A liberating exit

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 31, 2007

Henry’s post reminds me of a time in my recent past that the struggles of heterodox economics were taking up a good deal of my energy. In 2001, I was one of the three Cambridge University PhD students who wrote a little piece called Opening up economics, which was originally signed by 27 economic, business economics and development economics PhD students to call for an ‘opening up’ of the economics discipline. In fact, originally we were four writing the proposal, but one dropped out since she became too worried that writing this piece might jeopardize her chances of getting her degree. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many of us were scared, and some fellow PhD students didn’t want to sign because they worried about how their supervisors would react. So far for the notion of a free market of ideas.

The current discussions about the credibility and validity of the claims made by heterodox economics seem to some extent to miss the point of what I understood to be the main reason for anger and resentment among heterodox economists: the effective and very strong marginalisation of anybody who is not doing either fancy empirical work (advanced econometrics or experimental techniques), or theoretical work in the form of applied mathematics. Any other kind of work is not considered of decent quality, is not published in the journals which are perceived as publishing the highest-quality work, is not regarded as valid material for a job talk, and so on and so forth. In addition, the culture of mainstream (read: almost all) economics departments is such that many, possibly most, economists regard most of the other social sciences as journalism—and philosophy is just words, words, words (as one fellow PhD student once told me, “everyone can use words, it doesn’t mean anything”). The dominant views on interdisciplinary research follow from these attitudes: yes, good interdisciplinary research is valuable, but most work done in other disciplines is not real science, so we can’t collaborate with them.

Towards the end of my PhD trajectory, I decided that it wasn’t worth all the hassle and stress. I have only one life (at least, that’s what I believe), and it’s a waste to spend it on something you don’t believe in. I just couldn’t see the profession change in such a way that verbal theory would also be considered theory, or a profession where articles in Feminist Economics would not a priori be rejected as bad (as I’ve heard several times when I was a PhD student, though the success of this journal is now even becoming evident to parts of the mainstream). I heard too many stories of heterodox economists who had tried to change the mainstream from within, but who where told that their work wasn’t economics but something else (like women’s studies), or stories by economists my age who were producing applied mathematical papers on economic topics which they didn’t believe were valuable at all, but nevertheless had to write since otherwise they wouldn’t get any jobs. So I decided to leave the economics discipline. And although the Perestroika movement in (American) political science was also protesting disciplinary narrowing, I have found (European) political science much more open-minded and welcoming than economics. Beyond comparison, really. It has turned out to be the extremely liberating: I can choose my paradigms and methods depending on my thinking, rather on what crushing disciplinary social norms are telling me to do.

I, as just one individual, may be happy to have left economics and having found refuge in a welcoming and humane sister-discipline. But what if this exit-behaviour takes place on a larger scale? I know of several other economists who left the discipline since they felt it was too narrow and (methodologically) dogmatic. Clearly, the mainstream economists get what they want: the infidels leave and stop asking annoying questions. But is it a good thing for economics?

{ 68 comments }

1

abb1 05.31.07 at 8:41 pm

Jebus Christ, I didn’t realize it’s that bad, sounds almost Lysenko-like, really.

2

notsneaky 05.31.07 at 9:17 pm

I’m sorry, but this, like a lot of these arguments, is just the complaint that most people in the profession don’t agree with you. Mathematical work keeps one precise and consistent. These are important so that you’re not contradicting yourself or say things that don’t make sense. Second, economics is by nature mathematical. Wages, unemployment levels, growth rates, income distributions. These are all numbers, equations and functions. As Krugman said, the nerds won this one over the literati and we’re not giving it back.

I don’t quite understand why the field (and the field is composed of people, individuals, after all) should have an obligation to bend its strutures and methadology to the whim of everyone who thinks they know “the true path”.

So we self-select.

3

Kieran Healy 05.31.07 at 9:19 pm

The fact that the debate is being carried on in terms of orthodoxy vs heterodoxy is evidence of a perverse incentive system for innovation in the careers of young scholars in the field. Economists have a few tropes that they favor in discussions like this, and it would be better for them if their images of open competition, contestibility or creative destruction predominated on this point, rather than the panglossian tendency to think that everything is efficiently working out for the best and that success is ipso facto evidence of rightness.

4

Kieran Healy 05.31.07 at 9:23 pm

The comment in (2) is once again confusing the question of methods with that of political orientation and policy implications: there is a slew of technically sophisticated economists whose work is nevertheless fairly marginal.

5

Jake 05.31.07 at 9:30 pm

#4: Am I just really missing Ingrid’s point, or is this post not about methods rather than political orientation / policy implications?

6

harry b 05.31.07 at 9:34 pm

As a complete outsider who consumes a lot of economics, I do have a taste for the orthodox stuff — it is easier to evaluate, and the fake precision it gives is handy for my usual purposes. The way that orthodox economists think is very congenial to someone with a training in analytic philosophy. I haven’t read up on this debate much, but Ingrid knows I admire her work, and that I admire very orthodox work too.

But notsneaky’s comment is worrying. Are orthodox economists so dumb that only mathemathical work can keep them precise and rigorous? I don’t think so, at least the orthodox economists whose work I admire, who use it for a purpose, and are capable of real rigour and precision without it.

