Economics — more like phrenology than physics

13 January, 2017 at 16:38 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

1760a-petrus-camper-facial-angle-eugenics-paul-d-stewartWhat made phrenology so popular was what also made economics so popular at the time: it gave a rationale for a society based on Progress and also provided a blueprint for how this could be achieved. The phrenological doctrine, being so vague in its pronouncements, was highly malleable and could be used to justify whatever those in power needed justifying. So, for example, in 19th century England phrenology was used to justify laissez faire economic policies by emphasising unequal natural capacities amongst the population while in early 20th century Belgian Rwanda it was used to justify the supposed superiority of the Tutsis over the Hutus.

In my book The Reformation in Economics I take the position that modern economics is more similar to phrenology than it is to, say, physics. This is not at all surprising as it grew up in the same era and out of remarkably similar ideas. But what is surprising is that this is not widely noticed today. What is most tragic, however, is that there is much in economics that can and should be salvaged. While these positive aspects of economics probably do not deserve the title of ‘science’ they at least provide us with a rational toolkit that can be used to improve political and economic governance in our societies.

Philip Pilkington



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  1. the book has merit but its too shrill at times and misuses the notion of ideology. In doing so, it obfuscates some of its insights.

    • No shriller than Keynes, surely. I think of the Timbergen critique and some of the funnier passages of the GT.

  2. Anyone who believes in phrenology needs to have their head examined.

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