On economics, science and civility


Niall Fergusson, a prominent monetary historian, recently published a long and angry three part essay in the Huffington Post attacking Paul Krugman and several other economists with similar views (Part 1Part 2Part 3. Warning: It’s a very long read.). These economist have been very critical of Ferguson’s views on the economy over the past several years and have ridiculed him for presenting misleading facts to support his views. Many have responded to Ferguson’s attack directly: hereherehere.

I don’t have anything to contribute to this, of course, though I do agree that Ferguson often misleads his readers with a wrong impression of the facts. But never mind that.

The question is: Why is Ferguson so angry? What I mean by that is, why is he so angry and not any of the so many other economists that are ridiculed by Krugman and his claque? A question I’ve been thinking about.

Obviously I don’t know. But I would note that Ferguson is a historian, a discipline where you are taught early on to debate as a matter of skill regardless of the view you are taking. In humanities, it is completely natural to knowingly exaggerate the importance of evidence that supports your thesis and to brush over evidence that opposes it. So much so that persuasion becomes a sport, and a corresponding sportsmanship and civility develops around debating. But there is no such thing as “Science Debate Team”.

In the scientific community, unlike the humanities, those that knowingly mislead their readers are not treated civilly — they are (and deserve to be) ridiculed. It seems that many of the economists Ferguson is angry with take this scientific view: they are not at all uncomfortable ridiculing someone for presenting misleading information, as a matter of principle. So it might be, unfortunately, that Niall Ferguson is simply swimming in a pool that he is just not trained for. And he is very angry about it.

Richard Feynman used to refer to economics and other social sciences as “cargo cult science”. Feynman says that what makes science special is not all the equations or mathematics or abstractions which the social sciences try to emulate. He says that science is really just about a certain kind of honesty and integrity. I think it’s worth reading in full, if you have the time: 

There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in “cargo cult science.” It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.


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