It is imprecise to say that ‘economics is by nature mathematical’. Mathematics is, by definition, mathematical. Economics is not a natural practice, it is made up, and the border between it and other disciplines is artificial. Are you saying that its subject matter is, by nature, mathematical? If so, what does this mean? Unemployment can be expressed in numerical terms, and the relationships between those numbers and others can be explored mathematically, sure, but the relationships between the actual phenomena they (artificially) represent can be explored in other ways too, with some degree of precision and rigour.

At least, notsneaky, behind the mask of anonimity, cannot be accused of trying to derive reputational benefits from his tribute to orthodoxy.

7

Kieran Healy 05.31.07 at 9:34 pm

Actually, 5 is right. There is more than one issue here, though.

8

Kieran Healy 05.31.07 at 9:35 pm

economics is by nature mathematical.

This reminds me of a line I read somewhere once but can’t place now: “Since sociology is a branch of biology, its ultimate expression must be mathematical.”

9

alex earl 05.31.07 at 9:39 pm

“Since sociology is a branch of biology, its ultimate expression must be mathematical.”

That makes my head all kinds of hurt.

10

notsneaky 05.31.07 at 9:53 pm

Post #2 was in response to this portion:

the effective and very strong marginalisation of anybody who is not doing either fancy empirical work (advanced econometrics or experimental techniques), or theoretical work in the form of applied mathematics. Any other kind of work is not considered of decent quality, is not published in the journals which are perceived as publishing the highest-quality work, is not regarded as valid material for a job talk, and so on and so forth. In addition, the culture of mainstream (read: almost all) economics departments is such that many, possibly most, economists regard most of the other social sciences as journalism—and philosophy is just words, words, words (as one fellow PhD student once told me, “everyone can use words, it doesn’t mean anything”).

I agree with 2nd part of 4. And I have a good deal of respect for the mathematically competent heterodox, even if I disagree with them on other things.

11

Chris Edmond 05.31.07 at 10:15 pm

Kieran:

Isn’t it Colin McEvedy in the introduction to the
“Penguin Atlas of Ancient History”? But he says it’s *history* which must ultimately have a mathematical expression, not sociology. Or were you joking?

12

Kieran Healy 05.31.07 at 10:25 pm

11: I was misremembering, then. I’m pretty tired. The history version is better. More Asimov-like.

13

Henry 05.31.07 at 10:31 pm

The first of notsneaky (radek’s?) arguments holds, sort of, but it’s extremely limited. Boiled down, it says that mathematics provides a kind of conceptual book-keeping. This is not to be sneezed at (it’s one of the reasons I like game theory), but it certainly doesn’t provide reason for rejecting non-mathematical economists’ work _tout court._ The second seems to me to be extremely dubious. Nothing about the actual economy makes it ‘mathematical’ – some features of it are mathematically tractable, others, that may be equally or more interesting ain’t.

Which suggest that the statement that economics is by its nature mathematical is a tautology, and one covering over a set of power relations. We won, so tough isn’t an intellectually serious argument. Nor is the “I don’t quite understand why the field (and the field is composed of people, individuals, after all) should have an obligation to bend its strutures and methadology to the whim of everyone who thinks they know “the true path”” much cop. It turns what critics like Ingrid are saying topsy turvy – Ingrid et al. specifically disclaim any monopoly on the truth; all that they are asking for is that mathematical economists be prepared to admit that there are limits to what they do, and alternative ways of doing things that can get at interesting features of economic and social life. To put it differently, there is someone in this argument who is apparently convinced that they possess the One True Path, but it sure ain’t Ingrid. There’s something deeply weird about the fetishization of mathematics in notsneaky’s post (and his subsequent bit about respect only for mathematically sophisticated heterodox economists). Math is great and important and all, but it’s one conceptual tool among many. It doesn’t provide the keys to the kingdom.

14

Chris Edmond 05.31.07 at 10:37 pm

For what it’s worth, I had a very heterodox training in economics as an undergraduate followed by a very orthodox graduate school experience.

Looking back, I truly feel that the hours of my undergraduate classes going over the CCC, hydraulic vs. Chapter 12 Keynesians, Austrians, and all the rest was massively disporoprtionate to the insight gained (to put it politely). I have no such feelings about any of my graduate classes. If there’s any part of economics that’s excessively theoretical, abstract and almost wholly unconnected to data, it’s heterodox macro.

15

Ken C. 05.31.07 at 11:42 pm

I’m intrigued by this discussion, but its lack of concreteness makes it hard for me, as a non-economist, to follow. Poking around in Ingrid’s downloadable publications (why aren’t all her publications downloadable?), I came across her tutorial on the “capability approach”: a way of thinking about utility, happiness, or “goods and services”. If economics is the study of flows or interactions of “goods and services”, it seems reasonable to have a clear idea of just exactly what those things are. So the study of the “capability approach” is a concrete example of an area of work that is concerned neither with predictive mathematical models, nor with quantitative measurements, but with the foundations of economics. Is it “heterodox”?

16

X. Trapnel 05.31.07 at 11:48 pm

I took a great deal of math and econ as an undergrad, including a few phd classes; I came away with the cynicism of the apostate, which may well match the zeal of the convert. I tend to agree that econ is too method- rather than problem- driven, and that this is most problematic w.r.t. graduate training and socialization. The lack of citations to, or engagement with, the work of other disciplines when jumping into a “new” area is one clear drawback. So, yeah, what Robeyns said.

