Welcome to the WEA Pedagogy Blog
Founded in May 2011; More than 12,000 members worldwide.
Please see About section for more details about the blog.
Founded in May 2011; More than 12,000 members worldwide.
Please see About section for more details about the blog.
Scientific epistemology is a serious business in economics—as it is in any science. Not surprisingly, therefore, discussions about value-ladeness tend to focus on theoretical and methodological issues within the discipline, while the question of the social consequences of science is approached with more reservation. And for many good reasons, one may say, because it is not entirely up to scientists how will the scientific product be disseminated and interpreted in society, or how will it be used by policy makers. Or, that’s not the job of the scientist, one could reason, to determine and be ready for all possible applicative scenarios.
Since the last few decades, research practices have undergone a far-reaching transformation at the interface between science, policy and society. It involves an increased engagement of science in problem solving and policy advice, and the enhancing role of participatory research methods in problem-based approaches. The social consequences of science become therefore more readily visible, opening up new perspectives on debates about facts and values dichotomy, or the relationship between knowledge, truth, and values (cf. Kitcher, 2001). One way of looking at the transformation of scientific practices focuses on the criteria of scientific rationality with regard to scientific knowledge and the very process of knowledge production, echoing a Weberian contrast between instrumental and axiological rationality of social action (Weber 1968). Specifically, the scientific rationality criteria have been extended in the process from purely (i) internal rationality, that can be defined as a conventional scientific rationality approach focused on disciplinary epistemology and methodology, to (ii) external rationality that pertains to axiological, ethical, and societal elements of knowledge and its production (Kiepas, 2006).
There are many reasons for including external rationality in scientific practices. For one thing, all applied sciences can be considered as value-laden in virtue of their goal-oriented values (Pullin, 2002). Furthermore, many contemporary problems, as subjects of research, are radically complex. They are laden with systemic uncertainties, meaning that “the problem is concerned not only with the discovery of a particular fact (as in traditional research), but with the comprehension or management of a reality that has irreducible complexities or uncertainties” (see more in Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1994, p. 1882). They also pose future incalculable risks in an unprecedented scope. For example, in the context of complex, adaptive problems such as climate change, uncertainty in science follows (Brown, 2013). Scientific uncertainty regarding the severity and scope of the problem fuels general disagreement about the appropriate actions to undertake. Attempts to accurately assess all the possible climate change impacts and to exhaustingly assign an economic value to alternative courses of action are bound to fail (Jamieson, 2010). That being the case, the policy-relevance of standard economic analysis as the sole knowledge-base for environmental decision making is limited.
In case of economics, the shift in approaches to rationality can be seen in debates about reflexivity in economics, bounded rationality, or performativity of economic models, to name a few topics. But for the most part, ethical- and value-neutrality continue to feature much of economic research, such as in standard normative theories of decision making under uncertainty and risk. The burgeoning of economics as a separate discipline, accompanied by distancing from philosophy, build up strong methodological foundations to prevent any extra-scientific elements to interfere in its analysis (cf. Hausman, 1992).
The classic conceptualisation of uncertainty and risk in economics is very specific and differs from the above-mentioned, sociologically incrusted understanding. Following the paradigmatic distinction formulated by Knight (1921), uncertainty refers to situations of radical uncertainty that cannot be expressed as sets of probabilities, whereas risk is related to situations in which actions do not lead with certitude to specific outcomes, but the alternative outcomes and their probabilities can be discerned.
The categories of uncertainty and risk, as considered here, lend themselves to complexity of many policy issues, and are associated with the transformation of postmodern societies due to technology, consequences of globalisation, and environmental crises that follow (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1990). These circumstances, “external” to standard methodological practices, motivate the extension of scientific rationality criteria and rethinking the role of science by researchers themselves. An example of this transformative process is the so-called advocacy science for environmental justice. It represents a socially engaged, multidisciplinary research approach that emerged in response to environmental toxicity movements, and developed an alternative epidemiological paradigm based on participatory research methods (see, e.g., Ottinger & Cohen, 2011).
