On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

Lunchtime Links

  1. David Reich’s essay in the New York Times on genetics, race, and IQ
  2. Henry Farrell’s essay at Crooked Timber on genetics, race, and IQ
  3. Ezra Klein’s essay at Vox on genetics, race, and IQ
  4. Chris Dillow’s essay at Stumbling and Mumbling on genetics, race, and IQ
  5. Andrew Sullivan’s essay at Daily Intelligencer on genetics, race, and IQ

Andrew’s essay is a must read. It’s careful, well thought out, and bolder than the other ones. All are well-worth reading, though.

Reich’s essay has sparked an important dialogue in the Anglo-American world (props to the NY Times). Globally, I think conceptions of race, genetics, and IQ in the non-Anglo world are based on pseudoscience (at best), so it’s nice to see this debate unfold the way it has (so far).

I don’t think any of them have done a good job grappling with Charles Murray’s argument. (More on that later.)

Thanks to Uncle Terry for bringing this to light in the first place.

The selfish meme

There are two senses in which to consider the phrase.

  1. The sense in which memes enter or exit our minds.
  2. The sorts of behavior encouraged by our memes.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about:

A meme (/ˈmm/ meem)[1] is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”.

Richard Dawkins introduced the idea in his famous book: The Selfish Gene. The bulk of his book discusses examining the gene as the basic unit of analysis in evolutionary studies. He introduces the idea of the meme as a different form of replicator. Both genes and memes will only be reflected in the outcome of biological and cultural evolution if they exhibit fitness–if they are able to survive.

So the cultural traditions that helped hunter-gatherer societies survive droughts or harsh winters tended to survive and spread. Over time a culture accumulates this sort of practical, tacit knowledge. (Side note: this week’s Econtalk has Cesar Hidalgo who does really interesting work trying to indirectly measure the presence of such tacit knowledge in market economies.) And if culture is made up of memes, the same way organisms are made up of genes.

Looking at genes as the unit of analysis (as opposed to the organism) explains some otherwise mysterious behavior. It provides a plausible explanation of altruism: we care for our children more than anyone because 50% of their genes are our genes. A nephew is still precious, but not as important to us because the expected ratio of shared genes between the two of you is 25%. A gene that prompts you to protect your children is likely to survive longer than a gene that doesn’t prompt you. (And genes that hang around with such kin-protects genes are also more fit than their competition.) A gene that prompted you to be kind to neighbors makes sense when you live in small groups. But a gene that prompted you to be kind to total strangers might be a liability in a world where strangers were dangerous.

Cultural evolution certainly makes sense as a gradual mutation of different cultural practices merging together to make what is called (and perceived) as a unique body of culture. It’s a complex of knowledge, ideas and basic assumptions, social interface protocols, and it’s deeply embedded in how we engage in the world. (Perhaps we can’t remember our infancy because we didn’t have a cultural lens through which to reference anything to anything else…) One thing that I’m sure we’ve all noticed is that it can be almost painful to have to reject a cherished belief. It’s even difficult to see one of these memes challenged.

Now genes don’t have to be small bits of genetic code. They can be something simple like “make this enzyme when you get a chance.” But as a unit of replication, you should consider the smallest discrete chunk of genetic coding that replicates itself. If a particular pattern isn’t fit, it will leave the gene pool, while the fit collections of genetic instruction spread. So you might end up with long complex strings of genetic material akin to a computer program. Initially simple scripts might gather as successful collections of genes that work well together. The “produce stomach acid” gene works well with the “produce a stomach” gene and soon the two are virtually inseparable. They’ve become a simple script: “Do this, then that, then maybe this other thing.” Scripts gather into multi-cellular organisms with different functions that can respond differently to different stimuli. Soon you’ve got a complex set of code as your replicating unit.

More complex genes are necessary to prompt more complex behavior. It’s worth noting that Dawkin’s theoretical framework sometimes looks like a hyper-rational economics model. Evolutionary Stable Strategies are a Nash Equilibria that are robust to invaders. They occupy a niche and survive. But this evolution is happening in the context of increasing complexity. The system is learning*. This isn’t an instantaneous process**, but it is gradually becoming more sophisticated.

A complex gene will get bugs due to random mutation, but as long as it’s still generally fit, it will survive. And over time, more subtle and sophisticated programs identify new niches. And we get plant genes surviving by filling the “eat sunlight” niche and animals in the “eat plants” niche, and bacteria co-evolving with animals’ digestive systems.

Slowly working through this long, blind, random process genes surviving this hostile environment develop behaviors that help them flourish (the “four F’s of evolution: Fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction”). Gradually they stumble into opportunities, and an important one was social behavior.