17

CalDem 06.01.07 at 12:11 am

Is there a really a better description of modern economy (ok, political economy) than “The New Industrial State.” I had to force myself through the macro grad sequence-mostly RBC stuff- and I don’t think RBC has 1% of the understanding of the modern economy as New Industrial State. This shows that Mathematical models can help good economics, but a sharp enough mind can do without it. And lots of mathemaical economics obscures more than illuminates. How many times have you worked through a super-fancy model only to realize that all the machinery obscured some really dubious assumptions or very simplistic decisions. All the time, and since economists don’t value writing, in general the writing is too horrible to explain the model.

notsneaky’s comment is bunk – and I say that as an economist whose work does fit into the normal tools.

18

Michael O'Hare 06.01.07 at 1:00 am

notsneaky provides a priceless liberation from a lot of stuff cluttering up my bookshelf. Marshall, Jevons, Schelling, Coase: imprecise, no equations, no truth. Micromotives and Macrobehavior is just the right thickness to prop my monitor on, otherwise a bunch of sloppy-thinking gassers. What a finding!

19

Rod 06.01.07 at 1:05 am

The mathematical argument might be valid if the mathematics was up to expressing anything but the most simple ideas. Human life (including the economy) is too complicated for mathematics. The better part of economics is taking a simple idea and making it seem complicated by writing in mathematical expressions. And of course, there is the old problem with deductive reasoning. You can get any result you want. Just choose your premises carefully.

20

KB 06.01.07 at 2:23 am

Two comments:

1. I hypothesize that Ingrid prefers Europe because of pervasive socialism in society, culture and academia. Her left wing views are ill-matched to the American economics arena, math or not.

2. “So far for the notion of a free market of ideas.” Ingrid ignores the reality that much of academia (outside of econ) is ruled by left-wing dogma every bit as inflexible and intolerant as she claims to have experienced. There is no free market of ideas in the academia. Hence the multitude of think tanks unaffiliated w/ academia, where free market, libertarian, social conservative etc views and their holders can flourish.

Though an academic, I am not an economist, nor am I a liberal arts type. I just can’t not notice how internally homogeneous the humanities are, at least to the outsider.

21

notsneaky 06.01.07 at 2:55 am

(radek’s?)

Yes.

And seriously, what’s up with all these ridiculous demands that “defenders of orthodoxy” show themselves? What, is someone compiliing lists for after the revolution comes? Nobody seems to have a problems with the “defenders of heterodoxy” – commentators at least – remaining anonymous while directing vague and not so vague insults at their opponents (we’re sexists because we do math, we’re paid shills of corporate interests, the only reason we do what we do is because we want to get tenure, we hold secret meetings in caverns where we decide which heterodox economist we’re gonna hunt down next and roast on a spit, etc.)

Harry b, I don’t see how I’m any more damn anonymous than you. Unless of course your last name does happen to be “b”.

This is not to be sneezed at (it’s one of the reasons I like game theory), but it certainly doesn’t provide reason for rejecting non-mathematical economists’ work tout court.

Perhaps my frustration and annoyance with much of this debate is starting to show. Of course non-math econ shouldn’t be rejected tout court. As an undergrad I did history and I can appreciate a non-math approach. I’m not saying that mathematical economics is the only way to go. But I am saying it is the best way to go. JKG may be a great writer, and a genius to such a degree that he doesn’t need no stinkin’ equations to understand economics. I’m not that, and neither is your average practitioner. There’s been plenty of time when you think you have a good idea about how things function but when you sit down and try to actually write it down you realize it doesn’t fit together.

Here also I’m gonna open up another can of worms, and say that the main benefit of verbal expositions is that they suggest ideas, areas of potential research, and possible puzzles to be thought about. But at the end of the day you want to sit down, write a formal model and make sure the story actually clicks – and in the process you also eluminate the implicit assumptions that the writer is making, perhaps unconciously.

Marshall, Jevons, Schelling, Coase: imprecise, no equations, no truth

Exceptions! And there’s math (even if they hide it) in all three of those authors – and once you do it you see much more than when you just read the words (I think this is most obvious with Jevons). And sure, if there was no math progress, innovative research, etc. would still happen. But it would be a lot slower and half the time would be spent on asking each other “what do you really mean?” (which isn’t always a waste of time but often it is – jeez I’m getting so defensive here I want to qualify everything)

The mathematical argument might be valid if the mathematics was up to expressing anything but the most simple ideas.

I believe the problem with simplicity here isn’t mathematics.

Human life (including the economy) is too complicated for mathematics.

Human life is too complicated for language! You think human language adequately captures the complexity of human life?

This is actually a typical argument that has frequently been made in these discussions:
Step 1: But humans aren’t rational!!! Life is too complex!!!
Step 2: …
Step 3: Socialism!!!

(I’m exaggerating to make a point, you know)

As far as whether economics is “intrinsically” mathematical. It is in the sense that a lot of variables that we care about are numerical in nature, quantifiable. Some are less so. But of course that’s just accounting not mathematics.
Further, economics is a social science which means that it deals with human relations. And equations are convenient, precise ways of expressing relations between variables and also force you to put your cards on the table. And since, apparantly, life is “complex” you want some way to keep track of how all these variables affect each other, how one phenomenon leads to another, which then leads to another, which leads to another, which feeds back into the second, etc. etc. etc. This makes the written langugage very inadequate for the task. But if you write as a system of equations, or propositions, or relationships, monkey around with it a bit, then patterns emerge, things become clearer and you understand way more than if you had written thousands of confused sentences.
Put it this way, if I could somehow express this whole post in a series of equations, rather than this long winded comment, wouldn’t it be better?

Finally,
(and his subsequent bit about respect only for mathematically sophisticated heterodox economists)

See, this is how language fails us. You added the word “only”, which I did not include. If we were doing this in math this wouldn’t be a problem: MS/HE C ERbyNS =/> NMS/HE upside-down-U ERbyNS = empty set.
(The fact that my keyboard has all 26 letters of the alphabet and all the (mostly useless) punctuation marks, but is extremely lacking in standard mathematical symbols is prima facie evidence of the oppresion the nerds have endured, and are still enduring from the literati)

22

Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.07 at 3:24 am

The use and abuse of mathematics in economics has been thoroughly treated by Deirdre McCloskey since at least 1985 when, as Donald N. McCloskey, she published The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press). This was followed by two works: If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990) and, my favorite, Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Two decades later and it seems the argument has still fallen on deaf ears.

McCloskey is now on an editorial advisor for EconJournalWatch, which seeks to critique much of the nonsense that passes for othodoxy in the discipline: http://www.econjournalwatch.org/main/index.php

Also relevant by way of thinking about orthodoxy and heterodoxy (apart from Sen’s work) in economics is Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2006).

23

notsneaky 06.01.07 at 3:30 am

I’ve read McCloskey. Pretty much all of it. It’s good writing and there’s some good insight in it but a lot of claims she makes are just exaggerated or attack strawmen.

Oh yeah, this sort of reminds me (because he’s mentioned in some of the McCloskey books). An essentially non-mathematical economists – he definetly knows it, but uses it very sparingly – that I respect tremendously is the economic historian Joel Mokyr, though I guess one would not consider him heterodox.

24

Chris Stephens 06.01.07 at 4:30 am

Notsneaky wrote:

“Harry b, I don’t see how I’m any more damn anonymous than you. Unless of course your last name does happen to be “b”.”

This is either a bad attempt at humor, or you’re obviously new to this website.

25

Jim Johnson 06.01.07 at 4:32 am

“Mathematical work keeps one precise and consistent.” Whenever I hear this sort of thing I have to chuckle.

I work in a very technical social science department (political science) chock full of folks every much as testosterone driven as the economists one flight down (and so committed to bizarre game theoretic and economtric techniques without ever discussing their point). I find the rhetoric of ‘precision’ and ‘rigor’ and ‘consistency’ that my colleagues bandy about to be something of a howler. In everyday language we have tools for being more precise; we have, for instance, things called adjectives and adverbs. And they tend to make things more specific, particular, concrete … and less abstract. Mathematics simply allows you to make things abstract. But as Tom Schelling makes clear repeatedly we need to justify – in (gasp!) words – why we are abstracting from this or that, treating it as ‘incidental detail’ to be cast aside in the model building process. Mathematical abstractions may or may not be useful. As with verbal modifiers, it depends.

As for consistency it is easy enough to be consistent in plain prose. One simply has to pay careful attention to what one is writing. More economists should try it. (And,as a journal editor, more political scientists should too!)

The problem with mathematical techniques in social science is that they are a sometimes useful tool that folks somehow inflate into something more – what, I do not know. So let’s take a real live high-tech economic theorist like, say, Ariel Rubinstein. He thinks mathematical models in economics are virtually useless without (gasp!) verbal interpretations. He is right. And the uselessness goes all the way down to the basics – like, say, the notion of a strategy. He also thinks that the claim that economic models are “empirical” is a bit of a howler and I suspect he is correct.

26

Colin Danby 06.01.07 at 4:44 am

Anyone who wants to get a sense of the culture of the discipline might check out this part of Choi’s “How to Publish in Top Journals,” especially 5 and 21-25. This is the kind of thing that Ingrid is talking about — she offers no objection to mathematics as such, but to a narrowness that prizes technical capacity over anything else. Brad’s latest also gets it right. The toolkit fine, as long as you don’t assume … well, you all know the joke about how the world looks to a hammer.

You can also turn this around. One of the things that a fetishization of math does is stop a lot of economists learning any social theory or philosophy which in turn limits participation in the kinds of interdisciplinary conversations that you need to make much progress on things like gender. You can get an econ Ph.D. without reading any Smith, Keynes, Hayek, or Marx let alone any broader social theory. I ran into another anonymous economist last year on Timothy Shortell’s “What Would Durkheim Do?” blog who cheerfully admitted he’d never heard of Durkheim.

27

John Quiggin 06.01.07 at 6:22 am

Having done a fair bit of economics in different modes, I find I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, there are far too many exercises that amount to little more than PhD variation on mathematical models with no real relationship to anything. And while maths can help to make discussion more rigorous it can also obscure what’s really going on.

On the other hand, the core concerns of economics (prices, output volumes, incomes, hours of work) and so on are inherently quantitative. There are good reasons why economists are more keen on mathematics than other social scientists, and why applications of economic methods in other fields often turn out badly.

To take the example of feminist economics, the gender gap in wages is probably the biggest single issue in this field, and it’s virtually impossible to address this without fancy econometrics (having worked in a department where this was a cottage industry, I got to the point where if I saw another Heckman equation I would scream, but it was important work),

28

Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.07 at 7:02 am

ken c. (#15): not all my publications are downloadable because for most I’ve signed copyright forms which forbid me to put them on line. But as I say on my website, I’m always happy to send electronic copies to whoever e-mails me (that doesn’t violate any rights I’ve signed away).

