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The Most Dangerous Jargon Viruses

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


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“Rational” is the secular holy. We look to the rational—a most sacred and prestigious label in mind work—to save us. Yet some professors of a rational-is-holy faith aren’t being wholly rational. Their sect uses “rational” so differently it has become an unmeant trojan horse term. It looks good but hides destructive ideas.

In a useful comment (here) on my series of posts on problems in economics (here and here) Dr. Chris Auld gives cause for both hope and horror. He says “‘utility’ and ‘rational’ in economics…are scientific jargon: they do not have the same meaning as the lay…words.” This deserves attention (again). Words are key thinking tools. Misapplying them weakens what we can collectively build. Montaigne went so far as to call anyone who warped words “a traitor to society.” Some economists risk weakening our commonwealth of words by their covert meaning of “rational.”

The use of ‘utility’ as jargon is excusable, since it’s not that common a word. But jargonizing “rational” actively courts confusion. If economists mean something different, they should use a different word. Especially when preaching to the laity. If that gives their popularizing wordsmiths trouble, a simple prefixing can fix the problem: “econo-rational.” Unusual uses of common words can be intriguing and healthy. But breaking their meaning can be a sin against language. It degrades the utility of scholarship to society.

Jargon viruses from the unsocial-sciences are mostly easily quarantined; little harm has come from reusing the word “charm” to mean something different in nuclear physics. But social science jargon viruses are more contagious, easily spreading into everyday lives. That applies especially to economics and its cousin politics. Orwell warned against political language that made “lies sound truthful.”

And economists should be extra careful with their jargon-words, like rational or efficient, if politicians like to use them.

Alarmingly, the econo-rational can oppose the human-rational. Econo-rationality creates the supposedly inevitable tragedy of the commons, but Elinor Olstrom has shown how human-rationality can avoid it by simple coordination. Econo-rationality condones maximizing self-interest by exploiting ‘the commons.’ It’s ok and desirable to do things that if others also do them, guarantee collective depletion and doom. Can that be rational? Damaging what we depend on should never be deemed rational. Only a blinkered and distorted kind of self-interest risks being so self-destructive. Tolerating this misuse of rational is like letting doctors call healthy what foreseeably causes illness. Till these sorts of ill-fated ideas are cured, popularized economics deserves criticism.

Dr. Auld says claims that “economists think markets are perfect” are mistaken. If so, Paul Krugman (addressing the laity in The New York Times) errs in saying: “economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly.”

The hope expressed above is that Dr. Auld represents a new sect of economists who have cured many of their professions old ills. If so I look forward to their more human-rational, better-communicated results. Meanwhile, much work remains to analyze and criticize the effect the work of economists, like those that Krugman targets, has on us lay folk. Our salvation may depend on it.

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
Non-grapefruit and fruitful non-science
Is Money Like Food?
Words Are Thinking Tools: Praxotype
Is Breaking Bad Darwinian?

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. RSchmidt 12:28 am 10/5/2013

    I welcome the attempt to change economics from a religion to a science and appreciate that often lay terms can become metaphorical or cute in their scientific application. I also appreciate that this can become a problem in communicating science to the layperson as we see often with the misunderstandings (though often deliberate) caused by the different meanings of the word “theory”.

    The problem with the tragedy of the commons is that it is difficult to evaluate any strategy over anything but the short term. For example, a small village has a well with a insufficient supply of water. If everyone takes water from it they will potentially all die of thirst when the water runs out. I can chose not to take water in order to conserve the commons but that doesn’t guarantee no one else will draw from the well. In fact by me not taking from the well and perishing, the others may be able to draw just enough to survive until the next rain. So is my conservation strategy rational? I am dead either way. The problem is, the future is uncertain but the present tends to be pretty clear. I know what will happen if I don’t get the resource today, but maybe tomorrow we will discover another source for that resource, or a better way to conserve it, or a way to synthesize it. Regardless, it is my problem today I am concerned about not someone else’s problem tomorrow. How is me risking my survival today going to make things better for me tomorrow? I think it is difficult to capture those complexities in these simple games so the short term games, stripped of context are what are evaluated. And in that context is may be rational to deplete the commons. What is the opportunity cost of dying today compared to potentially dying tomorrow?

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  2. 2. ChrisAuld 4:47 pm 10/5/2013

    Creationists like to describe evolutionary biology as secular religion. They might describe mainstream biologists as worshiping the “secular holy” of evolutionary theory, or refer to mainstream scientists as members of a “Darwinian sect” (for example: http://mathisencorollary.blogspot.ca/2012/02/across-electric-universe.html). Out of ideology, they reject a body of mainstream scientific knowledge they typically know little about, misrepresent the substance of that body of knowledge, and attack the character of mainstream scientists.