More and more complexity, round and round, until we start to get our first little bits of sentience. I’ve been watching a chinchilla hop around my apartment for a couple weeks now and I’m astonished by how much effort she puts into genuinely exploring her world. She tests objects for structural integrity and learns what she can and can’t jump on. She tests boxes with her teeth, I don’t know what for. She’s distinctly learning and not merely existing or surviving. She’s comfortable and does not know fear (I’ve seen her scare one particularly wussy cat). That sort of behavior requires a great deal of complexity which requires a great deal of genetic material.

I’m noticing as I write this that the biggest gene (i.e. discrete, replicated set of genetic code) must be that very large collection of genetic patterns that must come together in order for a one’s offspring to simply be the same species.*** I’ve heard that humans and chimps share 94 percent of our genetic material. That overlap tells me that some larger percentage than that is what makes us actually a human. The difference between any two individuals, then, must be among a very small portion of their total genetic makeup. This small portion is where genetic competition occurs in the arena of sexual reproduction.

In any case, our first memes (behaviors) seem to be transmitted biologically. Later, with more complex genes, we are able to replicate more complex behaviors. Eventually, we get complex enough to build up a sense of consciousness****.

A complex enough gene might have a subroutine that sets off an error; something like the pain our consciousness experiences when things are going poorly*. And likewise for a meme. Though more likely is that the error is being returned by our psychology. (If our genes are assembly language, our psychology is the operating system, and culture is the mess of basic programs that makeup our desktop environment.)

When we think of memes as self-replicating units, interesting questions arise: what sort of patterns will be robust to competition? Which will occupy what niches? What happens when incompatible memes come together in one mind? What sort of eusocial behaviors are possible? How much do our memes govern our behavior? (This is where nature and nurture overlap.)

Obviously one possibility is a “selfishness meme,” or a culture that hits an equilibrium of distrust. But there are many others, and how they combine matters. At this level we’re essentially asking questions about psychology, culture, and institutions. The fodder of all the social sciences comes together here. Different memes will be transmitted in different ways (which is perhaps what defines the disciplines), but any of these memes may be complex enough to have a defense mechanism that involves activating various processes (including other memes, perhaps) and perhaps making people feel anger and related emotions when someone questions our beliefs and may even push people to fight with their life for their memes.


*We’re computers, markets are computers, societies are computers, the ecosystem is a computer, Earth is just a big giant computer. It processes data and creates new data.

** The next Hayek rap should include the phrase “it’s spontaneous order, not instantaneous…”

*** I could imagine it as made up of some set of smaller genes in some complex, rather than one monolithic gene but I don’t have the language to communicate that idea concisely.

**** And it must be noted that this consciousness is built out of parts designed for the poop-and-panic machines that were our evolutionary ancestors. It’s like building a super computer* out of a truck load of Pez dispensers and a warehouse full of chainsaws. And yet, how else could it be done.

Federalizing the Social Sciences

A few days ago I asked whether the social sciences could benefit from being unified. The post was not meant to make an argument in favor or against unification, although I myself favor a form of unification. The post was merely me thinking out loud and asking for feedback from others. In this follow up post I argue that the social sciences are already in the process of unification and a better question is what type of unification type this will be.


What is a social science?

First though allow me to define my terms as commentator Irfan Khawaja suggested. By social sciences I mean those fields whose subjects are acting individuals. For the time being the social sciences deal with human beings, but I see no particular reason why artificial intelligence (e.g. robots in the mold of Isaac Asimov’s fiction) or other sentient beings (e.g. extraterrestrials) could not be studied under the social sciences.

The chief social sciences are:

Economics: The study of acting individuals in the marketplace.

Sociology: The study of acting individuals and the wider society they make up.

Anthropology: The study of the human race in particular.

Political Science: The study of acting individuals in political organizations.

There are of course other social sciences (e.g. Demography, Geography, Criminology) but I believe the above four are those with the strongest traditions and distinctive methodologies. Commentators are more than encouraged to propose their own listings.

In review the social sciences study acting individuals.  A social science (in the singular) is an intellectual tradition that has a differentiating methodology. Arguably the different social sciences are not sciences as much as they are different intellectual schools.


Why do I believe the social sciences will be unified? 

On paper the social sciences have boundaries among themselves.

In practice though the boundaries between the social sciences blurs quickly. Economists in particular are infamous for crossing the line that the term ‘economics imperialism‘ has been coined to refer to the application of economic theory to non-market subjects. This imperialism has arguably been successful with Economists winning the Nobel prize for applying their theory to sociology (Gary Becker), history (Douglass North, Robert Fogel), law (Ronald_Coase) and political science (James M. Buchanan). The social sciences are in the process of being unified via economic imperialism.