With regard to the interface between science, policy, and society and the extra-scientific aspects of uncertainty and risk, one can note that the assessment and acceptance of risk are not purely a matter of data analysis or applying the “right” indicators. The perception and interpretation of uncertainty and risk are influenced by a mixture of social, political, and scientific processes that interact with each other. Consider the relationship between environmental pollution and risk. While pollution appears to be solely as a matter of scientific measures, the question of what is an acceptable level of pollution and its risk for a given society, and whether there are cases of unacceptable risks, involves our pre-conceptions and assumptions about what constitutes a good quality of life, wellbeing, and sustainable development (cf. Evernden, 1999).
Why would an individual economist care about the science-policy interface, or about considering extra-scientific elements of her research practice? There are several reasons to seriously reflect on this question. For one thing, transparency about the value content of specific research programs may translate into more careful and accountable approach to complex problems of public policy and the remedying capacity of science and technological progress. Furthermore, Söderbaum (2000) argues that economics should be more properly approached as political economics to make clear the fact that each scientist, as the discipline itself, has an ideological orientation (in the sense of means-ends philosophy) that plays out in the problem-framing, and reflects on the performative features of economic expertise. To the latter point, the analyst’s conclusion that reduces the extra-monetary aspects of a given problem to monetary ones is not without policy consequences; it suggests certain framings and solution-imageries to economic agents and decision makers. Besides, academia itself is not free of subjective interests and rent seeking. But—I haste to add—this does not undermine the value of scientific expertise per se. Neither does it suggest that citizens and policy makers are passive or unreflective recipients of scientific knowledge. It rather suggests a double-edge approach to science that recognises the subjective, cultural, and societal components in scientific practices on the one hand, and the aspiration of scientific community to reach objectivity (understood broadly as a normative objective) on the other hand. Although scientific practices are saturated with theoretical pre-conceptions and cultural perspectives, it does not immediately follow that science has nothing to do with truth and objectivity (a subject that deserves a separate discussion).
The double-edge approach to science calls for more explicit discussions about the social consequences of science and scientific literacy in society:
Certainly there are many challenges to balancing the double-edge approach to science both within and outside of the scientific community, as there are multiple philosophical framings of the role and status of scientific expertise in society. To be continued!
Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Brown, J. Söderbaum, P. & Dereniowska, M. (2017). Positional Analysis for Sustainable Development: Reconsidering Policy, Economics and Accounting. London: Routledge.
Evernden, N. (1992). The Social Creation of Nature. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.
Hasuman, D. M. (1992). The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fischer, Frank (2009). Democracy & Expertise. Reorienting Policy Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Funtowicz, S. O. & Ravetz, J. R. (1994). Uncertainty, Complexity and Post-normal Science. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 13(2), 1881-1885.
Jamieson, D. (2010). Ethics, Public Policy, and Global Warming. In S. M. Gardiner, S. Caney, D. Jamieson & Henry Shoue (Eds), Climate Ethics. Essential Readings (pp. 77-86). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kiepas, A. (2006). Ethics as the Eco-development Factor in Science and Technology. Problems of Eco-development 1(2), 77–86.
Kitcher, P. (2001). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.
Knight, F. H. (1921). Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ottinger, G. & Cohen, B. R. (Eds). (2011). Technoscience and Environmental Justice. Expert Cultures in Grassroots Movement. Cambridge: the MIT Press.
Pullin, A. S. (2002). Conservation Biology. Cambridge & New York; Cambridge University Press.
Söderbaum, P. (2000). Ecological Economics. A Political Economics Approach to Environment and Development. London: Earthscan/Routledge.
Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster Press.
