Monday, July 22, 2013

Phrase of the day

Thanks to “3 a.m. Magazine” and its interview with philosopher Alex Rosenberg (HT The Browser), I recently discovered Rosenberg’s characterization of most economics as “mathematical politics” – a delightful turn of phrase.

“Mathematical politics” neatly encapsulates a reservation many people have about economics. More precisely than words like “religion” or “ideology,” Rosenberg's term highlights the crucial bait-and-switch: the notion that economic theories are exempted from having to accord with everyday notions of fairness or justice, or the facts on the ground, because they use really hard math. That makes it OK if they completely fail to predict major economic events or if policies based on them do not produce the promised outcomes. Being hard grants a discipline epistemic status … never mind that to the rest of us this often looks more like a form of bullying (the "politics" part).   

(Note that in saying the above I am playing right into NoahSmith’s stereotype of how laymen view economics. So be it.)

For what it's worth, the whole interview with Rosenberg is fascinating. His attitude toward science seems to be: “You can’t beat it, so join it (but keep your eyes open),” which seems about right to me. The humanities embarrass themselves almost as much as religions do when they go mano-a-mano with the most successful intellectual enterprise of the past four centuries. Here’s one good quote from the interview: 
Science is much more reliable than common sense since it is common sense recursively reconstructing itself on firmer foundations, and by now it has shown us that conscious introspection is a wholly unreliable guide to almost anything, including the nature of cognition, emotion and sensation.
 Well, quite so, and no well-informed person should disagree. Yet, so many do … 

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