Imperialism is a surprisingly proper term to describe the phenomenon taking place. Economists are applying their tools to subjects outside the marketplace, but little exchange is occurring on the other end. As the “Superiority of Economists” discusses, the other social sciences are reading and citing economics journals but the economics profession itself is very insular. The other social sciences are being treated as imperial subjects who must be taught by Economists how to conduct research in their own domains.

To an extent this reflects the fact that the economics profession managed to build a rigorous methodology that can be exported abroad and, with minimal changes, be used in new applications. I think the world is richer in so far that public choice theory has been exported to political science or price theory introduced to sociology. The problem lays in that this exchange has been so unequal that the other social sciences are not taken seriously by Economists.

Sociologists, Political Scientists, and Anthropologists might have good ideas that economics could benefit from, but it is only through great difficulty that these ideas are even heard. It is harder still for these ideas to be adopted.


Towards Federalizing the Social Sciences

My answer to economic imperialism is to propose ‘federalizing’ the social sciences, that is to say to give the social sciences a common set of methodologies so that they can better communicate with one another as equals but still specialize in their respective domains.

In practice this would mean reforming undergraduate education so that social science students take at minimum principle courses in each other’s fields before taking upper division courses in their specializations. These classes would serve the dual purpose of providing a common language for communication and encouraging social interaction between the students. Hopefully social interaction with one another will cause students to respect the work of their peers and discourage any one field from creating a barrier around itself. A common language (in the sense of methodology) meanwhile should better allow students to read each other’s work without the barriers that jargon terminology and other technical tools create. It is awful when a debate devolves into a semantics fight.

Supplementary methodologies will no doubt be introduced in upper division and graduate study, reflecting the different needs that occur from specialization, but the common methodology learned early on should still form the basis.

The unification of the social science need not mean the elimination of specialization. I do however fear that unless some attempt is made in ‘federalizing’ the social sciences we will see economics swallow up its sister sciences through imperialism.

As always I more than encourage thoughts from others and am all too happy to defer to better constructed opinions.

The Meaning of Social Science: Ideology, Private Life and the Internet

[Note: This is a guest essay by Dr Peter Miller, who is a sociologist (PhD, Berkeley), a longtime resident of Japan, a non-participant observer of the American scene, and (since 1991) one of the world’s few practitioners of original photogravure etching, whose semi-abstract Japan-influenced prints are in private and museum collections in Japan, Europe, Russia, and the United States. His websites can be found here & here]

Social-science expertise has been missing from current discussions of government-led spying on private citizens and the proper role of government in general. Ideologies, which is to say gut reactions, have corrupted the public debate; but there is nevertheless a role for sociological analysis of these phenomena.

Social science in its modern form started as a mostly European effort to explain the origins of the horrible totalitarianism that engulfed Europe, and to deduce the structure of institutions that would prevent it from arising again. The Nazi, Soviet, and Fascist systems were all characterized by total State-control of all aspects of life, including the most private aspects of life. Whether the ostensible purpose was re-casting human nature into the ‘new Soviet man’ or an embodiment of the German ‘volk’, they quickly evolved into an apparatus for murdering large numbers of their citizenry. Of course the prospective victims had to be identified before they could be murdered. For this purpose a State apparatus of domestic spying and information-gathering was devised. Primitive by today’s standards, the forced wearing of Jewish stars and the forced confessions by purported enemies of the State were crudely effective in generating large numbers of victims. Social scientists asked ‘How did this happen? What can be done to prevent its recurrence?’

The essential answer to the first question, distilled from reams of scholarship, is: De-legitimization of private life. All the social space traditionally separating individuals from the State was systematically removed. Private enterprise was abolished. All universities and schools in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were taken over by government, run by political appointees, and staffed exclusively by those who would do their bidding. The same for the media, the churches (co-opted in Germany, eliminated in the Soviet Union), youth groups (Hitler Youth, Young Pioneers), and welfare organizations. All intermediary organizations that had previously functioned autonomously were either taken over by government, co-opted, intimidated into conformity, or forced out of existence. The sequence from privacy-deflation to total State control to mass murder progressed in roughly 15 years in the Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany, with more intensive propaganda and ‘education’, this sequence took only five years.

From this historical record, social scientists deduced that properly functioning democracies require lively intermediary organizations — churches, labor unions, 4-H clubs, PTAs, bowling clubs, whatever. Re-reading Tocqueville and Madison, social scientists re-discovered with these sages a high regard for such humble institutions (not that there were bowling clubs in Madison’s day, but you get the idea). The Austrian School (Hayek et al) added private enterprise to this list of freedom-enhancing entities. And from Vienna also came Lazarsfeld who posited ‘cross-pressures’ — conflicting loyalties — as the essential building-blocks of democracy. His big idea was that a healthy democracy needed unpredictability, where a person’s ethnicity, race, religion, education, or social class did not necessarily determine his voting preferences or consumer choices.

