Arnold Kling  

Economics and Autism

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Simon Baron-Cohen said,


A systemizer is somebody whose style of thinking is predominantly in terms of understanding things according to rules or laws. You can think of lots of different kinds of systems: mathematical systems (algebra, computer programs), or mechanical systems (computers or cars); natural systems (weather, or rocks, geology); and social systems (businesses, or the military).

In each case, when you systemize what you do, you try to understand the system in terms of the laws that govern the system. Economics would be an example of a system, where people are trying to predict a crash, or predict what's going to happen in terms of stock markets. They are trying to understand things according to laws or rules. The theory we are testing is that if you have a mother and a father who are both systemizers, the risk of the child having autism increases.


So, if both of your parents are economists, your likelihood of autism increases. At the minimum, you are at risk for becoming an economist who carelessly offends people who are empathizers rather than systemizers. Especially if you become President of Harvard.

The quote above is from earlier this year. I was reminded of this when Baron-Cohen wrote a shorter piece in the NY Times while I was on vacation.

Of course, there is the Post-autistic Economic Network, for those who think that systematic approaches to economics are a form of mental illness.

I consider myself more of a systemizer than an empathizer, in Baron-Cohen's scheme. And I think that a lot of what makes economics cool is the way it shows that empathizers get it wrong when viewed from a systemizer's perspective (think of the impact of minimum wage laws, for example. Or sweatshops.)

But I think that as systemizers, we go overboard with math. Math appeals to systemizers, but not all systems analysis is mathematical. This is an issue I keep talking about--maybe I need to sit down and write something more systematic about it.


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The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled Tuesday's Daily News writes:
    Social Security At 70 Is A Sad Sight - Larry Kudlow, NRO Give the Dems a Flat Basketball - Herman Cain, Townhall Five Years And No Veto - Josh Burek, CS Monitor Democratic Bloggers Aim To Reshape Campaigns - MSNBC... [Tracked on August 16, 2005 8:57 AM]
COMMENTS (5 to date)
Jüri Saar writes:

If you write it, I'll definitely read it.

SL writes:

Without correct measurement of variables and the right set of relationships, almost every argument is reduced to merely ideology fights. Show me the proof and I will be convinced.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

There is nothing wrong with math. But I find that the biggest problem in economics is that people use math to solve simulations of economic models that simply don't exist.

A key example is that "investment problem" in Africa, where economists kept saying that their models predicted that increasing capital investment would help the economies, which while inherently true, it blatantly ignored the over-regulation and corruption that made such investment in many poor African countries foolhardy. The result was economists suggesting "investment aid" which just ended up in the pockets of corrupt kleptocrats, when the real economic answer is the need for de-regulation.

For example, the minimum wage in Niger is $1 per day. Despite the fact that most of the population makes less than that. Despite the fact that millions of people in Niger face hunger if not starvation this year.

But no, you can't employ them for $0.99 a day...even if they are starving. And you can't hire the starving people if you can't afford to provide them 12 to 20 days of paid leave per year, depending on seniority.

As a result, nearly 95% of people in Niger work in the informal sector, leading to reduced productivity.

Don writes:

If Baron-Cohen thinks that economists are people who try to predict what's going to happen in terms of stock markets, I think I can safely ignore his comments.

Hi, Don.

I don't think Baron-Cohen was at all suggesting that economics as a field consists entirely of finding better ways to predict the stock market! I think he was just giving an illustrative example of his usage of the term "systemizer"--an example that might be recognizable to his listening audience. You might want to give him another chance.

If anything, Baron-Cohen flatters economics as a profession by taking for granted the desire of economists to associate the field with rigorously testable, predictive sciences such as physics. Historically, that parallel is more often denied than recognized. Economics as a science is most certainly systematic, pursuing the use of rules and rational debate rather than random guesses or untestable intuitions to explain social phenomena in order to predict and understand. It is systematic thought, made possible in its most elegant form by mathematics, that makes a science precise and testable.

Yet, to notice that one way to communicate with others is to be clear, precise, and orderly is not to deny that there are other valuable ways to communicate.

And to notice that sciences, including economics, by nature of their including the option to communicate via some of these orderly elements, may especially appeal to some who are most comfortable with systematization doesn't mean that these sciences contain no elements that might appeal to non-systemizers--elements such as art, creativity, ingenuity, serendipity, nuance, politics, power, imagination, religious or spiritual inspiration, the ethereally satisfying (and ironically systematic?!) beauty of using the verimost non-systematic aspects of language itself to grasp at delicate communication that has never yet nor may ever be systematized, etc.

Baron-Cohen's point is that there are some natively different ways of communicating that seem universally characteristic. Some people gravitate toward one or the other; and a few people gravitate toward one or the other in the extreme. De gustibus non est disputandum! Baron-Cohen is intellectually curious about one particular extreme "gustibus" and what can be learned from studying its manifestations.

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