Crash and learn?

9 October, 2016 at 14:07 | Posted in Economics | 22 Comments

The case for changing the way we teach economics is—or should be—obvious …

But as anyone who teaches or studies economics these days knows full well, the mainstream that has long dominated economics … is not even beginning to let go of their almost-total control over the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate programs.

ch

That’s clear from a recent article in the Financial Times, in which David Pilling asks the question, “should we change the way we teach economics?”

Me, I’ve heard the excuses not to change economics for decades now …

Here’s one—the idea that heterodox economics is like creationism, in disputing the “immutable laws” captured by mainstream theory:

Pontus Rendahl teaches macroeconomic theory at Cambridge. He doesn’t disagree that students should be exposed to economic history and to ideas that challenge neoclassical thinking … He is wary, however, of moving to a pluralist curriculum in which different schools of thought are given similar weight.”

“Pluralism is a nicely chosen word,” he says. “But it’s the same argument as the creationists in the US who say that natural selection is just a theory.” Since mainstream economics has “immutable laws”, he argues, it would be wrong to teach heterodox theories as though they had equal validity. “In the same way, I don’t think heterodox engineering or alternative medicine should be taught.”

Rendahl also argues that students are too critical of the models they encounter as undergraduates:

When we start teaching economics, we have to teach the nuts and bolts.” He introduces first-year students to the Robinson Crusoe model, in which there is only one “representative agent”. Later on, Friday is brought on the scene so the two can start trading, although no money changes hands since transactions are solely by barter” …

The assumptions built into each and every one of these defenses of mainstream economics and attacks on heterodox economic theories as well as any hint of pluralism in the teaching of economics are, at best, outdated—the leftovers from positivism and other forms of post-Enlightenment scientism. They comprise the “spontaneous philosophy” of mainstream economists who have exercised hegemony in the practice and teaching of economics throughout the postwar period.

And, yes, Pilling is right, when that hegemony is challenged, as it has been by economics students and many economists in recent years, “the clash of ideas gets nasty.”

David Ruccio

Once Cambridge was known for its famous economists. People like John Maynard Keynes. Nowadays it’s rather infamous for its economists inhabiting a neoclassical world of delusion. People like Pontus Rendahl.

22 Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Hi,
    .
    I’ll post the same response as I did on the RWER blog.
    .

    An article cuts down a long conversation into a few sentences, so some nuances always disappear.
    .

    First, I do not think of heterodox economics in the same way as creationism. But pluralism suggests that alternative views should be presented alongside the consensus of the profession just because they are *not* the consensus. That is, without having undergone the scientific scrutiny that theories normally go through. Any ideas that aspire to be taught in an undergraduate program should be presented, scrutinized, peer-reviewed, etc., according to the same standards as all other hypotheses. I do not think that alternative ideas should get a free pass/fast-track from this process just because they are alternative.
    .

    Second, “immutable laws” was a poorly chosen phrase. I emailed the author about that, and parts of that email is below. I think that clarifies what I meant.
    “I never said that “mainstream economics has ‘immutable laws’”, as that could easily be misunderstood by many economists. In particular, I was not referring to, for instance, Say’s Law, or the Law of one price, or even the law of demand, as none of these are laws at all, and can certainly be refuted.
    .

    Instead I was referring to the fact that mainstream economics adheres to some basic principles that simply must hold for the accounting of the economy to make sense: For every buyer there is a seller; if someone spends more than her income, someone else must spend less; everything produced in the economy is either consumed (at home or abroad), invested, or left as inventories, and so on. These are relationships that must hold in order to ensure — from an accounting point of view — that the economy is neither “leaking” nor receiving manna from heaven.
    If this could be clarified (online) I would be very happy.”
    .
    To which the author responded:
    .
    “Funnily enough in an earlier version I did spell out what you mean, by including this phrase “- such as spending and saving always balance -” but in the need to lose words (and add some that the editors wanted) this somehow got squeezed out. ”
    .
    Best wishes
    Pontus Rendahl

    • Lol… Pontus thinks that evolution is not a theory. What is it then? A fact? A piece of data?

      The very fact that he thinks evolution is not a theory simply renders his entire discussion of anything to do with science totally suspect. Next he’ll be telling us that the Newtonian theory of gravitation is not a theory. He is simply not a serious person.

