have grappled with Friedman and Pinochet. I have on my bookshelf a collection of essays written by economists about Friedman, and just checked; two mention Chile and both of them are revisionist histories, but I will freely admit that I don't have the expertise to evaluate them beyond that and my prior is that Friedman failed to do the right thing. most of those essays, unsurprisingly, are about Friedman's intellectual contributions to monetary theory, macroeconomics, methodology, etc. but the article isn't about milton friedman or friedmanite economics.

mhoye: It's certainly not the case that economists suddenly discovered the concept of testing theory in the early 1990s, and I think you're overstating that article. The difference was that economists, by and large, had largely not used so-called quasi-experimental methods. There are any number of questions for which controlled experiments are completely unavailable, and econometricians developed lots of tools for trying to understand what causal relationships could or could not be drawn from the data they had, and how to test their theories given the data generated by actual economic relationships (the bread and butter technique for this, instrumental variables, was invented in the 1920s). The mostly-microeconomic 'revolution' in econometrics towards explicit and so-called natural experiments was driven by advances in econometric theory, data collection and quality, and some internal critiques of the structural methods being used in microeconomics, not a lack of attempts at empiricism. (My reading is that some of the 'credibility revolution' is a bit overstated; see section five of this paper for a thoughtful, albeit somewhat technical critique from a micro-econometrician and Chris Sims on economics not being an experimental science for a more punchy response.
posted by dismas at 11:13 AM on July 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Good article, although the literary device of the first paragraph almost made me stop reading.

Mentioned nowhere is that George Mason University's economics faculty are literally funded directly by the Kochs. I guess it's not exactly relevant (but it kinda is).

It surprises me not at all that a perennial GMU douchebag like Tyler Cowen thinks over 90 percent of human behavior has to do with "signalling," nor that a "writer-programmer" colleague of his might assert some hackneyed garbage like "fitness displays" can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.

As someone who has to work with economists and the occasional humanist all day, I find this all quite disappointing, although I appreciate someone trying to sum up the work for me so I know who to avoid in conversation.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:00 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Except I think philosophers have grappled more with Heidegger than economists have grappled with Friedman and Pinochet.

Eventually, after they were pretty much compelled to by the facts. When Victor Frias published his book about Heidegger and Nazism, in the 80's I think, the Heideggerians circled the wagons ands systematically tried to discredit his scholarship.
posted by thelonius at 4:45 AM on July 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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