Natural History, Sociology and Economics

A while ago, I came across a Krugman piece where he made comparisons between economics and various fields of biology. I’m not an economist, but he opened that door, so here’s what I concluded (boldface added):

But biologists aren’t only trying to derive general principles, they’re also trying to figure out how organism- or system-specific processes work.

To use a very macabre example, we are interested in a how a gun fires a bullet–and in a controlled environment, we can estimate very precisely how that bullet will travel. But, a biologist is also faced with the task of trying to figure out what happened on the grassy knoll in Dallas. The study of ballistics is necessary, but not sufficient. At the risk of completely tasteless overkill, does anyone view September 11th primarily (or even entirely) as a structural engineering problem? Those stupid natural history facts matter too. Understanding and predicting particular events also requires a knowledge of phenomena that can not be generalized and reduced to simple general theory.

It would appear to me that economics should also be interested in these types of questions. Why do economic crises occur, and why at specific times? Yes, structural instabilities matter, but why didn’t the meltdown happen three months earlier or later? After all, Big Shitpile was shitty for quite a while. Households were overextended on credit for years. So why didn’t the collapse happen in 2007?

I’ve also touched on this point elsewhere.

Which leads us to something Tyler Cowen wrote (boldface mine):

I would like to say a small bit on the superiority of anthropologists. I view the “products” of anthropology as the experiences, world views, and conversations of the anthropologists themselves. Those products translate poorly into the medium of print, and so from a distance the anthropologists appear to be inferior and lackluster…

Yet anthropologists have some of the most profound understandings of the human condition. They have witnessed, absorbed, and processed some of the most interesting data, especially those anthropologists who do fieldwork of the traditional kind.

The rest of us are simply (usually) too blind to see this. It even can be argued that anthropology is the queen and most general of the social sciences, and that economics, as a social science, is simply playing around in one of the larger anthropologically-motivated sandboxes, namely the economy.

We so often confuse “what can be translated into print well” with “what is important and interesting.” …That does mean anthropology is very often not a highly leveraged means of status and influence.

I agree, and it’s a point I tried to make in a review of Yves Smith’s book:

But I think the other great insight (other than the universality of animal spirits) is how economics as a discipline, and the intellectual edifice of that discipline, is precarious at best. Smith several times describes economics as a social science, not a hard science. In her opinion, economics failed to catch the bubble, and even contributed to it due to a slavish devotion to mathematical theory (e.g., Gaussian copula functions), when it should have been focused much more on the sociology of economic phenomena (which makes sense given the importance of animal spirits). The false security endowed by supposedly hard (dare we say tumescent?) science blinded much of the discipline to the reality on the ground, whereas some old-fashioned fact gathering might have helped a lot more. A sociologist interviewing buyers and sellers in the CDS and CDO markets would have done a world of good.

Natural history does matter.

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2 Responses to Natural History, Sociology and Economics

  1. Mary says:

    No, an explosion is not a structural engineering problem. One could argue that there’s a problem with fire fighting in
    buildings over 7 stories tall or that fire suppression technology was too immature to take care of flames. Only an explosion was going to pancake the upper floors. Maybe my builder is an idiot because my house won’t take a direct hit from a plane. Maybe not.

  2. Good points, but (you knew there was a but):
    “Those products translate poorly into the medium of print”. I do not understand. Perhaps I am too print oriented; I read most of the time (I am retired). How else could you communicate these products? Videos, pictures? Great writers can communicate where the rest of us can not. When someone talks of ineffable experiences I can only say I cannot be expected to appreciate what I have not seen and you cannot describe.

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