      • To quote the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S:
        .
        “Scientists most often use the word “fact” to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.”
        .
        Having said that, you obviously missed the point in my statement. The argument made is that since evolution is *just a theory*, other *just theories* should have equal status and be taught alongside evolution. Primarily, critics say, intelligent design.

      • Gee whiz, it can quote authoritative sources rather than engage in its own reasoning. A bottom-feeding think-tanker from cradle to grave.

        Of course, if you had any sense of the topic you’re talking about you’d know that within the neo-Darwinian evolutionary community there are TWO different theories. They conflict with one another and are mutually exclusive . And neither are ID. The Darwinian community publicises these two theories in popular form under the names of two famous authors. Evolutionary theory is pluralist.

        Here’s a game to test your seriousness: name both theories and briefly explain them.

        And although none of us can see if you go on a Google rampage after that challenge let the little voice in your head tell you this: if you do, you are a fraud. Really think on this. If you have given a statement to a major newspaper as an academic that includes reference to a theory that you have to Google when you are challenged on it then you are literally the definition of a fraud. I know that you are. And obviously your conscience isn’t strong enough to keep you honest. But when that nagging doubt seizes your mind at 3am on a sleepless night… embrace it. Otherwise your own work will continue to wither in irrelevance and you will be forced to identify more and more as an ideological defender of the status quo to get your name out there – using whatever crappy, low-level standards of Reddit debating you can to defend it. How sad it will be to know that your name is associated with being a foil.

    • “That is, without having undergone the scientific scrutiny that theories normally go through.”
      .
      You’re missing the point.
      .
      Mainstream economic theories have not gone through any scientific scrutiny. Peer review is not scientific scrutiny. Peer review is scholasticism. Scientific scrutiny is setting out a falsifiable hypothesis a priori, and successfully rejecting the null hypothesis in a well-designed and reproducible experiment.
      .
      Accounting identities are not scientific scrutiny, either. They are tautologies.
      .
      In the absense of any actual science going on, on what basis does one prefer the “in group” collection of scholasticism and tautologies over the “out group” collection of scholasticism and tautologies?

    • “But pluralism suggests that alternative views should be presented alongside the consensus of the profession just because they are *not* the consensus. That is, without having undergone the scientific scrutiny that theories normally go through. Any ideas that aspire to be taught in an undergraduate program should be presented, scrutinized, peer-reviewed, etc., according to the same standards as all other hypotheses. I do not think that alternative ideas should get a free pass/fast-track from this process just because they are alternative.”

      As someone who has been involved with the student movement, I’d just like to point out that you are constructing a straw man of pluralism. Criticism of ideas is exactly what the student movement want; at no point have students called for non-neoclassical economics just because it’s non-neoclassical. They (we) are calling for it because it explains things neoclassical economics does not. Plenty of non-neoclassical ideas are published in journals so they fit your criteria – unless you are only counting mainstream journals, that is.

  2. “That is, without having undergone the scientific scrutiny that theories normally go through. Any ideas that aspire to be taught in an undergraduate program should be presented, scrutinized, peer-reviewed, etc., according to the same standards as all other hypotheses. ”

    Pontus,

    So why doesn’t this happen now?

    Are you saying the alternate schools of economic thought don’t make the muster? The predominant programme is mainstream.

    Who are these peers – more mainstream economists?

    All double talk.

    • “Are you saying the alternate schools of economic thought don’t make the muster?”
      .
      At the moment, I do not see any compelling alternatives presented for macroeconomics. In the past, several alternative ideas have been embraced by and incorporated into the mainstream (e.g. Tobin, Akerlof etc). This will continue to happen as long as the presented ideas are available to peer review.

      • I’m sure you don’t see any alternatives given your prejudices.

        You talk of peer review. This is just nonsense. There is no open minded peer review. It is prejudiced review.

        It’s all double talk.

  3. Gee whiz, it can quote authoritative sources rather than engage in its own reasoning. A bottom-feeding think-tanker from cradle to grave.

    Of course, if you had any sense of the topic you’re talking about you’d know that within the neo-Darwinian evolutionary community there are TWO different theories. They conflict with one another and are mutually exclusive . And neither are ID. The Darwinian community publicises these two theories in popular form under the names of two famous authors. Evolutionary theory is pluralist.