My paper is a survey of the huge amount of solid empirical evidence against the utility maximization hypothesis that is at the core of all microeconomics currently being taught today in Economics textbooks at universities all over the world. It is obviously important, because if what it says is true, the entire field of microeconomics needs to be re-constructed from scratch. Nonetheless, it was summarily rejected by a large number of top journals, before being eventually published by Jack Reardon as: ” The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Review of the Literature,” in International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2012, pp. 366-414. Speaking metaphorically, my paper documents the solid evidence that the earth is a round sphere in world where educational institutions teach the widely held belief that the earth is flat. Readers of RWER blog will recall that when challenged on the failure of macroeconomics after the Global Financial Crisis, economists retreated to the position that while macro theory may be in a bad shape, at least Microeconomics is solidly grounded. My paper blows this claim out of the water. As a result, nothing is left of Micro and Micro, and of economics as whole. This supports my earlier claim that a Radical Paradigm Shift is required to make progress — patching up existing theories cannot work.
None of the several leading journals that I sent the paper to made any comments about any mistakes in my arguments. There were two main reasons which were stated for rejections. One was that the paper was “not appropriate” for the journal. This seems ridiculous; how can a paper which challenges the foundations of the subject be “inappropriate” (however, an explanation will be provided later). Two was that the results of the paper were well-known. I also sent the paper for comments to many leading economists. Kenneth Arrow, who was once a teacher of mine at Stanford, responded as follows “Thank you for the very complete and well-argued critique of the utility-maximization theory. Of course, the remaining question is, what should take the place of that theory?”. This is just to document that the paper itself provides solid and irrefutable evidence against modern microeconomic theory. Given that the vast majority of economists continue to teach microeconomics based on utility maximization, and that this theory is widely believed by students of economics throughout the world, it would seem of great importance to document the empirical evidence against it and use it as a springboard for developing alternative theories, more consistent with empirical observations of human behavior. However, none of the mainstream journals displayed any interest in publishing this paper.
This leads to a puzzle, which requires some thought. As famous theoretical physicist Richard Feynman put it: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with the experiment, it’s wrong.” The experimental result — corresponding to the empirical evidence — is all important in physics, which is why there has been tremendous progress in physics. On the other hand, the economists display no interest in empirical evidence at all. This indifference of economists to empirical evidence which contradicts their theories has been noted by many; see previous post on “Quotes Critical of Economics” for the full quote briefly cited here:
This is an assorted collection of quotes I have found useful from time to time in different contexts. I am putting them all together for my own reference, as well as for the benefit of others who may find them similarly useful to make points.
JM Keynes Quotes (mostly from General Theory GT):
The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the author’s assault upon them is to be successful,— a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression. The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds. (GT)
It is an extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in bedlam. (GT)
It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone, particularly in economics (along with the other moral sciences), where it is often impossible to bring one’s ideas to a conclusive test either formal or experimental. (GT)
For if orthodox economics is at fault, the error is to be found not in the superstructure, which has been erected with great care for logical consistency, but in a lack of clearness and of generality in the premisses – (GT)
For professional economists, after Malthus, were apparently unmoved by the lack of correspondence between the results of their theory and the facts of observation;— a discrepancy which the ordinary man has not failed to observe, with the result of his growing unwillingness to accord to economists that measure of respect which he gives to other groups of scientists whose theoretical results are confirmed by observation when they are applied to the facts. (GT)
The classical theorists resemble Euclidean geometers in a non-Euclidean world who, discovering that in experience straight lines apparently parallel often meet, rebuke the lines for not keeping straight as the only remedy for the unfortunate collisions which are occurring. Yet, in truth, there is no remedy except to throw over the axiom of parallels and to work out a non-Euclidean geometry. Something similar is required today in economics. (GT)
In the new millennium, the proliferation of financial assets, with unstable economic growth, has given way to widespread to precarious jobs, income gaps and weaker welfare programs. The same policies that have obliterated social services and kept labour cheap have supported the expansion of short-termism and new global business models in the context of deregulated capitalism.
Besides, the onset of the 21st century represents a new political age overwhelmed by the violation of democratic ideals of political equality and social peace. Indeed, democracy has been allowing for election to office but not to power (Madi, 2015). And, as a consequence, policy makers might give priority to their sponsors instead of the needs of citizens – decent work and income equality.