Since the 1970s, American and Western European societies have tolerated and even encouraged a progressive tribalization of their societies. Race, ethnicity, and sexual-identity have become increasingly salient in the distribution of government largesse, and consequently in the determination of political and consumer choices. Both public and private universities rely increasingly on government funding, and thus take their orders from the State, in research priorities, curricula, staffing, and extra-curricular activities. With some exceptions and counter-trends, the period since the 1970s has witnessed a progressive weakening of the autonomous mediating organizations that sociologists identified as essential to the working of democracy.

Separately, the growth of the Internet has deflated the private sphere, at first due in large part to the apparently voluntary choices of Internet users themselves. Only a few years ago the fad of the moment was 24/7 live webcams turned on oneself for the world to see. Now security cameras that do the same thing outdoors are all-pervasive. The collective mantra, highly promoted by the giant Internet companies, is ‘If you have nothing to hide, why be concerned?’ This is the tradeoff for ‘serving you better’. Mobile phones with geo-tracking are surely a great improvement in the quality of life, as is the proliferation of answers to life’s unanswered questions, and the blessings of instant communication. In return for all that, what does the loss of privacy matter?

I always doubted the business model of Internet-tracking. It never seemed plausible to me that a teen-ager with zits who happens to be in a drugstore is any more likely to buy zit-off after getting zapped with an ad on his geo-tracked mobile at that moment than if he weren’t zapped. The whole business of click-tracking, Web-tracking, and the like never made commercial sense to me. It was always hype — good for securing VC funding and not much else. But investors in these large-scale personal-data-gathering companies were not stupid. Behind our backs, these companies were getting paid by governments to sell users’ data. Their business model was not based on the supposed commercial utility of precise ad-targeting, but on secret NSA demands for indiscriminate personal data. Governments, under the banner of fighting terror, and shielded from Congressional or public scrutiny, have unlimited taxpayer funds to finance these transactions.

With the Snowden revelations, we now have a better understanding of the extent of Internet and telecom surveillance. Of course, this cannot have been a complete surprise. Nevertheless the near-universal scale of the surveillance, plus the technological capacity to sort and search the data, make for a real game-changer. As one security expert said in a recent interview:

The most shocking aspects of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations is the scale of surveillance. Every one of us involved in this field, I think it’s fair to say, has not been surprised by what is possible but had assumed perhaps out of hope or fear that they were limited in what they did and were proportionate, and that although we didn’t believe they would just stick to terrorism they would not try to reach for everything.

But every single document, speech and slideshow shows that a bunch of juvenile lunatics have taken over the asylum and are drunk and exuberant on their capabilities to spy on everything all the time and that is what they want to do. They have lost every sort of moral compass and respect for civic values.

The problem is that many European countries, notably Britain but not exclusively Britain, have been complicit in these activities as a result of favours, trade or encouragement. Basically the NSA has, over years with Britain’s assistance, essentially tried to subvert companies and governments into a surveillance empire which is almost a supranational enterprise of their own.

The question is, to what end? As we know in sociology, not everything is what it seems. Just as the indiscriminate sweeping-up of personal data lacked a plausible commercial basis, though it still made business sense if the data were sold to government spy agencies, it is likewise implausible that all that data has much utility in fighting terror. What then is it good for?

I think that question has yet to be answered; that the answer will depend on what use the new owners of that data make of it. The meaning of the massive loss of privacy that has occurred is immanent, it will emerge as further events unfold. As far as I am aware, the central-conspiracy model does not fit the case. What we have is a set of disparate elements that as yet have not coalesced into any coherent order. Among these elements are the increasing tribalization of society, de-legitimizing of autonomous intermediary organizations, and deflation of the private sphere. These are exactly the conditions that gave rise to the totalitarian horrors of the mid-20th century. It does not appear that any current Western leader has it in him to become another Hitler or Stalin. But the elements are there, awaiting a moment — perhaps another terrorist attack or financial crisis — that will call forth a charismatic savior.

Yet one must be especially careful with historical analogies to avoid the ‘generals-fighting-the-last-war’ syndrome. Things are very different now, compared with analogous conditions 80 years ago. The greatly expanded human freedom, communication, and educational prospects empowered by the Internet may overwhelm the efforts of governments to use it as an instrument of State control. This will be a titanic struggle, with the outcome still unclear. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, pending further sociological inquiry into what-all this may portend.