    Here’s a game to test your seriousness: name both theories and briefly explain them.

    And although none of us can see if you go on a Google rampage after that challenge let the little voice in your head tell you this: if you do, you are a fraud. Really think on this. If you have given a statement to a major newspaper as an academic that includes reference to a theory that you have to Google when you are challenged on it then you are literally the definition of a fraud. I know that you are. And obviously your conscience isn’t strong enough to keep you honest. But when that nagging doubt seizes your mind at 3am on a sleepless night… embrace it. Otherwise your own work will continue to wither in irrelevance and you will be forced to identify more and more as an ideological defender of the status quo to get your name out there – using whatever crappy, low-level standards of Reddit debating you can to defend it. How sad it will be to know that your name is associated with being a foil.

    • This seems almost personal.
      .
      In any case, I have no business discussing evolution with you or anyone else. The article in the FT was also not about evolution, but about economics. I did, however, make an analogy to an extreme case in the US in which “pluralism” is invoked to sidestep the regular scientific protocol to fast-track alternative theories (ID) into the curriculum. As a principle, that type of fast-tracking of certain groups’ pet theories should be avoided. I stand by that argument.
      .
      Lastly, I would be more than willing to debate the merits of alternative schools of thought in public. But I doubt that you have the guts to do that. I guess it’s just more comfortable sniping behind internet’s wonderful anonymity.

      • Thought not. You drew an analogy to a discipline you were unfamiliar with in order to score cheap rhetorical points.

        Why would anyone want to debate that? It’s low-level Reddit-style argument. The equivalent to equating your political opponent with Hitler.

        But good look using these cheap rhetorical tactics to set yourself up as the White Knight battling heterodoxy. Just making sure your foes understand what type of argument it is that you’re posing exactly.

        Regarding evolution, it’s a speciality of mine. I’ll give you a literature review if you’d like. Although your crap rhetoric will fall apart pretty quickly when you realise that it is, in fact, a competing-schools-of-thought discipline. Up to you.

      • Oh regarding your journal argument. Question.

        Was one of the key evolutionary theories originally published in a top 20 evolutionary biology journal? Indeed, was it even published by an evolutionary biologists?

        (1) Do you know the answers to these questions?

        (2) If not… WHY are you drawing analogies?

      • Hi,

        I’m not sure I am following the logic here. My claim was that ID supporters have in the past appealed to “pluralism” in order for ID to be part of the biology curriculum. That’s it. All I stated. So unless that claim is false, my analogy is accurate. And I haven’t seen any argument whatsoever from you that it is.
        .
        In addition, you seem to claim that since there are diverging views *within* evolutionary theory, biology is pluralist. That is of course a complete red herring since I have never claimed that biology was at a bliss point without factions. And it has in fact never anything to do with my original statement.
        .
        Lastly, I do not know who published what at what time and in what journal in biology. But I’m happy to see that the landmark results survived being published in (at the time) less respected journals. The same is true for most sciences: https://majesticforest.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/papers-that-triumphed-over-their-rejections/. And also for economics: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257%2Fjep.8.1.165
        .
        But out of curiosity: Would you claim that biology accepts alternative theories without peer review or at a lower threshold for evidence just because they are alternative? Or that alternative theories are allowed to sidestep the scientific procedure and fasttrack into the curriculum just because they are alternative? I seriously doubt it. But if it is the case, I accept your point.
        .
        An oh, you’re a BA in Biology are you? Very good. How’s the diploma in economics going?

      • No you didn’t. You made comments as to whether evolution is a theory. You implied that it isn’t. You then attempted to back this claim with an absurd quote you pulled from somewhere.

        Of course any serious person knows that (a) evolution IS a theory and (b) there are competing theories within evolution.

        You then tried to switch the argument to something to do with peer review. This is a classic tactic amongst the “second-hand dealers in ideas”, as Hayek called the think tankirati. It’s a silly old internet debating tactic and if you don’t think other people reading this don’t see what you’re doing then you need some self-awareness training.

        All that said, let’s address the point you raise. But let’s preface it with a question to the audience: do any of you actually think Pontus knows anything about peer review in evolutionary biology? Of course he doesn’t. He’s just spouting nonsense. But I’ll play along. Let’s pretend that you have half a clue.

