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Sorry. Missed the word "young" in there.

Ricardo Caballero:

It is not surprising that young experts would fail to see the problems with hyper-specialization. They are the purveyors of the benefits of hyper-specialization. My view is that a broad, interdisciplinary approach to social science is, in itself, a form of specialization and that it would be just as damaging to have too many people doing that as anything else.

The only issue is that it is not possible to judge "worldly philosopher" types by the standards that we currently use to judge practitioners in every other specialty. Accordingly it is more difficult for synthesizers to excel in the profession. Articles like the Shillers' should do something to encourage people to figure out how to solve that problem.

Another reason why it is credible that young economists are not speaking out about hyper-specialization is that they need to work within the confines of the field to become its leaders. While someone who has already made his name in economics, like R. Shiller and R. Solow, can easily use their laurels to give credence to their criticisms, it is not so for the rising star. Instead, he needs to first gather laurels before he can expend them, and how is he going to do so? He will do so by becoming a hyper-specialist and therefore reinforcing the system of hyper-specialization.

This situation is likely to persist until undergraduate courses are available where students have the option to leave out maths and do traditional political economy. As long as you keep on filling their heads with maths they will think that some kind of hyperspcialization is the way to go, whatever you say outside the maths classes.

Is it just me, or does this read like a disgruntled blog post?

Jennifer is right that interdisciplinarity is, in a sense, another discipline. It has its own methodology -- integration. Interdisciplinary scholars are of course dependent upon the work done by disciplinary scholars. Our work is to synthesize and integrate, to show where the connections are among the disciplines, thus helping stimulate the disciplines into new directions. This, of course, is what should ideally be happening.

I talk about interdisciplinary studies here:

Disgruntled wouldn't be the word I would choose, but curious would be. I don't fully agree with Shiller's take, and in fact, I read his paper as somewhat "unsophisticated" in its presentation of this argument and would prefer earlier expressions of this same sentiment made by Sen, and even earlier one's by Buchanan. But my point was to see if people even knew of those earlier positions. Also Shiller at least reminds us of Boulding's position, but even before that read his critique of Samuelson's Foundations in the JPE.

It is what it is, no disgruntlement, but as in Shiller's case so many at the back end of their careers come to doubt the progress that has been made (or at least the opportunity cost of edges of that progress), I am curious as to why more space is not given to those who want to pursue the "worldly philosophy" within our profession.

Many at the end of their careers have also lost the ability to keep up with new practitioners. I don't know if I think this is a legitimate critique or not. If it is a legitimate critique, then the question "why doesn't a smart young person say this?" is a reasonable question.

But if it's not a legitimate critique then the answer may be easy - old practitioners like to make sweeping critical statements that have more nostalgia to them than substance. It's not a mystery why a young economist wouldn't make those claims.

I'd agree with Jennifer and Troy. I'm not saying that what Shiller suggests doesn't have value. Simply that it is one approach rather than necessarily a place that the whole discipline needs to move towards.

I remember also Leontief's letter to Science in the early 1980s in which he criticized standard economics for its aridity. As long as economists are experts, economics will be a racket.

I wrote an article that appeared in the Journal of Economic Issues back in 1996 that compared the career of an economist to the life of Parsifal and his search for the Holy Grail. The first link is what got published and the second is a longer version. Parsifal is told when he is young not to ask too many questions and he must slay many dragons and wander about the wasteland until he can get into the Grail castle again and and ask the question he should have asked when he was younger "whom does the Grail serve?" I used a Jungian approach

Stigler talked about "knightly conduct in the quest for knowledge."

As long as mathematical skill remains a status symbol among geeks there will be strong incentives to enhance its value.

In my experience the inculcation of math snobbery begins with high school teachers.

Isn't Stigler who said that you should wait to be 50 do History of Economic Thought? Could you characterize Shiller's essay as an History of Economic Thought piece? Isn't possible that these economists just follow Stigler's recommendation?

Another possible explanation could be that their goals when they were young were different. Tenure, Promotion, becoming a leader in their fields and get recognition for it were their goals. Now, when they are older, they have time to think about those bigger (and more difficult) questions. How much progress have we made? Has economics become too specialized? Has economics become to mathematical? etc.

Are those too simplistic explanations?


I think what you say has some parallels in my paper.


Do you know Gerald Stone? I have met him. Hope he is doing okay

"Now, when they are older, they have time to think about those bigger (and more difficult) questions."

This seems to be what Ed Phelps is doing.

He's always been interested in Hayek and the wider field of political economy.

Now he's seriously pursuing that interest, and expanding his conceptual world considerably in the process.

Deirdre McClosky turns to Austrian Economics

An interesting line of thought on this would be to apply the economics criterion of "seriousness" -- willingness to pay. Talk at the end of one's career is cheap; nothing much is ventured. People recognize this. That is why it has no impact.

