The Effortless Economy of Science? Philip Mirowski. viii +
463 pp. Duke University Press, 2004. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
The Effortless Economy of Science? is a compilation of
Philip Mirowski's essays on economic methodology and its application
to understanding the organization and output of scientific activity.
Mirowski, who is Koch Professor of Economics and the History of
Science at Notre Dame, is prominent within the community of
"heterodox" economists, people who have challenged much of
contemporary economic theory and empirical practice. He links his
criticisms to the study of science by arguing that neoclassical
economic reasoning—which views individuals as making
purposeful decisions, based on well-specified preferences,
constraints and beliefs—fails to provide a way of
understanding how the enterprise of science functions. This failure
in turn means that these economic models cannot address major
problems facing science in modern society.
Mirowski wades into disputes among philosophers and sociologists
over the extent to which the scientific enterprise leads science to
evolve in ways that are consistent with such "transcendental
goals" as superior explanatory power and the like. It is not
surprising that he is highly disdainful of efforts to argue that the
scientific research enterprise can claim a privileged status as
producer of truth.
Mirowski's essays reflect an enormous breadth of knowledge and a
willingness to address a wide spectrum of questions, ranging from
the foundations of scientific inquiry to issues at the forefront of
public policy. Unfortunately, his ambition in scope does not make up
for his generally sloppy argumentation or for his frequent use of
polemics instead of reasoned analysis.
Indeed, Mirowski seems incapable of engaging in debate without
calling names or trying to portray prominent figures as foolish. And
these characterizations are themselves silly; any author who refers
to Kenneth Arrow as "politically pugnacious" is operating
in a thought-space far removed from those who know the man. Frankly,
Mirowski's visceral contempt for those he regards as intellectual
opponents makes it hard to take him seriously.
Beneath this harsh rhetoric there is remarkably little substance.
The deficiencies of Mirowski's work are exemplified in his
discussion of attempts to apply chaos theory to economics. He
suggests that a major reason for the failure of such attempts is
that "the neoclassical orthodoxy had a vested interest in
neutralizing chaotic descriptions of the economy." No clear
explanation is given as to why this is so, although he seems to
think that the presence of chaos in economic data would invalidate
the rationality assumptions that are often used in economic theory.
As a matter of economic theory, such a claim would be false.
Further, the idea that neoclassical orthodoxy (whatever that is
supposed to be) would bring about a suppression of research critical
of rationality has already been refuted. Mirowski makes no mention
of the fact that a new area of research, behavioral economics, is
based on challenging and relaxing these rationality assumptions.
Economic orthodoxy has hardly rejected this work: Research on
behavioral economics earned psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel
prize and Matthew Rabin the John Bates Clark Award (for the best
American economist under age 40).
The actual reasons for the failure of chaos theory to add much are
twofold: First, there is nothing in the body of economic theory that
would lead an economist to expect to find chaos in economic data.
Mirowski in fact notes that this lack of theoretical foundation
differs from the situation in physics, but he fails to draw the
obvious conclusion. Second, those economists who attempted to
identify chaos in economic data generally came to the conclusion
that they could not find strong evidence for it. By contrast,
behavioral economics is based on ample experimental evidence from
psychology and economics.
Mirowski recognizes that the conclusion of many economists that
chaos is not present in economic data is a problem. He resorts to
attacking the main researchers who have made this point, saying that
they "have so misrepresented the question, that their crusade
to eradicate chaos from the economy has done the discipline of
economics a real disservice." This claim is supported by a
critical discussion of the properties of the tests various authors
have used to look for chaos. Mirowski's observations about the
statistical analysis of chaos are incorrect and show that he
misunderstands the nature of the identification problem in
econometrics. But what concerns me more is his misrepresentation of
the motivation of the authors. Persuasive empirical evidence of the
presence of chaos could have catapulted the discoverers to a Nobel
prize; call me old-fashioned, but the acknowledgment by
investigators that their search failed strikes me as evidence of
Mirowski's criticisms of economic models of science are likewise
unpersuasive and in many cases amount to disapproval of the metaphor
of a marketplace of ideas. An underlying theme in his attacks is
that economic models for understanding science are being used to
justify claims that science has a special place as a producer of
truth. The problem with his criticisms is that they are ahistorical
(ironically, as that is what he accuses neoclassical economics of
being). It is trivial to see how a marketplace of ideas can fail to
weed out inferior ideas in favor of better ones. The examples in the
Soviet Union of Lysenkoism in biology and Marrism in linguistics are
sufficient evidence that a society can set incentives in
such a way as to promote bad science. However, the relevant question
is whether, across many societies over many decades, with the
incentives of scholarly prestige interacting with commercial and
government demand for the technological offshoots of science, the
marketplace metaphor is of use. I believe that it is, and nothing in
these essays represents a serious objection to this general view.
Mirowski's criticisms further suffer from the absence of theoretical
context. Often he attacks the assumptions underlying an economic
model in order to dismiss it as a metaphor for understanding some
phenomenon, but the force of such arguments is
entirely context-dependent. This is particularly pronounced in his
extended discussion of philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, who
has been in the forefront of work to reconcile the progressive
nature of the scientific enterprise with realistic modeling of the
behavior of scientists. In the weakest essay in this volume,
Mirowski faults Kitcher for, among other things, using a
"representative actor" model (a framework that eliminates
certain types of heterogeneity when describing individual actors)
and for failing to account for "neoclassical economics as
reprocessed nineteenth century physics" when using economic
tools. The first objection is vacuous, since there is no reason to
think that any of Kitcher's conclusions hinge critically on this
modeling assumption. The second, which refers to Mirowski's most
famous research on the history of economics, is simply irrelevant.
Wherever Kitcher's tools came from, the question is whether they
elucidate the problem at hand. Similar problems exist with
Mirowski's other criticisms of Kitcher.
The heterodox ideas found here and elsewhere have had no impact on
economics as a whole, just as the body of science studies research
has had no effect on the natural sciences. Mirowski would attribute
this to the "vested interest" of neoclassical economics.
An alternative explanation is that research programs such as those
found here—which fail to provide either new empirical insights
or criticisms of existing practice that are intellectually
compelling, let alone constructive ways to proceed—do not have
enough substance to warrant a claim on intellectual resources. In my
judgment, in this instance the marketplace of ideas is working
efficiently.—Steven N. Durlauf, Economics, University
Connect With Us:
A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns,
and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.
News of book reviews published in
and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the
Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an
online profile, then sign up in the
My AmSci area.