Monday, May 16, 2011

"As if behavioral economics" - flaw 1: The “true tradition” argument

I recently read As-if behavioral economics, a paper critical of behavioral economics written by Nathan Berg and Gerd Gigerenzer. Last week I presented the underlying narrative that they seem to imply. This week I hope to have time to discuss some of the more substantial good and bad points of their paper.

However, before we move on to substance I have one annoyance that I want to get off my chest: What I call the “true tradition” argument. I´ve touched on this before - regarding the “Holy Scripture” view that some people seem to have of Smith´s Wealth of Nations, but this paper does it again and I find it silly and annoying.

The “structure” of the argument (if you can even call it an argument) is one of two:
* “Somebody I disagree with has fallen from the true and pure tradition”
* “I may seem to be an outsider, but I´m actually the true carrier of the true and pure tradition”

You see this in religion and alternative movements such as meditation or NLP- where people trace their guru or Kung-Fu teacher or whatever back to some original figure. “My teacher studied under X, who studied under Y, who studied under Z in a pure unbroken line back to (idolized figure or text)” or the long "X begat Y who begat Z who begat.." sections of the old Testament.

You also see this in quasi-scientific practices such as Freudian psychoanalysis. It´s probably even more pronounced in some parts of Austrian economics, where the discussion of what Hayek or Mises or Böhm-Bawerk or Menger “truly” meant seems to be a huge thing. Followers of Ayn Rand are the same or worse. You see it in people who make a big ado about how their claims are foreshadowed in Aristoteles or some ancient philosopher´s speculative musings as if that should somehow count as relevant evidence for an empirical claim.

Amongst people opposed to “standard economics” there seems to be a similar thing going on - to me, the family tree of the “other canon” project seems a clear example.

And in Berg and Gigerenzer´s paper, the “wrong turn” of economics is identified as the
fundamental shift in economics which took place from the beginning of the twentieth century: the ̳Paretian turn‘. This shift, initiated by Vilfredo Pareto and completed in the 1930s and 1940s by John Hicks, Roy Allen and Paul Samuelson, eliminated psychological concepts from economics by basing economic theory on principles of rational choice.
You could choose to ignore this kind of stuff - see it as narratives that help provide groups of people with a feeling of connection to a larger tradition and that places their work and struggles into a larger storyline of good and bad. But seriously… it´s just stupid.

More than stupid, I see this as a real problem in that it raises as a significant and important issue something which is irrelevant to the evaluation of scientific claims. Nobody has a hotline to truth! I don´t care how smart you are or how often you´ve been right before - even the smartest people in the world can be misguided and confused and incorrect. Their claims must be evaluated and confronted with evidence, and if they´re wrong they´re wrong and we move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment