Friday, May 21, 2010

Truth and beauty in economics

Hans directed me to the following quote from Keynes recently used by Krugman in his blog:

The completeness of the Ricardian victory is something of a curiosity and a mystery.... That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

This inspired me to try a more old-fashioned style in expressing my own views on the matter.

Theories and beliefs are supported by how right they feel to us and how well they survive confrontation with the facts. The first criteria speaks to human cognitive preferences - the desire for parsimonious, consistent and elegant structures that we can "see" how work and that we can admire in their precise beauty. The second criteria speaks to empirical truth, the grudgingly admitted recognition that messy facts and the jumble of a complex world are the stuff that we are, in the final analysis, trying to understand. And when practical difficulties, methodological weaknesses or an implicit cultural agreement free us from the need of confrontations with empirical data, we become even more strongly wedded to pursuing, protecting and promoting the "truths" we believe ourselves so strongly to see.  


I need to start smoking a pipe and use a mechanical typewriter if I’m going to keep on like this.

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