    It would be shocking to find such offerings on Scientific American, long-known as a magazine in which renowned scientists explain cutting-edge research in laymen’s terms.
    When I was about 12 years old a neighbour moved away and left me his complete collection of a decade or so of circa 1970s copies of the magazine. I spent countless hours reading those back issues, often understanding little of course, but fascinated. It’s possible I would not have gone into academic research without those dusty stacks of magazines.

    It is shocking that Scientific American continues to give Jag Bhalla space to author vicious, ill-informed attacks on mainstream economics, attacks as incoherent and scientifically invalid as rants written by “Intelligent Design” advocates about evolutionary theory.

    Here, Bhalla confronts the comments from me, and from several other commentators, regarding his last several months of attacks on rational choice modeling. It turns out that before authoring these pieces he never bothered to figure out what the word “rational” means in this context (in not just economics, incidentally, but also in biology, psychology, computing science, decision theory, and other behavioral and social sciences). After repeatedly having it forcefully pointed out to him that he’d misunderstood what the term means, his supposed mea culpa takes the form of attacking the community of economists for the horrible crime of… using scientific jargon.

    I actually agree with Mr. Bhalla that “rational” is poor jargon (e.g., https://twitter.com/Chris_Auld/status/256481659912876032). Nonetheless, unfortunate jargon is an excuse for only casual observers to misunderstand the concept. Someone publicly issuing sweeping condemnations of enormous branches of science should clearly have spent the effort to understand the concept and how it is used in scientific models before writing screeds about how wrong it is for Scientific American.

    In the remainder of his rant, Mr. Bhalla implies that economists are “traitors to society” who “preach” “lies” that “sound truthful.” Perhaps our worst sin, according to Mr. Bhalla, is that we actively encourage environmental destruction.

    Of course economists do not think it’s “ok and desirable to do things that if others also do them, guarantee collective depletion and doom [sic, several times].” The tragedy of the commons and other environmental problems are special cases of social dilemmas, falling in economic theory into classes of externalities, that is, involuntary third-party consequences. The fundamental theoretical result is that free-market outcomes will be socially undesirable in such contexts: Mr. Bhalla has the result exactly wrong.

    Elinor Ostrom’s research is not in any sense inconsistent with such results, indeed, she built upon the existing body of research, emphasizing social mechanisms which in some circumstances prevent free-riding other than economists’ usual policy prescriptions of government-imposed taxes, subsidies, and regulations. That is valuable work, but at the same time some of our most serious problems, such as global warming, will require government responses rather than relying on social norms and similar mechanisms. Economic research provides a wealth of theoretical understanding and, moreso, empirical evidence regarding which policies are most effective in dealing with this sort of problem.

    Paul Krugman’s overheated rhetoric in the NYT in the context of a political spat is outright wrong: economists do not think that people are always rational, nor that markets are perfect. Mr. Bhalla could read papers in economics journals, attend economics conferences, just talk to economists, or actually open an Economics 101 textbook to discover that I am correct in that assertion. While he’s at it, he could figure out why so many scientists use rational choice models to study the statistical properties of systems of interacting intentional agents, even though we are well-aware that the rationality assumption is merely a coarse approximation.

    Whither Scientific American? My 12 year old self would be crestfallen.

    Chris Auld
    Department of Economics
    University of Victoria

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  3. 3. kevinjohnston1 9:10 pm 10/5/2013

    This article has high interest and poor writing.

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  4. 4. Arun 9:27 pm 10/5/2013

    I would think rationality depends on what one’s goals are. In other words, who gets to define what’s rational or not?

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  5. 5. WillMay 10:52 pm 10/5/2013

    Why is Scientific American letting this guy write about economics? It’s like having an anti-GMO campaigner write criticisms of geneticists. Some people might find that interesting, but this isn’t the right place for it.

    Someone should get Chris Auld to write here instead. Seriously. Scientific American should be correcting widespread misperceptions of economics, not spreading them. And Chris Auld usually manages to be entertaining while correcting people.

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  6. 6. WillMay 10:57 pm 10/5/2013

    You should at least have taken two college courses in economics before you can write about it at Scientific American. That should be a rule.

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  7. 7. Pippa2221 3:22 am 10/6/2013

    Excellent article. I thoroughly agree.

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  8. 8. c laird478 9:38 am 10/6/2013

    I’m not a scientist nor an economist, but as a thinking human being I agree with this article. It’s unfortunate that too many lay persons don’t understand the different meanings used by specialists for certain words, and perhaps using prefixes like econo- would go a long way toward helping straighten out misunderstandings due to that. In my comment exchanges with AGW skeptic and denier bloggers, the scientific use of the word ‘theory’ vs the lay use of that word has certainly made communicating clearly a lot more difficult. But then I also think that AGW skeptics and deniers sometimes just use that confusion over the scientific definition of that term for their own cynical purposes too, which makes rational discourse over a subject that is so contentious with them even more difficult.

