Picking on our disciplinary rivals

Jeremy Freese notes:

In a case in which the other shoe took a very long time to drop, Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychology professor renowned for his work on moral judgment, apparently has resigned after a protracted dispute regarding “scientific misconduct” that included retraction or post-publication-revision of three papers because of data problems.

Q: Is any schadenfreude sweeter for the mainstream sociologist than evolutionary psychology schadenfreude? (A: Economist schadenfreude. But just barely.)

Well Jeremy, check out Andrew Gelman’s hard questions for pop-economics:

I think I’m starting to resolve a puzzle that’s been bugging me for awhile.

Pop economists (or, at least, pop micro-economists) are often making one of two arguments:

1. People are rational and respond to incentives. Behavior that looks irrational is actually completely rational once you think like an economist.

2. People are irrational and they need economists, with their open minds, to show them how to be rational and efficient.

I understand why Gelman finds these types of arguments somewhat contradictory, but its possible they can each be true in different cases. After noting the tension between the two, what needs to be done is to identify a representative sample of such cases and see in what share of the cases the analysis is correct. Admittedly this isn’t an easy task, but it doesn’t seem to me much of substance has been shown based on Gelman’s observations (interesting though they may be).

2 Responses to Picking on our disciplinary rivals

  1. Looks like Gelman has just rediscovered the performativity critique of economics but doesn’t realize that it applies to the whole field and not just Steve Dubner’s priesthood of worshipping the superior intellect and ruthless intellectual honesty of economists.

    I agree with you though that the two parts of the contradiction could be consistent at different levels. For instance, you might imagine a model where long-run trends are driven by “the fundamentals” and irrationality or custom is essentially epiphenomenal.

    • Interesting! Though the connections to performativity are obvious in retrospect, I didn’t see it initially.

      Your comment inspires me to make my point about rationality more concrete. Economists argue, and I would agree, that people are more rational in their own high-stakes decisions, than they are when adopting political views. In this context I’ll define rationality as the ability to define one’s goals and explain why one’s decision is the best way to achieve those goals. The fact that most people don’t think all that hard about the effects of public policy is an example of what economists call rational irrationality. Since individuals have almost zero marginal impact on public policy, it would be irrational to study it carefully.

      I think there at least two aspects to Gelman’s post:
      1) how often are these arguments from pop-economists factually correct/incorrect?
      2) why are they correct/incorrect, and what is the context in which economists make different arguments?

      My mind keeps returning to 1), but the most interesting part about Gelman’s post relates to 2)

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