The capability approach is a good example of a highly interdisciplinary theory (though with strong roots in welfare and development economics) where mathematics can be useful, but for many of its questions we need (analytical) philosophy or the input of ethnographic and other qualitative methods. I did try at some point to translate the capability approach to the language of mainstream economics (read: mathetmatics) together with my late friend Wiebke Kuklys. She was an econometrician who was healthy critical of the unreflected use of econometric/mathematical/statistical methods in economics. However, if our analysis is right, then it is very difficult to translate the full versiion (not a reduced version) of the capability approach into a formal model, because of the many complexities and dimensions that it tries to take on board. (the paper was published as chapter two of her posthumously published book, “Sen’s capability approach: theoretical insights and empirical applications”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search/ref=pd_lpo_ix_dp_dn_de_uk_de?keywords=wiebke%20kuklys&tag=lpo%5Fixdpdndeukde-21&index=blended

Hence is the capability approach heterodox? I think most of the work is interdisciplinary, and of the work done within economics, most is heterodox. But there is some work on the capability approach that could pass as orthodox, though I doubt whether it would be considered by the mainstream as such since most other work on the appraoch isn’t.

29

Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.07 at 7:09 am

I agree with John Q. that for many questions, mathemathics is the way to go; but for many explanations within micro-economics, or for thinking about core concepts of economics (well-being, utility, work, labour etc.) we need other methods. Part of the critique of feminist economics (admittedly the only heterodox school I’m very familiar with) is that what has been defined as ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ in economics is problematic.

And my point is not that more economists should do less mathemtical work full stop, but rather that those who are doing economic work that by the nature of the questions they’re addressing requires non-mathematical methods should be treated as equals in the profession. Right now they are basically thrown out, or life made so difficult that they “voluntarily leave”.

30

abb1 06.01.07 at 7:33 am

You can use math or you can use underwater singing, but why use (what it sounds like) harassment and intimidation? I thought that the prevalence of ruling ideology in academia is typically maintained by rewarding the faithful rather than punishing the deviants, now I’m not so sure. Oh, well.

31

astrongmaybe 06.01.07 at 7:51 am

21: …all the (mostly useless) punctuation marks…”
If you don’t know what they’re for, couldn’t you just ask someone?

32

John Quiggin 06.01.07 at 8:32 am

The Australian scene is quite a bit different from the US, and I imagine also from Cambridge. Because the economics profession is small, there’s much more of an expectation that academic economists should contribute to policy debate, and that largely takes place in verbal terms.

In this context, mathematical/econometric contributions serve largely to show that you can back up your verbal arguments if needed. Particularly if, like me, you are coming from a leftwing point of view in political terms, this is important in disarming the claim that your arguments just show that you don’t understand economics.

But I agree that the high status given to this kind of exercise comes at the expense of openness to other approaches and particularly to links with other disciplines.

As an aside, it’s notable that, even in the US, the math types (most obviously, Arrow and Samuelson, but also Krugman in the stuff he made his name with) tend to be more leftwing.

33

engels 06.01.07 at 10:18 am

Particularly if, like me, you are coming from a leftwing point of view in political terms, this is important in disarming the claim that your arguments just show that you don’t understand economics.

I sympathise but I also find this problematic. It’s almost as if, as an atheist, I felt I had to enroll in a Catholic seminary, because if I didn’t nobody would take seriously my arguments against Theism.

34

engels 06.01.07 at 10:26 am

Step 1: But humans aren’t rational Life is too complex
Step 2: …
Step 3: Socialism

[…]

Put it this way, if I could somehow express this whole post in a series of equations, rather than this long winded comment, wouldn’t it be better?

I’m not sure, but exchanging the straw man attacks for actual arguments would be a Pareto improvement.

35

Chris Bertram 06.01.07 at 10:40 am

Step 1: But humans aren’t rational Life is too complex
Step 2: …
Step 3: Capitalism

Isn’t that Hayek in a nutshell?

36

harry b 06.01.07 at 11:40 am

notsenaky — language only failed you, not me. Your conclusion (that there is no reason to respect work not done with math) didn’t follow without the “only”, though perhaps you didn’t know that. Some of us are capable of considerable precision with language because we are trained to be. Some economists too.

As to anonymity, I’m Harry Brighouse (as most readers who care to, know). You?

37

harry b 06.01.07 at 11:42 am

also, notsneaky, it was clear to all other readers here that Ingrid’s post and the letter she contributed to did not say no mathematical work was worthwhile, but just that some non-mathematical work was. Language can be amazingly precise if you care to read precisely.

38

DRR 06.01.07 at 11:44 am

In defense of notsneaky, if you tend to spend a lot of time following all the discussions in the extended Econ blogosphere, and become familiar enough with the regular commenteriat that shuffles around it, his summary isn’t that far off.

39

melanie 06.01.07 at 12:02 pm

Economics does seem to suffer from an unwarranted hubris (that’s probably a redundant expression) when it comes to the mathematical rigour of the discipline. Language is also a form of logical expression and maths is, after all, only another language.

40

harry b 06.01.07 at 12:03 pm

drr — that’s fair enough in a way, and perhaps explains why notsneaky is so pessimistic about the precision of language — instead of reading what ingrid wrote he read what lots of other people in the blogosphere wrote. But that’s his problem, not language’s.

