Tuesday, September 1, 2009

“Just so” stories in economics and biology

Two popular ways of making waves in Economics is by:

  • Revealing a seemingly smart thing to be dumb. Economists love unintended consequences. We love it if you can build up an argument that regulatory agencies will actually benefit the monopolistic industries they are set to serve (e.g., Stigler’s regulatory capture), that politicians are no more interested in the “public good” than business leaders (e.g., Buchanan’s Public Choice), that fiscal policy has no effects (e.g., Lucas and Barro), that minimum wages hurt the poor, etc.
  • Revealing a seemingly dumb thing to be smart. Economists also love it if you can prove that individual optimization and markets are smarter and better than non-economists believe. We love it it you can build up an argument that criminals rationally weigh costs and benefits, risks and penalties, that junkies getting hooked are implementing forward looking rational “taste-planning” (both Becker, who has a long long list of such arguments), that QWERTY-keyboards are actually better than any alternatives, that Betamax deserved to lose out to VHS, and so on.

Of course – any of these may be true. Sometimes truth happens to lie where we want it. My point here is more that I have a gut-feeling (that might well be wrong) that tells me these two types of narratives are welcomed more eagerly by economists than mechanisms or hypotheses that don’t fit the mould.

Sometimes I get the feeling that evolutionary biology has some of the same problem. This is related to the “feud” or argument between Dawkins and (now deceased) Stephen Jay Gould. Both fought for evolution and wrote excellent popular non-fiction, but Gould felt that Dawkins had too much of a “full optimization equilibrium” spin on reality around us.

An example of the latter is the paper discussed briefly here. This paper argues that depression – which seems like a dumb thing for an organism to fall into – is actually really really smart.

When one considers all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning. Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate
eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of  machinery that performs a specific function.

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