In truth, the current trends in global capital accumulation and production have shaped a scenario where unemployment, job instability and fragile conditions of social protection increased (Stiglitz, 2011). First, labour-saving technologies have reduced the demand for many middle-class, blue-collar jobs. Second, globalization has created a global marketplace, confronting expensive unskilled workers with cheap unskilled workers overseas and favouring outsourcing practices. Third, social changes have also played a role in the labor market changes, such as the decline of unions. Four, political decisions are influenced by the top 1% who favor policies that increase income inequality.
All these trends do reveal issues of current power, politics and economics in a social context where democratic institutions are being threatened.
Taking into account the overall economic, social and political evidence in Western countries, Robert Kuttner, in his recent book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? (2018, WW Norton), highlights that since the 1970s the globalization of capital has affected the very foundation of a healthy democracy. While analysing the consequences of this trend, he warns:
“If democracy cannot harness capitalism, it runs the risk of subverting itself and giving way to neo-fascist regimes that will pretend to manage the market but more often ally themselves with corporations and substitute ultra-nationalist symbols and scapegoats for reform.”
Indeed, this book calls for a deep examination of current power, politics and economics in a social context where democratic institutions are being threatened:
Do current trends of social inequality and economic instability stimulate disillusioned voters to support populism? Is the alliance of global finance and far-right parties inevitable? Is it possible to build new conventions to make capitalism serve democracy?
Answering these questions not only involves critical thinking on the failures of economic policies in the light of current political challenges but also calls for a reflection on the alternatives to the reversal of the decline of democracy in the West.
Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, WW Norton, 2018.
Lima, G. & Madi, M.A. , Capital and Justice, WEA Books, 2016.
Madi, M. A., “2016: Promises and Problems”, WEA Pedagogy Blog, December 29, 2015
Stiglitz, J., “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”. Vanity Fair Magazine, April 30, 2011.
This post is a continuation of ET1%: Blindfolds Created by Economic Theory, We show how the Invisible Hand theory appears to be neutral but actually favors the top 1%.
As quoted and refuted in my earlier post on “Failures of the Invisible Hand“, Mankiw writes that: “The reason for excellent functioning of decentralized market economies is that all participants are motivated by self-interest. This self-interest works better than love and kindness in terms of promoting social welfare.”
What a monstrous statement! How can any human being think such thoughts? This is what comes from cutting off human experience as a source of knowledge, removing hearts from bodies, and leaving only brains floating in vats as a the sole source of knowledge.
Our hearts — in their pure states –would revolt at the oxymoron of a society based on selfishness. However, contamination by the poisons of economic theory and positivism leads to the blindness to sources of human welfare displayed in the Mankiw quote. In earlier times, A Christmas Carol of Dickens was sufficient as a reminder the wealth is not a measure of welfare. However, modern times reflect modern mindsets, which convert greed and wealth to desirable virtues, as reflected in the Disney version of Uncle Scrooge. So, sadly, it becomes necessary to argue on logical grounds, appealing to brains in vats, instead of appealing to the heart.
First, let us note that “excellent functioning” just means maximization of wealth, and “social welfare” is also measured by the amount of wealth owned by society. At the individual level, the end-of-life psychiatric disorders of Howard Hughes have been the subject of numerous books and articles. Would anyone consider that the billions he made pursuing profits in a market economy created greater social welfare for him than love and kindness would have? What is true at an individual level is also true at a social level — The Easterlin Paradox shows that massive gains in wealth in societies have not caused corresponding increases in happiness. This is true both in time series for single countries, and for cross sectional studies across countries. As detailed and careful studies show — there is no long run relationship between happiness and increases in GNP per capita. Because this finding threatens the foundations of economic theory, economists have challenged it on many different grounds. In a review of these critiques which re-affirms their original findings, Easterlin et. al. have shown that, they do not differentiate between short and long run. The Easterlin Paradox is more accurately stated as – money does buy happiness in the short run, but not in the long run. This is exactly in accordance with my post on “The Coca-Cola Theory of Happiness” — Coca-Cola does buy happiness in the short run, but is not the formula for long run happiness.