        In 1972 two non-evolutionary biologists published what has become the second strain of evolutionary theory. They published this in a peer reviewed journal. But this journal was NOT peer reviewed by evolutionary biologists. Today heteredox economists publish in peer reviewed journals criticising mainstream economics. But these journals are NOT peer reviewed by mainstream economists.

        The situation is very similar. Those whose theories are being criticised are not peer reviewing the theories criticising them because they would obviously reject the papers.

        That’s the serious answer to the question. The more important answer is that you don’t have the first clue about any of this; you can’t name the paper, the journal, the authors or what any of it is about. You’re faking it. And you were quoted as an academic in a major newspaper faking it. You should be embarrassed.

      • Hi again,
        .
        I see you avoided my questions. A pity.
        .
        No, I don’t know much about peer-reviewing in evolutionary theory. You really got me there (although I never claimed I did). But I also don’t see how that’s relevant. And sure, I implied that evolution is not “just a theory”. Several prominent biologist agree with that view. Just google it if you don’t believe me (wait, that would mean that you’re a fake! And you should wake up at night tossing and turning knowing you’re a fake! And you should be embarrassed!!! And … and [hyperventilating] and … Oh My God, JUST Don’t google it!!1!)
        .
        Lastly, I didn’t try to switch the argument in some stunt to derail the conversation. On the contrary, I am trying to discuss the thrust of the article instead of splitting hairs and sputtering insults. A healthy science embraces good theories in favour of the bad. You provided some excellent examples of how that has happened in biology. But it is still not the case that anyone was allowed to sidestep the protocol just because they had an alternative view. They had to go through the same procedure as everyone else who claims to have a novel contribution. In the end it seems like the best ideas survived no matter where they were published, and that’s exactly how it should be according to me. If you haven’t understood that point by now, I’m afraid you will never understand it. Goodbye!

      • While this is besides the point, I have to say that I find it slightly ironic (and amusing) that one of the authors of the mentioned 1972 paper — Stephen Jay Gould — is also the author of the article “Evolution as Fact and Theory”, which precisely discusses the erroneous statement of “evolution is just a theory” made by creationists (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_fact-and-theory.html)
        .
        Some nuggets:
        .
        “Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.”
        .
        “Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred.”
        .
        What is it you guys say on the internet? LOL?

      • Thanks for admitting that you have no idea about peer review in evolutionary biology – a topic that you seem to have discussed with a major newspaper.

        Pro tip: don’t put out public statements on topics that you have no knowledge of or people will conclude that you are a charlatan.

        FYI: if any evolutionary biologist does hold to the view that evolution is NOT a theory then you should not listen to them because they have no clue what they’re talking about. Also, arguments that appeal to authority rather than trying to justify your beliefs/statements by discussing and explicating them make you come across as a lightweight.

        To all other readers of this blog: do everything you can to ensure that Rendahl becomes the defender of mainstream economics. He will do an incredibly bad job and will be a total pushover. So if you have any chance to debate him, promote him as the defender of the faith or anything else try to assist him. He is your Manchurian Candidate.

      • “Well, evolution is a theory.” – Stephen Jay Gould

        “And sure, I implied that evolution is not “just a theory”.” – Pontus Rendahl

      • Pontus, I would be curious to know what you see as the distinguishing methodological differences between contemporary mainstream economics and medieval scholasticism.

      • Pontus, I would also be interested to understand how you compare and contrast the axiomatic and teleological role of “intelligence” in Intelligent Design with the axiomatic and teleological role of “rational agency” in mainstream economics.

  4. What scientific theory looks like in action:
    .
    “By challenging the bacteria with differing doses of antibiotic in the first step of the gradient, the team demonstrated that E. coli evolve higher resistance more quickly if they first encounter an intermediate, rather than a high, concentration of antibiotic.
    .
    Using the easy-to-see evolutionary trajectory of the bacteria as a guide, the researchers isolated and sequenced the charge-leading mutants. They found adaptive mutations in the gene for the proofreading enzyme DNA polymerase III, the target genes of the antibiotics, and in unexpected genes such as those coding for a phosphate transporter and a kinase that don’t have a known function in establishing resistance, hinting at alternative pathways that could arise.”
    .
    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/46993/title/Giant-Petri-Dish-Displays-Evolution-in-Space-and-Time/
    .
    Hypothesis, experiment, confirmation, discovery.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.