Arnold Kling  

Styles of Thought in Economics

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Seth Roberts interviews Tyler Cowen, who says,


I am very interested in the topic of "styles of thought in economics."

Robert Solow, my thesis adviser, was a big fan of starting with simple numerical examples. The point is that you want to really understand your analysis. The opposite would be somebody who does a computer simulation and says, "We got this really interesting result. We don't know why, but we got it." Or somebody who builds a complex mathematical model and cannot tell you how the assumptions drove the results. To me, finding a result that you do not understand is a waste of time.

In general, I think that the economists I most want to emulate are those who can contemplate being wrong. My undergraduate professor, Bernie Saffran, used to say "I'm willing to be wrong." Tyler is an example of someone who is often testing his own beliefs and those of other libertarians. He is willing to "afflict the comfortable" when it comes to libertarian beliefs.

I respect someone who says, "I believe X, but here are three arguments against X that are quite strong." Instead, people often prefer to attack the weakest arguments from the other side. That is the sign of an intellectual bully. Pick on someone your own size.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (6 to date)

I wonder to what extent epistemological beliefs affects economic thinking. And what epistemological beliefs are dominant in economics in general, and in particular fields. I think that's work that would be fruitful to do. There is a lot of work out there on epistemological beliefs and which fields in which different ones are dominant.

Doc Merlin writes:

"I respect someone who says, "I believe X, but here are three arguments against X that are quite strong." Instead, people often prefer to attack the weakest arguments from the other side. That is the sign of an intellectual bully. Pick on someone your own size."

Let me do some intellectual bullying of my own here:

The world is really flat and you attacking my weakest point by saying that we have pictures from space showing the world is round is just intellectual bullying.

Doc Merlin writes:

Um, I have to keep going, the absurdity of your post is bothering me.

'I respect someone who says, "I believe X, but here are three arguments against X that are quite strong.'

Sure we should all be willing to change our minds when confronted with evidence of being wrong, but in my experience what you describe people doing is a dishonest tool that people use to keep from having to change their minds when presented with overwhelming evidence of them being wrong.

(Not saying that tyler is doing this, though, just that its one of the most common tools I have seen employed, by some in informal arguments.)

Doc Merlin writes:

@Troy
Epistemology actually causes the divide between the austrians and the chicago school.
The Austrians claim we don't have real knowledge about the future only educated guesses. The other side claims near perfect knowledge. The austrians also claim things like NGDP measurements aren't particularly useful, the Chicago school claims they are useful and meaningful.
These epistemological differences form the basis of the rest of most of the two school's differences, as far as I can tell.

Indeed, that is a difference in epistemological beliefs. What we believe about knowledge matters greatly. It affects our world views, and our policy recommendations. Understanding these differences in beliefs, I think, would help us understand why people believe what they do. Of course, it still doesn't answer the question of "Yes, but who is right?" Of course, our epistemological beliefs also affect how we learn, how we think, etc., so things become even more complex with a society of people with different epistemological beliefs. But the problem there is that people with different levels of psychological complexity have predictably different epistemological beliefs, meaning we can't just adopt one and expect everyone to adopt it. People have to evolve into them. There's a possibility for guidance, but that takes time -- and agreement that it's in fact happening.

CJ Smith writes:

Arnold, I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one - its basic intellectual honesty. If the solutions to the topics we address here were so simplistic and straightforward that only the ignorant or misinformed wouldn't agree, there wouldn't be discussions, just people walking around slapping their foreheads and saying, "How could I have missed something that obvious!"

@Doc Merlin:

I think you are missing the point of Arnold's post.

Arnold ISN'T saying don't discuss the flaws in an opposing viewpoint. He IS saying don't ignore the strengths in their viewpoint, particularly where these strengths point out deficiencies in your own position that may need to be addressed or explained. The intellectual bullying he is referring to is the conceit behind the statement, "You are incorrect with regard to proposition A; therefore you are also incorrect with regards to all other propositions."

One of the best appellate advocates I ever worked with put it this way, "You can be absolutely convinced that you have the absolutely correct interpretation, and the opponent is absolutely wrong in all respects, and still lose the argument. Until you can understand why and how the opponent could come to their interpretation and their perception of your argument, you not only won't be able to change their mind, you won't be able to change the mind of the judge hearing both your arguments."


Example - I am discussing "the Bible - word of God or just bad journalism" with my wife's Lutheran pastor. I'm taking a theistic agnostic approach. Good lung exercise for me, thought I would never come up with an argument that would change his mind. I had to recognize and accept that his position can be described as, "I have faith that the Bible is the inspired word of God," or the argument will erroneously focus on the facts or lack of facts in the gospels, not on the underlying premises. The pastor accepts the existence of a Christian god on faith (beleif without factual support) and then uses that faith to validate the Bible from this premise. On the contrary, I deny the existence of a Christian god for this argument, negating the primary validation of the gospels, which allows me to focus on the factual inconsistencies, omissions and lack of tie-in to non-gospel records. Only once we've identified the different foundations can we really consider each other's arguments beyond the "you're just wrong" stage. I could be an intellectual bully, but it won't change his position or that of the the people participating in our discussion.

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