September 16, 2004

The Secret Sins of Academics

A couple of weeks ago, I complained that the latter-day pamphleteers at Prickly Paradigm Press should listen to Kerim Friedman and put their stuff on line, instead of leaving it to languish on an academic press backlist. At the same time, I sent an email to the Prickly Paradigmatics with the same suggestion.

I'm happy to say that their first five titles on their catalog page do now have links to .pdfs (scroll down to Prickly Paradigm #1 - #5). This has nothing to do with my prodding -- a PPP representative responded to me by email that "[o]ver the summer we have been preparing to launch the pamphlets on-line from our website, in partnership with Creative Commons". Unfortunately, Michael Silverstein's pamphlet on political rhetoric, which provoked my interest in the first place, is PP #6, so it's not available yet -- though I gather from Michael and from my PPP email contact that this is in the works, and will be done before too many more weeks have gone by. I guess it takes a while to crank out those .pdfs on their old hand-operated press.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of gems among the first five titles. I was especially taken with Deirdre McCloskey's The Secret Sins of Economics. It's a great pamphlet, engaging and fun to read and (at least for an outsider) quite convincing. The one thing I disagreed with was what she said in passing about linguistics. This worries me, as it should, but now you can easily read what she wrote and decide for yourself.

Here's how she starts:

What’s sinful about economics is not what the average anthropologist or historian or journalist thinks. From the outside the dismal science seems obviously sinful, if irritatingly influential. But the obvious sins are not all that terrible; or, if terrible, they are committed anyway by everybody else. It is actually two particular, nonobvious, and unusual sins, two secret ones, that cripple the scientific enterprise—in economics and in a few other fields nowadays (like psychology and political science and medical science and population biology).

Yet a sympathetic critic who says these things and wishes that her own beloved economics would grow up and start focusing all its energies on doing proper science (the way physics or geology or anthropology or history or certain parts of literary criticism do it) finds herself sadly misunderstood. The commonplace and venial sins block scrutiny of the bizarre and mortal ones. Pity the poor sympathetic critic, construed regularly to be making this or that Idiot’s Critique: “Oh, I see. You’re one of those airy humanists who just can’t stand to think of numbers or mathematics.” Or, “Oh, I see. When you say economics is ‘rhetorical’ you want economists to write more warmly.”

I tell you it’s maddening. The sympathetic critic, herself an economist, even a Chicago-School economist, slowly during twenty years of groping came to recognize the ubiquity of the Two Secret Sins of Economics (in the end they are one, deriving from pride, as all sins do). She has developed helpful suggestions for redeeming economics from sin. And yet no one—not the anthropologist or English professor or others from the outside certainly, but least of all the economist or medical scientist—grasps her point, or acts on it.

And here's how she ends:

Cassandra, you know, was the most beautiful of the daughters of Priam, King of Troy. The god Apollo fell for her and made her a prophetess. In exchange he wanted sexual favors, which she refused. So he cursed her, in a most malicious way. He had already given her the power of prophecy, to know for example what would happen to a science that refused to ask seriously How Much. His curse was to add that though she would continue to be correct in her prophecies, no one would believe her.

Cassandra [to Trojan economists proposing to bring the wooden horse into the city]: The horse is filled with enemy soldiers! If you bring it into the city, economics is lost! Please don’t!

Leading Trojan Economist: Uh, yeah, I see what you mean, Cassie. Good point. Enemy soldiers. Inside. City lost. Qualitative theorems useless for a science. Statistical significance without a loss function equally useless. Economics ruined. Thanks very much for your prophecy. Great contribution. Love your stuff.
[Turning to colleagues] Okay, guys, let’s bring that sucker in!

In the intervening 56 pages, she has sections on "Virtues Misidentified as Sins" (these are quantification, mathematics and libertarian politics); on "Venial Sins, Easily Forgiven" (this is mainly economics' "obsessive, monomaniacal focus on a Prudent model of humanity", so that "[e]verything, simply everything, from marriage to murder is supposed by the modern economist to be explainable as a sort of Prudence"); and "Numerous Weighty Sins Requiring Special Grace to Forgive But Sins Not Peculiar to Economics" (these are Institutional Ignorance, Historical Ignorance, Cultural Behaviorism, Philosophical Naivete, "a high-school version of ethical philosophy", "arrogance in social engineering", "candid selfishness" and "personal arrogance").

On p. 37, she gets to the "The Two Real Sins, Almost Peculiar to Economics". In her view, these are proving qualitative theorems and testing statistical significance without a loss function. She argues that these secret sins are so debilitating that

The progress of economic science has been seriously damaged. You can’t believe anything that comes out of the Two Sins. Not a word. It is all nonsense, which future generations of economists are going to have to do all over again. Most of what appears in the best journals of economics is unscientific rubbish. I find this unspeakably sad. All my friends, my dear, dear friends in economics, have been wasting their time.

Her diagnosis is that the Two Sins are really two sides of the same coin: a way of "looking for machines to produce publishable articles", which of course is the Secret Sin of all academics, or at least their Great Temptation:

Economics has fallen for qualitative “results” in “theory” and significant/insignificant “results” in “empirical work.” You can see the similarity between the two. Both are looking for on/off findings that do not require any tiresome inquiry into How Much, how big is big, what is an important variable, How Much exactly is its oomph. Both are looking for machines to produce publishable articles. In this last they have succeeded since Samuelson spoke out loud and bold beyond the dreams of intellectual avarice. Bad science—using qualitative theorems with no quantitative oomph and statistical significance also with no quantitative oomph—has driven out good.

As she points out, the fact that some kinds of intellectual work are without (scientific) value doesn't mean that they're easy to do. Instead, "[t]hey are vigorous, difficult, demanding activities, like hard chess problems. But they are worthless as science".

I'm not really competent to evaluate her argument about the value of contemporary academic economics -- though I can still enjoy it. And in fact I think that there are some remarkably similar difficulties in contemporary academic linguistics, a point that might be worth taking up in some future post. However, I don't entirely agree with what Prof. McCloskey says specifically about linguistics:

... it is only fair to call both the sins of modern economics Samuelsonian. It is rather similar to the situation in linguistics: their Great MIT Leader is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s mechanical approach to grammar, fiercely denying pragmatics and therefore the main finding of the humanities in the twentieth century, blocks progress.

The "mechanical approach to grammar" strikes me like those "Venial Sins, Easily Forgiven" -- or even the "Virtues Misidentified as Sins" -- that McCloskey starts her pamphlet by removing from the list of complaints about economics. I do agree that focusing on linguistic form to the exclusion of research on language use is a mistake that blocks progress, but I also feel that Noam has plenty to answer for in the domain of grammatical mechanics.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 16, 2004 07:07 AM