41

dsquared 06.01.07 at 12:28 pm

Second, economics is by nature mathematical. Wages, unemployment levels, growth rates, income distributions. These are all numbers, equations and functions

This is unserious though. Wages, unemployment levels, growth rates and income distributions can all be talked about with nothing more sophisticated than GCSE maths. Galbraith’s books are full of numbers. When people talk about “mathematics” in economics (as opposed to econometrics, which IMO is not really the sort of thing that can be orthodox or heterodox), they mean a specific mathematical toolkit, and nine times out of ten, they mean something that has dynamic programming at its heart. It helps to make a model, but I would be much less confident that it helps to make the same kind of model of more or less everything, changing the names and parameters around but leaving the structure the same.

Proof of the pudding here would be someone like Barkley Rosser. He’s certainly no slouch at mathematics. But he’s also firmly in the heterodox camp, in the sense of “someone who can’t get his papers published in the top journals”. If this was just a matter of model-building, the need for rigour or “nerds versus literati”, then complexity would have been lapped up by the economists. Instead, they just basically said “ahhhh well chaos theory never amounted to much” and continued on.

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Z 06.01.07 at 12:47 pm

Wages, unemployment levels, growth rates, income distributions. These are all numbers, equations and functions.

There are also social relationships (wages, income distributions) and social constructs (growth rates, unemployment levels). I believe neo-classical economists tend to be too easily enamored of abstract models which ignores this aspect. Then, they tend to pretend that those models are universal, and sometimes that economics is “naturally” the study of such models. But excellent work is currently being done in that respect so all hope is not lost.

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dsquared 06.01.07 at 12:50 pm

Actually, thinking about it, econometricians ought to be a lot more embarrassed than they are at the length of time they took to get used to Bayesian methods, long after the rest of statistics had adopted the toolkit.

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Peter H 06.01.07 at 3:40 pm

If there’s any part of economics that’s excessively theoretical, abstract and almost wholly unconnected to data, it’s heterodox macro.

I’m curious to know what heterodox economists you were exposed to. I certainly wouldn’t apply your description to post-Keynesian monetary economists like Hyman Minsky, Paul Davidson, Sidney Weintraub, Basil Moore, Sheila Dow, Marc Lavoie, etc, who, whatever their limitations can’t be accused of being excessively theoretical.

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dsquared 06.01.07 at 4:01 pm

Tony Lawson is the name that comes to my mind for that particular charge (he writes a lot of very interesting stuff himself, but he stands as metonym in my mind for the gruesome fascination of a lot of the heterodox space with windy methodological debates).

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Ken C. 06.01.07 at 4:43 pm

Ingrid, #29: “not all my publications are downloadable because for most I’ve signed copyright forms which forbid me to put them on line.”

Actually, I kind of guessed that. I’m more of the “let the copyright lawyers come get me” school, myself, or at least “see if anybody cares”.

“Hence is the capability approach heterodox? I think most of the work is interdisciplinary, and of the work done within economics, most is heterodox. But there is some work on the capability approach that could pass as orthodox, though I doubt whether it would be considered by the mainstream as such since most other work on the appraoch isn’t.

Ah. So work that is interdisciplinary or foundational is heterodox, and even related work that is “orthodox” (==”uses math”) can be heterodox-by-association.

I would guess that some part of “feminist economics” is also foundational, in the same sense: making the cost and utility of childcare economically visible, the way “wages, unemployment levels, growth rates, income distributions” are.

How about models that are more-or-less entirely computational: that use computer simulations, for example, as opposed to taking as their goal clean formulas of some kind. Is such work “heterodox”?

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Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.07 at 5:16 pm

ken c.: I really don’t know. I don’t know enough about “computational work” in economics to know how it’s being treated in the profession. Do you?

From the comments in the several post we’ve had here over the last days, I understand that there is also very formal/mathematical work that’s being ‘marginalised’. So there are probably several characteristics of a piece of work that can give it the stamp ‘heterodox’. The fact that the work is formal is probably neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition to be categorised as heterodox, but in practice much of heterodox work is non-formal. I know that means that my suggested ‘definition’ is not waterproof, but the other possible definition (“heterodox work is work that is marginalised by the mainstream”) is rather tautological to my mind.

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notsneaky 06.01.07 at 7:13 pm

First the personal ones:

This is either a bad attempt at humor, or you’re obviously new to this website.

Take a guess. The point is general.

If you don’t know what they’re for, couldn’t you just ask someone?

I know what they’re for. That’s different then’em being mostly useless.

language only failed you, not me

That was a statement by Henry, not you.
My first name is Radek. My last name you can read off the email I leave whenever I post – it starts with the third letter.

Also this is right:
Isn’t that Hayek in a nutshell?

But this isn’t Cafe Hayek or Hit and Run, or Catallarchy.

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Ken C. 06.01.07 at 8:39 pm

Ingrid:”I really don’t know. I don’t know enough about “computational work” in economics to know how it’s being treated in the profession. Do you?”

I only know some such work exists.

