Why Evolution Is Like Economics


A great post from A Stitch in Haste.


Is Panda’s thumb to be used for Tim to pursue his politcal agenda?

As it so happens, I do have a PhD in economics as well as several publications in peer reviewed journals. Tim misrepresents economics and the economic profession and displays his ignorance of the subhect matter.

In place of any serious discussion of the many differences in economics and amongst economists, Tim offers ideological platitudes.

I will not in this forum engage in a lengthy, extended review of economics and the economics profession. Simply put, Panda’s thumb is not the place to try and score ideological points.

Anybody who is interested may feel free to e-mail me and I will be happy to send a real working paper on the real similarities between economics and evolution, or materials I have developed for my political economy students on the relationship between science, epistemology, ontology, ideology and schools of economic thought.

I would be more than happy to provide web references or clearly accessible reads.

I protest (as officially as I can) to Panda’s thumb being used to spread ideologically narrow and inaccurate views of my discipline.

If Tim is going to continue with this, then I request equal time to present the real similarities between evolution and economics.

I second Chip’s complaint. Mind you, the smug economistic certainties in the original linked piece are strangely reminiscent of creationism, so I suppose at least it can’t be called irrelevant.

Compare for example, this quote:

“The premises are axiomatic, the graphs easy to understand and the policy conclusions irrefutable and often even elegant in their obviousness.”

This is not the hallmark of “science”. This is the hallmark of radical a priorism.

What evolutionary biologist proceeds from axiomatic premises to irrefutable conclusions?

Evolutionary biologists rely on established theory to form concepts and use these concepts to generate testable hypotheses or to rethink established conclusions. Biology does not come to “irrefutable conclusions”-it comes to conclusions that one accepts as being well established based on concepts and evidence.

Most of the models or graphs referred to in this article would be more akin to predictions in ecology of optimal foraging patterns or equilibrium stable strategies under ideal conditions. They are useful as concepts for understanding how economic processes work but they are only useful to a point. Like any model, they specify some informaton and leave other information out.

Imagine an ecologist proceeding under the assumption that all species are r strategists and proceeding to prove axiomatically that all k strategists will be competed away-regardless of existing evidence of the presence of k strategists.

In fact, the version of free market economics Tim is offering here is in fact like creationism or ID in its method.

That is not to say that all free market economists do this. I’ll offer one example: take Deirdre (aka Donald) McCloskey. Deirdre has made her career out of pointng out how little economists really know and how tenuous our grasp on knowledge is. It is a continuation of Hayek’s critique of scientism.

I may disagree with McCloskey on any number of points-including her allegiance to libertarianism. But she at least understands the limits of “science” in economics. Tim might make some time to read libertarians like McCloskey and Hayek if he is going to make these sorts of arguments.

As far as I can see, this link uses theory like a drunk uses lampposts.

Sorry for the rant folks. Disciplinary honor is at stake! :-)

So far as I can tell, Mr. Poirot’s reply consists of a hostile tone, plus the claim that economic models and graphs, “are useful as concepts for understanding how economic processes work but…are only useful to a point. Like any model, they specify some informaton and leave other information out.” I’m not sure how that conflicts with the underlying economic fact that, say, increasing price will decrease the quantity demanded, be it for consumer goods or labor. Mr. Poirot’s smugness–his assertion, for instance, that I ought to read Hayek–cannot cover the fact that economics is a science (albeit a “soft” one) and that the linked post is correct to liken those who would evade economic law on the basis of their preexisting notions of just distributionary outcomes to those who would evade the laws of biology on the basis of their preexisting notions of philosophical propriety.

I agree that the post overstates things when it saysMost economic policy issues are really not open to serious debate.” But what the post is talking about is the inane claims that, for example, minimum wages don’t really harm employment, or that rent control laws, or other pet projects of economic redistribution are somehow immune from the harmful effects that can be reliably predicted by economic laws. Obviously a question like “do minimum wages cause unemployment” is a complicated one to specialists, and obviously someone with a sophisticated understanding of economics will give a much more sophisticated answer to that question, just like a person with a sophisticated understanding of biology will give a sophisticated answer to some question about biological evolution. But there are those–and it is these that the post is targeting–who not only refuse to believe in the inescapable effect of supply-and-demand, or other economic laws, but who seize with religious fervor on something like the Card and Kreuger paper, ignoring its significant flaws and the massive amount of evidence to the contrary, and wield it like the “eye is too sophisticated” argument that creationists love.

It’s best not to throw around one’s PhD as if it automatically makes one an expert. I’ve known too many PhDs. And it’s best not to harrumph one’s way around with assumptions that I’ve never heard of McCloskey and Hayek.

Finally, with regard to “official protests,” we permit comments on this weblog precisely to allow those with opposing views to reasonably and sensibly state them. I’ll link whom I damn well please.

Ernst Mayr makes the observation in “This is Biology” that Biology is not a science where one derives laws such as the law of theromdynamics as in physics, but rather, empirically testable generalizations that tend to be true as a matter of probability.

Economists have wasted a lot of time committing two serious ontological errors (IMO). Error one is to search for “laws of motion” a la physics that are “incontrovertable” and true regardless of time and place. This leads to a tendency to model economic systems as closed, static systems and to an engineering view of economics.

Error two is to treat economics as merely a branch of formal logics where one proceeds from axioms (assumed to be a priori true) and derive universally valid truths based on the laws of formal logic.

Not only are matters not so simple, but matters can often be the opposite and lead to dangerous conclusions. As Nobel Prize winnder Amartya Sen noted an overreliance on markets can lead to high prices for food, that in response to certain events can lead to famines. As Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz noted, imperfect information can cause market mechanisms to not function correctly, so market do not always efficiently allocate resources. Mental models, according to Nobel Laureate Douglas North, along with institutions, do in fact influence how people respond in certain circumstances. Noted economist Deirdre McCloskey notes that while economists often profess allegiance to Popperian falsificationism, in practice, they often resort to just so stories and rhetoric.

I could go on for a long, long time and I am only citing the mainstream, Nobel Prize winners now,and even exclusively on the liberal side of economics.

Economists do indeed differ over the above issues and in fact, there is credible, extensive, refereed journal literatures on just these topics. And I have not even gotten to the dissenters in the economics profession who also have bona fide scientific credentials.

My objection is to using a website that is ostensibly devoted to a discussion about science and ID to sneak in snide remarks about liberals. Of course Tim can post wherever he wants and I have a right to respond in a hostile tone when people use such a forum to spread misinformation about my discipline.

Tim’s link would be a bit like somebody arguing that there is no disagreement over mechanisms of speciation.

If indeed Panda’s thumb is going to welcome ideologically motivated attacks on the social sciences-which is something Tim seems to like to do-then I think his doing so needs to be pointed out.

I reserve the right to be hostile to ideology masquerading as value free science.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on September 30, 2004 7:41 PM.

Nova: Origins was the previous entry in this blog.

Acoelomorph flatworms and precambrian evolution is the next entry in this blog.

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