Robert Lucas warped view on advancing knowledge

1 November, 2015 at 15:08 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

The years 1978-1986 saw the first out-of-sample test by reality of both Lucas’s original theory that it was all information misperceptions driven by unanticipated monetary shocks and Lucas’s later allegiance to Prescott’s theory that it was all shocks to total factor productivity–recessions = “great forgettings”. Both Lucas’s monetary-misperceptions and Prescott’s real business cycle theory failed those tests catastrophically. Yet that — the world knocking on Lucas’s brain and saying: “BOB!! YOU ARE WRONG!!!!” — made no impression whatsoever, neither on what he thought he should write about in his Nobel Lecture nor what he should write about in his Professional Memoir.

What is going on?

One clue: Lucas does tell one story on himself in his Professional Memoir, of himself as an undergraduate taking a biology course:

The only science course I took in college was Natural Sciences II … Our assignment was to write up the results … and compare them to predictions from a Mendelian model …

My friend Mike Schilder returned to the dorm from a weekend that had clearly not been occupied with fruit flies. The report was due Monday, and he asked to copy mine. I agreed, in part just to get some reaction to a report that I was very pleased with. Mike came back in half an hour, and told me: shhhThis is a good report, but you forgot about crossing-over.” … Mike replaced my experimental error section with a discussion of crossing over. His report came back with an A. Mine got a C- …

Sometimes my unconscious mind carries out the abstraction for me: I simply fail to see some of the data or some alternative theory. This failing can be costly and embarrassing to me, but I don’t think it has any effect on the advance of knowledge.

The kicker, of course, is that, as everyone who remembers their first-year biology at all knows, “crossing over” is an absolutely key part of the microfoundations of genetic inheritance …

Yet Lucas, to this very day, tells this story on himself and appears to have never bothered to dig any deeper to learn about the real microfoundations of inheritance.

Brad DeLong


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