‘Mathematical’ economists and real mathematicians

22 February, 2016 at 17:19 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Years ago, I was involved in organising conferences with Christopher Zeeman … and we organized one between economists and mathematicians. We had some great mathematicians—John Milnor, Steve Smale, Rene Thom, and others—wonderful mathematicians. And on the other side, we had Gérard Debreu, Hugo Sonnenschein, Werner Hildenbrand, and a whole group of very distinguished mathematical economists.


After the first two, three hours, I think it was Milnor who said: “We all know that you guys can do mathematics, you do not have to show us. Everybody does his own thing. You want to show us that you are good at doing certain sorts of mathematics; that is fine. But we are interested in the economic problems. We thought that you were going to tell us about economic problems and we were going to use our mathematical tools to help you. But all you are telling us is the mathematical tools that you use and how you are doing well with them. But that is not going to create much”. I think that was absolutely right. After that, the economists were rather silenced and started shifting in their seats uncomfortably. Debreu never said very much anyway, but it was clear he was very insulted, because basically he liked to think of himself as a mathematician.

Alan Kirman


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