Mistaking Beauty for Truth

Peter Klein agrees with Paul Krugman that economists have mistaken beauty for truth, but disagrees that it has anything to do with the financial crisis so he won’t be signing the Hodgson petition.

Also at the Organizations and Markets blog, Nicolai Foss discusses a special journal issue entitled “Economic Models as Credible Worlds or as Isolating Tools?”

Speaking of models and truth and beauty, I found Murray Gell-Mann’s TED Talk fascinating.  He argues that in physics, a beautiful theory is more likely to be true.  This makes me a little nervous.  I would be especially worried about using this heuristic in the social sciences because the objects we are studying are complex, and have so much meaning to us that our aesthetic sense is more likely to attach to theories for reasons other than truth.  Truth may be beautiful, but so are our cognitive biases and ideologies.

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2 Responses to Mistaking Beauty for Truth

  1. John Bramsen says:

    My impression from watching the Gell-Mann video is that he is using the word “beauty” to refer to something like mathematical elegance. I believe that mathematical elegance is closely related to whether a model or theory involves just a small number of simple postulates from which a large number of interesting and even surprising propositions can be derived. If this is what “beauty” means, then mathematical sociology is all about the search for beauty and truth.

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    Thanks for the comment, I think we agree. There is always some sort of aesthetic quality to good research. I was just pointing out that some economists were concerned that members of their discipline had mistaken beauty for truth. I’m sympathetic to some of their claims.

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