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notsneaky 06.01.07 at 9:11 pm

When people talk about “mathematics” in economics …something that has dynamic programming at its heart

Huh? Have you looked at AER recently?
The real mathy areas in economics are General Equilibrium, Decision Theory (including the behavioral stuff), and stuff that uses Game Theory (itself not an economic theory but a methadology). There you get into differential topology, Hahn-Banach theorem, distribution theory and a bunch of stuff that I don’t know. I mean, Aumann had to invent his own theory of integration (for correspondences) to do some of the stuff he did.

Dynamic programming arises in Macro with the whole DSGE approach and sometimes in IO when you want to model how market structure develops over time (usually combined with some game theoretic concepts). DSGE gets lots of flak (to a certain extent, deservedly) because it uses aggregate production functions, representative agents and rational expectations. So three cardinal sins right there. But it isn’t even just heterodox who look suspiciously at it, most microeconmists do too. And macro as a whole has been on the decline – hence the reference to AER. So no, I don’t think that when people talk about “mathematics” in economics they have dynamic programming in mind.

Problem is, the problems that DSGE has are mostly problems that any macro approach will have unless it ignores’em altogether.

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dsquared 06.02.07 at 12:23 am

Dynamic programming arises in Macro with the whole DSGE approach

you talk about this as if it was just a minor detail.

And macro as a whole has been on the decline

You talk about this as if it was just a minor detail.

I mean come on man. The discipline of economics has basically given up on the attempt to understand the aggregate system of production, distribution and exchange. What has the orthodox approach delivered, exactly, to counterbalance this monstrous surrender

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notsneaky 06.02.07 at 1:12 am

Well, I think it’s sort of a “let the DSGE people do what they do, at worst it ends up like old school Keynesian macro” while others do some serious thinking about the basic problems. Sometimes research programs get stuck.

But your point was about “mathematics” in economics.

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astrongmaybe 06.02.07 at 4:25 am

48. I know what they’re for. That’s different than ’em being mostly useless.

So… You can’t to understand their uses; instead of learning what they might be, you dismiss “’em” out of hand? You’re a card, Radek!

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Dan Simon 06.02.07 at 6:37 am

Look, folks–every discipline is chock-full of researchers who complain that their work, or the work of others they admire, is given ridiculously insufficient respect, while the unimaginative hacks who dominate the field are churning out completely unimportant work of a more “orthodox” variety, to great accolades from the community. Think of it as a side effect of the peer review system: it’s designed to reject work that fails to meet an extremely rigorous methodological standard, and that’s what it does–even when the standard ends up being contaminated by collective ignorance or conformist prejudice.

You should consider yourself extremely lucky, Ingrid–you were able to find an alternative research community in which your approach was welcome. Most researchers with “heterodox” methods are simply confused, and most of the rest never find an accepting home for even their worthy ideas. If I were you, I’d celebrate my good fortune, concentrate on my new environs, and leave the worrying about my former discipline to all those silly, hidebound former colleagues. After all, I doubt you’d want them meddling too much in your current discipline…

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Ingrid Robeyns 06.02.07 at 7:25 am

Dan simon, I agree that these kinds of problems happen in all disciplines, but from the ones that I have a basic knowledge, economics is much, much, much worse than any other. In philosophy, for example, there are at least two broad streams (‘analytical’ and ‘continental’); but there are ample job & publication & recognition & funding possibilities for BOTH groups. In economics, that’s simply not the case.

Of course, I do count myself very lucky (though it’s not as if my own agency had no role to play in this at all – I bascially created my own jobs through applying for research grants, which gave me the time to prove to political scientists what I can do, and I did also forgot to mention earlier on that before doing my MScE I studied one year gender studies within social and political science, so that made the transition easier too). And the reason why I haven’t blogged on this before was precisely that *for me* these heterodox struggels are a thing of the past. I am enjoying my new life and don’t want to be stuck in these negative energies. But as I conclude my post, it may be a good solution for one individual (me), but what about (a) all the others, and (b) the effects on the discipline (and consequentally its influence in society etc.) ?

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Z 06.02.07 at 12:13 pm

Look, folks—every discipline is chock-full of researchers who complain that their work, or the work of others they admire, is given ridiculously insufficient respect

This is not true. It is not the case in mathematics. Cue to autonomous and heteronomous fields…

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Dan Simon 06.02.07 at 4:34 pm

I agree that these kinds of problems happen in all disciplines, but from the ones that I have a basic knowledge, economics is much, much, much worse than any other. In philosophy, for example, there are at least two broad streams (‘analytical’ and ‘continental’); but there are ample job & publication & recognition & funding possibilities for BOTH groups.

Well, if there aren’t also at least a half-dozen alternative streams (or sub-streams within those two main streams) whose embittered adherents can’t get a second look at a top school, then philosophy is a very unusual discipline indeed.

it may be a good solution for one individual (me), but what about (a) all the others,

Most of them, as I said, are doomed, unless they knuckle under and accept the orthodoxy. A few will follow your path, though, and find sanctuary as you did. You can do your part by encouraging them to do so. And perhaps one day a particularly gifted and industrious scholar (or a small coterie of them) will eventually succeed in getting a new, “heterodox” stream of thought established as mainstream.

and (b) the effects on the discipline (and consequentally its influence in society etc.) ?

There are three obvious possibilities: the current orthodoxy will be found in the long run to be worthwhile after all, and will thrive; or it will be found to be a dead end, and a new orthodoxy (perhaps yours, perhaps somebody else’s) will take over; or it will be found to be a dead end, and the entire field will decay into irrelevance, while the useful work is done elsewhere–in your department, perhaps.

But again, I offer this caution: before you let your perfectly understandable pot-shot-taking escalate into a genuine, vigorous campaign for “reform” of your former discipline from the outside, consider that they may have similar designs on your current discipline, and ask yourself just what kind of precedent you really want to set regarding external criticism of an established field…

58

Colin Danby 06.02.07 at 7:50 pm

Dan the discussion on this point has amply shown that the issue is much more than just who rises and who doesn’t. It’s about what sorts of methods and ontological precepts are axiomatically “economics.” See for example chat under John’s latest post. We have in fact been discussing precisely those aspects of econ which cannot be crudely generalized to all disciplines.

Your suggestion that people who identify with one discipline should not criticize practices elsewhere lest they be criticized themselves is a recipe for mediocrity. Social science is a single project.

59

Walt 06.02.07 at 8:22 pm

Since economists freely attack all other social sciences already, and openly admit they plan on supplanting them, I don’t think anyone has to be too concerned with the reaction of economists to outside criticism.

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Cian 06.02.07 at 9:08 pm

Dan, the point was not that certain streams were being ignored, but that ALL streams but one are being ignored. There’s no other social science for which this is true.

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Dan Simon 06.03.07 at 1:38 am

Your suggestion that people who identify with one discipline should not criticize practices elsewhere lest they be criticized themselves is a recipe for mediocrity. Social science is a single project.

I strongly disagree. As I’ve already explained–and as everyone here seems to recognize–academic disciplines are very good at expunging methodologically flawed work, but not so good at fostering new and legitimate approaches. The boundaries between disciplines are one of the very few protections available to someone (like Ingrid, for example) who wants to buck the conventions of a particular discipline. If those come down, then there will be one narrow set of standards for, say, all of social science–and woe betide a future Ingrid with a new and different approach.

Since economists freely attack all other social sciences already, and openly admit they plan on supplanting them, I don’t think anyone has to be too concerned with the reaction of economists to outside criticism.

Criticism–of course. If Ingrid, or anyone else, wants to predict that today’s economics research is all destined for the dustbin of history, that’s fine too–healthy, even–and we’ll know soon enough anyway who’s right. As for reforming economics from the outside, though (as opposed to hoping to “supplant” them once they’ve decayed into irrelevance), bear in mind that if the economists tried to retaliate, they’d likely have the entirety of the hard sciences backing them up…

Dan, the point was not that certain streams were being ignored, but that ALL streams but one are being ignored. There’s no other social science for which this is true.

One person’s “ALL streams but one are being ignored” is another’s “ALL streams but one are welcomed”. It’s a question of which collection of research directions one chooses to lump together as one undifferentiated pile of garbage, and which collection of research directions one respectfully subdivides into equally valid but distinct approaches.

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Z 06.03.07 at 8:14 am

Speaking about mathematics and economics, I discovered via Walt excellent blog a good survey of what is known about price dynamics in even the simplest formal model. I highly recommend it.

The article also does a good job at describing my own ambivalence about general equilibirum theory. If I look at it from a social study point of view, I find it absurd, human beings don’t have strictly convex independant transitive preferences: that’s whence all the fun in social studies comes. If I look at it from a mathematical point of view, I find it fascinating, but in a self-destructing way. Of course a mapping from a space with many dimensions to a space with few dimensions can have quite a bizarre image: that’s whence all the fun in (this part of) math comes.

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Walt 06.03.07 at 3:13 pm

Dan: You seriously think that? Whenever hard scientists encounter economics, they think economists are insane. You can’t imagine the contempt that physicists have for economics.

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Dan Simon 06.03.07 at 3:49 pm

You can’t imagine the contempt that physicists have for economics.

Are you saying they have less contempt for other social scientists?

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notsneaky 06.03.07 at 9:29 pm

the point was not that certain streams were being ignored, but that ALL streams but one are being ignored. There’s no other social science for which this is true.

But this is really a matter of definitions. If you emphasize the similarities between the various streams within the “mainstream” and lump’em all together then you can say that all but one stream get ignored. If you emphasize the differences within the “mainstream” then you can say that many different streams are represented. So it’s a matter of taxonomy, which is at least somewhat subjective.

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notsneaky 06.03.07 at 9:32 pm

Whenever hard scientists encounter economics, they think economists are insane. You can’t imagine the contempt that physicists have for economics.

And this is also a crazy generalization. Certainly not all mathematicians have contempt for economics:
http://www.mth.kcl.ac.uk/~pushn/cm354x-page-0607/Franklin.pdf

(via Michael’s blog:
http://yetanothersheep.blogspot.com/2007/04/whither-economics-sin-no1.html)

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Martin James 06.04.07 at 1:56 am

Its not language versus math that’s the big problem its that we don’t have any math or words that effectively theorize how words or concepts are defined. Its all circular and inexplicable.

No effective theory of language, no effective social science.

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Walt 06.04.07 at 3:35 am

Since the introduction to Franklin’s book begins with an attack on the mathematical mainstream, I think we can judge him a poor spokesperson for mathematicians as a group.

Anyway, mathematicians and physicists are rather different (as both would be eager to tell you). Mathematicians do not have a strong opinion on empirics, while physicists do. While there may be physicists out there who think economics is A-OK, there is a cottage industry of physicists publishing papers on how economics is completely stupid. As far as I know, there is no comparable effort for psychology or sociology.

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