23 July 2007

"Technical specialists"

Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Counter-Revolution of Science:

[In the early nineteenth century] that new type appeared which, as the the product of the German Realschule and of similar institutions, was to become so important and influential in the later nineteenth and the twentieth century: the technical specialist who was regarded as educated because he had passed through difficult schools but who had little or no knowledge of society, its life, growth, problems and values, which only the study of history, literature and languages can give.
I believe what Hayek meant here is that (e.g.) a highly trained climatologist would not necessarily know much about history or politics, and that this might be regrettable.

Peter Klein, commenting on this, writes:
In economics especially but also in sociology, political science, psychology, and other social sciences we have trained many generations of such “technical specialists.” Is this wise? Put differently, would a typical PhD student in one of these fields benefit more, on the margin, from taking a course in history or literature or philosophy instead of one more course in quantitative methods?
But this seems to me to be comparing apples and oranges. The nineteenth century specialists Hayek was referring to in the quote actually had some expertise that was useful, even if they knew about very little outside their field. It is questionable whether the modern average PhD economist has anything much to contribute. That is, apart from dodgy models designed to appear impressive by being presented using abstruse mathematics, which are incomprehensible to more than a handful of insiders, and don't generate any useful conclusions. Probably ditto for sociologists and political scientists. What do these people actually contribute to our understanding of real phenomena?

The answer to Klein's question is, the typical PhD student — and economics in general — would benefit more from taking no quantitative courses whatsoever, and instead spending time thinking about fundamental issues. And not just "at the margin".

Having queried this post by Klein, I should in fairness mention that he does (elsewhere) at least allude to the over-technification of theoretical economics, and therefore represents a distinctly abnormal exception to the rule of contemporary academia. Here, he doesn't quite dare to criticise the 'economist' (= game theorist) Ariel Rubinstein, but at least he draws attention to the fact that for Rubinstein, "economics is primarily an intellectual game, an exercise in puzzle-solving, an attempt to construct clever fables". Fine, but could we please shift people such as Rubinstein (Jean Tirole, Philippe Aghion, Oliver Hart, etc. — i.e. the bulk of the modern Western economics faculty) into a new discipline "mathematical fables for intellectual trivialists", and re-build economics on the ruins of the old neoclassical stuff? Which wasn't that wonderful but at least was reasonably coherent and lucid.

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