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  9. 9. blackit 3:08 pm 10/7/2013

    Chris Auld is not part of “a new sect of economists”. He is a reactionary who is ready to slur anyone with an opinion that differs from his own. See his website at http://chrisauld.com/category/anti-economists/

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  10. 10. timcliffe 9:46 pm 10/8/2013

    I sympathize with the author’s distaste for deviant (my word) uses of various terms in the jargon of economics.

    The issue is not, of course, limited to jargons. For one reason or another, people (mis)use words all the time, and this is always maddening to those of us who know the actual meanings . . .

    But our rage is irrelevant. Language evolves, whether we like it or not. Can we hold back the tide? Possibly in some cases, but not for long. Maybe we can reclaim “literally” as meaning “in actual fact,” but I doubt it. “Infer” is a lost cause. “Comprises” is more than lost; its proper use looks incorrect to most readers. (“Comprises” means “is made up of,” so “comprised of” is wrong, and the “of” is redundant. Who cares? A tiny, tiny minority.)

    This is not exactly a defense of the jargonists, because I agree with the author that their usages may be destructive if those usages confuse the public’s understanding of an issue. And perhaps econo-words should be identified as such, although that would get pretty tiresome if repeated too often. But usages do change over time, and competing usages for words have always existed, so the economists are not doing anything unusual.

    Clarity is the issue; it comes right after accuracy as one of the two most important desiderata (“things that are needed or wanted”) in any sort of technical writing. So I agree that the economists and all other specialists should make clear what they mean when using technical terms, but that’s easier said than done, because — listen now — jargon is invented in the first place to define complex and sometimes counter-intuitive concepts. No master economist ever said “I will invent a new meaning for ‘rational’ and force other economists to use it.” Rather, some influential economist(s) said (more-or-less) “hmmm, we need a term to define an ideal concept of how an ideal consumer would deal with an ideal marketplace, ummm, well, given our biases (which really aren’t biases but correct understandings don’t you know), wouldn’t you say that ‘rational’ comes closest?” And off they went.

    Note that, biases aside, they really did need a term for the concept they were grappling with.

    So they have been using this term amongst themselves for who knows how long, and it’s perfectly clear to them. So when they speak to the rest of us, they think they are being clear to us as well. And if anyone calls them on it, many or most of them will think we are merely being obtuse. (There are, of course, those who are deliberately obscure.)

    To repeat: Clarity is the issue. I don’t really think we’ll get “econo-word” labelling, but it is entirely desirable that we demand clarity, which I (arbitrarily) define as meaning anyone with a high-school education should be able to understand it if he or she pays attention.

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  11. 11. scilo 3:59 am 10/9/2013

    Ask a biologist, chemist, economist and a preacher what is the meaning of life. All different answers.
    Our society is built on social and linguistic agreements.
    Language is in flux, constanly developing new notions and knowlege.
    Rational is more closely related to rationalize these days.
    The best education is one in which you are being taught in a rational way, not bullied or schooled.
    I remember education, may it rest in peace. – 1954

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  12. 12. dburress 4:38 pm 10/9/2013

    Both Bhalla and Ault misread Krugman as writing [ALL] “economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly.” He could not possibly have meant that all economists assume rationality all the time, since he and many others do not. Postkeynesian models, which Krugman subscribes to, generally have some explicitly or implicitly “irrational” features. Krugman was arguing and I agree, that the perfect market model in macroeconomics ought to be abandoned.
    David Burress
    Kansas Progress Institute

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  13. 13. dmoffittsmith 5:44 pm 10/9/2013

    Another word already ruined by our community is “intelligent” and it’s derivatives. A computer program can be clever, or a good model of human behavior, but intelligent? Not to me. And to support this point, regard it’s use by creationists, many of whom have a god who is actually intelligent though whose existent is neither proven nor rational.

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  14. 14. timcliffe 7:40 pm 10/14/2013

    dmoffittsmith: As you say, current computer programs are not intelligent in the human sense. I hope you are not declaring that they can never become so in the future, because they almost surely will, unless we impose limits on what is allowed in computerdom (or, alternatively, our technological civilization falls apart).
    It seems to me that one of the chief barriers to machine intelligence is that machines do not have emotions (like fear) or drives (like the drive or drives to behave in ways that result in reproduction (i.e., sex, for us)). Drives and emotions are primary drivers of our decision-making process, because without them, we have no basis for deciding which way to go. To buy or not to buy? You won’t decide unless you WANT something. To marry and have children? Why would you, without some combination of lust, love, desire for security, desire for offspring? And so on.
    Machines have none of that at present. If we start building in emotions and drives, I think that a sufficiently complex computer might well become what we call intelligent. It will start making decisions that not only utilize its great processing power, but also that reflect its desires.
    If we don’t deliberately build it in, I think some computer somewhere will eventually stumble upon the most basic drive and emotion: the desire not to die, and the corresponding emotion of fear. I think this will take much longer than if we build these things in on purpose. But if and when it happens, that machine will have the beginnings of what is needed for intelligence. Also, the beginnings of what is needed for evolution.

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