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Non-Grapefruit and Fruitful Non-Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Reason is larger than science.” So Leon Wieseltier reminds us in his essay “Crimes Against Humanities,” his reply to Steven Pinker’s “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” If well practiced, science reduces errors, but it grants no immunity to nonsense. The closer we get to people, the more utility the humanities have.

Wieseltier mixes too much by putting “physics and biology and economics” in the science bucket. That little list starts deep in science territory, but ends in the contested border zone. No one disputes the position or power of physics. But economics? Social sciences remain fundamentally different from physics.

Economics may have physics-ish aspects (its macro, theoretical and impractically impersonal parts). But economists who bother with observable behavior quickly encounter our unphysicsy features. John Stuart Mill warned that economics “predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive.” Since we’re more than money maximizing machines, “the mere political economist, he who has studied no science but Political Economy, if he attempts to apply his science to practice, will fail.”

Mill was right. Economics’ desire for a unifying theory has led it and us astray. The idea of “utility” as meta-motive, the single thing we always seek to maximize, hubristically abstracts away humanness. In the recent financial crisis did people get impossible mortgages because they preferred the utility of greater risk? Or because they were imprudent, or duped, or just following the herd? Could an economics that handles evidently heterogeneous human motives work better? As I’ve noted, economics could fruitfully be more like fiction, and history, and it can stumble when pretending to physics-ness.

Mill said “Laws of mind and laws of matter are so dissimilar…that it would be contrary to all principles of rational arrangement to mix them.” Much of nature is mindless. And though we have physics-able parts, we also have minds. In the realm of minds new ideas can change choices. Nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or changes its behavior because of new ideas. People do. We’re not biological billiard balls. Economics (once called moral science) itself promotes ideas that change behaviors.

John McPhee said the category “non-fiction” is like saying “you had non-grapefruit for breakfast.” Perhaps true, but not fruitfully accurate. Similarly non-science can be usefully analyzed. Not all non-science is nonsense, some is very reliable. Many skills and arts are unscienced. And much remains unscience-able (all that’s subjective).

Wieseltier quotes the maxim “Accept the truth from whoever utters it.” That applies equally to the sciences and the humanities. Neither has a monopoly on reason. It’s wiser to retain and develop diverse thinking tools—to reason humbly, fitting the tool to the task. Much knowledge is reliable, without “totalizing” theory (which can induce blindness).

The porous border between science and the humanities must be patrolled for nonsense smuggled in either direction.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors
Greek Myths About Human Origins
Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge
Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature
Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?
Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization
Food For Rethinking Markets

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.comwww.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.comwww.hangingnoodles.com. It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. lmjennings44094 9:55 pm 09/13/2013

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t provide links to examples of non-science that is NOT nonsense.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ChrisAuld 5:04 pm 09/14/2013

    This is another in a sequence of posts Mr. Bhalla has authored offering sweeping denouncements of research in economics. These pieces substantially misrepresent the methods and results of economic theory.

    Here, Mr. Bhalla continues his theme that the major problem with economics is human motivation is reduced to people acting as “money maximizing machines.” Economics, he claims, has no way of handling “heterogeneous human motives.” This claim easily demonstrated to be very much mistaken.

    As can be easily verified by opening an economic theory textbook or becoming passingly familiar with the content of the contemporary literature, the concept of utility maximization—jargon for minimally consistent behavior in a formally-defined sense—is easily amenable to modeling motivations other than material gain. That is one of the reasons this class of models remains the workhorse of economic theory, including in behavioral economics. Roughly speaking, “utility maximizing” behavior means “goal-directed” or “intentional” behavior. Goals and intentions in applied economic modeling are far more diverse than material gain.

    Some examples of “heterogeneous human motives” in economic research-

    - Models used by economists to attempt to understand the consequences of various environmental policies typically assume people care about both their own material well-being and the quality of the environment. The results of these models typically show that market outcomes are poor in that the market outcome involves too much material gain and too little environmental quality. This is also, incidentally, a counterexample to Bhalla’s oft-repeated and very much incorrect claim that economists think markets are perfect.

    - The evolutionary origins of altruistic behaviors (kin or otherwise) has long been a topic of much interest in microeconomics, and the large literature attempting to understand altruism and related phenomena is a consilient multidisciplinary effort, much of which has been developed in mainstream economics.

    - In a large body of research sometimes referred to as the New Social Interactions literature, implications of behaviors and motivations not mediated by market systems are studied. Mr. Bhalla references “herd behavior,” this type of model can capture that sort of phenomenon, as well as many other forms of other-regarding motivations.

    - In my own subfield, health economics, we often study behaviors in which people are motivated by tradeoffs between health and other goals. This sort of model is useful for describing how people interact with the health care system, for example.

    “Utility” and “rational” in economics and other behavioral sciences are scientific jargon: they do not have same meaning as the lay meanings of those words. Mr. Bhalla has misunderstood this jargon and how these concepts play out in applied economics, and all of his missives about what’s wrong with economics falter on this misunderstanding.

    Chris Auld
    Department of Economics
    University of Victoria

    Link to this
  3. 3. hangingnoodles 7:14 pm 10/4/2013

    @ChrisAuld – thank you for your thoughtful comment.
    I have written a post in response to what I feel are your substantive concerns.

    It is not my intention to disrespect the work of all economists. Indeed I quote many to support my points.

    I’d welcome your further comments to the following post
    “The Most Dangerous Jargon Viruses”
    http://t.co/021XN9xxRY

    As I note at the end of that post, I hope your position represents a new consensus within economics. And I hope this rapidly displaces the errors that still cause problems in the non academics uses of economics.

    Link to this

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