Schiller mentioned Boulding's revival of the moral dimension of economics and he also questioned the efforts that economists have made to be a "proper" or "positive" science during the last century. Re-reading Wade Hands et al lately on the philosophy and methods of economics it is striking that most if not all the discussion of testing (falsificationism) relates to fundamental theories and not to policies. But very few working economists are doing fundamental theory, I suspect that the overwhelming majority are doing policy. So what about more discussion of testing in the context of policies? An exemplar of falsificationism in policy studies is Ludwig von Mises with his studies of various forms of intervention.

Pressing on a bit further off topic, it looks as though the philosophy and methodology of economics industry has made virtually no progress in several decades because the work was driven by the interests of philosophers more than the interests of working economists, so apart from a few exceptions like Lary Boland and Stanley Wong there has been little attention to "work in progress" as distinct from historical episodes.

More critical analysis of work in progress to assess which programs are getting somewhere useful would help to design courses to give young economists a better perspective on the field, even if professional imperatives dictate that they cannot say out loud what they really think. Am "underground" movement could build up support for different incentives and rewards in the system.


Btw, I just read Wong's little book on revealed preference -- quite impressive!

The book is based on a PhD thesis which he wrote in Cambridge (England) under the supervision and guidance of Joan Robinson, Luigi Pasinetti, Lawrence Boland and Geoff Harcourt. Boland introduced him to Popperism. He was too smart to stay in economics and went off to be a partner in a major law firm.

The book is a paradigm case of Popperian situational analysis, taking account of the full range of inflences including metaphysical assumptions. SA incidentally applies to problem-solving of all kinds, intellectual and action-oriented. It is amusing the way that Mirowski rubbished Popper in his praise of Wong's book, but Mirowski shows his ignorance every time he writes anything about Popper.

This book is a disappointment, the proceedings of a seminar in Ireland on Popperism in economics.

Mirowski: "That is not to assert Wong’s meditations could not be improved upon a quarter-century later. For myself, I might suggest that the version of the philosophy of science associated with Popper and Lakatos really did not actually contribute all that much to the structure of the argument. Popper’s method of ‘situational analysis’ was really just a rehash of neoclassical rational choice theory, as he admitted in his own autobiography Unended Quest (p.117), and as such would seem particularly unsuited to serve as a basis for critique of that very same theory."

A word of warning, Popper and Lakatos need to be disaggregated and it is a mistake to think that Lakatos added any value. In fact he almost destroyed the Popper program and one of the things that has distorted the philosophy and methods industry is the general view that Lakatos was trying to save something from the wreckage of Popper's falsificationism. Critics have yet to lay a glove on Popper's own ideas (in their stongest form) while the mutilated straw dummy of the Received View has been thrashed for several decades of wasted efforts.

Just to complete the story, this is a summary of a talk that Popper gave to a group of scientists.


“As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that scientific method does not exist. I add that I ought to know, having been for a time, the one and only professor of this non-existent subject within the British Commonwealth.”

1. There is no assured method of discovery.

2. There is no method of verification.

3. There is no way to establish the truth of a theory or even its probability.


(1) Fashions. “These can have only one serious function – that of evoking criticism. Nevertheless I do believe in the rationalist tradition of a commonwealth of learning, and in the urgent need to preserve this tradition”.

(2) The aping of physical science. Especially by the “inductive” accumulation of observations and the quest for misplaced precision in measurement and the definition of terms. Simplicity and clarity are values in themselves, but precision and exactness are not (beyond the point that is required at the time). “I especially dislike pretentious terminology…What can be said can and should always be said more and more simply and clearly.”

(3) The authority of the expert. “By paying too much respect to the specialist we are destroying the commonwealth of learning, the rationalist tradition and science itself.”

This article, and the conversation it provoked, is just further proof that people need to be taught philosophy and logic before they're allowed to learn about any other subject. Laying a proper foundation of understanding prevents future ill judgments.

Start spreading the news.

The period of Kuhnian normal science is dead in macroeconomics:

Mario -- I've always considered Wong's book to be important work.

"Btw, I just read Wong's little book on revealed preference -- quite impressive!"

"Why is it that these type of arguments about the costs of hyper-specialization and even to some extent excessive formalism tend to be made by leading economists at the back end of their careers?"

I think they do it because it is an easy, an obvious point; many at the "back end" of their careers aren't very creative. It is possible to do innovative empirical work to investigate issues of mathematical complexity in economics, and I have done some of this, but there is no small amount of work in it. To my earlier point, the "back end" economists have never written such; fifty years ago it was because it was technically almost impossible to do this kind of work, but today, again, I believe it is for the reason I have already stated.

This week’s review is a little different. I’m reviewing, drum roll please, a bookmark. Wait, don’t go away. I promise, it’s a special book mark, so special in fact that it’s simplicity made me over look it when I opened my box of goodies from Exaclair.

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