Evolutionary biology has now discredited that idea that the survival of the fittest requires selfishness and competition; see Cooperation and Generosity leads to Evolutionary Success. It is almost obvious that groups would be strengthened by coooperation and generosity. There is no question that we would all prefer to live in a society based on love and kindness, instead of living in jungle ruled by survival of the fittest. If “social welfare” is understand properly, instead of being reduced to a quantity of money in the bank, it is clear that love and kindness would work much better at promoting social welfare.
Why then have economists in the twentieth century insisted on attributing a mis-interpretation of the invisible hand to Adam Smith (see “Adam Smith & the Invisible Hand“) and have made this the central pillar of modern economic theory? The answer lies in ET1%: the necessity for the top 1% in democratic societies, to invent theories which appeal to the bottom 90%, while actually favoring the rich and powerful. The Invisible Hand asks us to let everyone do whatever they want, since it will all work out to the best for the entire society. Even if the rich and wealthy appear to be exploiting others, the invisible hand will make sure that their greed is harnessed for the welfare of the society. The only way to make sense of this nonsensical message is to understand it as a clever piece of propaganda which supports the interests of the rich and the powerful, by identifying these interests with those of the society as a whole. This is very similar to the “trickle-down” theory, according to which enriching the wealthy will (eventually) bring benefit to the entire society. Even though it is easy to demonstrate “The Failures of the Invisible Hand” both empirically and theoretically, this theory dominates the pages of the modern economics textbooks. This demonstrates the main theme of my post on ET1%: Blindfolds created by Economic Theory; modern economic theory is meant to blindfold students to the tremendous advantages the capitalist system confers on the tiny minority of the rich and wealthy, the 1%. It systematically distorts our vision and mindset to cause the tremendous inequities of the system disappear. See my paper on “The Invisible Hand: Death of a Metaphor“, for further explanation for how, with repeated use, a metaphorical usage becomes conflated with reality in the public mind. This is extremely beneficial for the 1% as it allows them to create myths which protect their interests, and have them accepted as truths in the form of modern economics. This illustrates the Power/Knowledge thesis of Foucault.
The methodology and ideology of modern economics are built into the frameworks of educational methods, and absorbed by students without any explicit discussion. In particular, the logical positivist philosophy is a deadly poison which I ingested during my Ph.D. training at the Economics Dept in Stanford in the late 1970s. It took me years and years to undo these effects. Positivism uses clever arguments to make you deny what you feel in your bones to be true, and make you believe what your heart says must be false — for example our supposed knowledge of subjective probabilities of unknown events. The roots of the problem go back to the famous Cartesian argument that “I think therefore I am”. Although it is clever piece of logic, it has a deadly effect. I know that I am alive because I can feel the blood flowing in my veins, the tingling of my skin, and a thousand other bodily sensations. “I feel therefore I am”. Denying this experience as a valid source of knowledge reduces me to a brain floating in a vat, which is exactly what logical positivism entails. In fact, despite Descartes, it is impossible to REASON our way to certainty. We can only create an illusion of certainty. Descartes’ argument is deeply flawed, and illustrates the weakness of human reason. When we formulate the concept of “I”, isn’t existence automatically part of this? Did I not exist when I was a baby, and was unable to formulate these thoughts? Do I blink out of existence when I go to sleep? This and many other difficulties make this argument incoherent. Modern economics is much like this. It starts by making assumptions which are dramatically in conflict with everything we know about human behavior (and firm behavior) and applies mathematical reasoning to situations where it cannot be applied, quantifying the unquantifiable and coming to completely absurd and ridiculous conclusions. NONETHELESS, speaking from personal experience, the brainwashing is powerful and effective. It is a slow and painful process to undo. I have often thought about launching a “Positivists Anonymous” club, to help others attempting the same transition, of unlearning positivism. For those who want a little help, I recommend my article on Logical Positivism and Islamic Economics. This provides a detailed analysis of the flaws of positivism, and also why, despite these flaws, it came to be widely accepted.
Something for PhD Students and early-career researchers thirsty of pluralistic education:
CALL FOR APPLICATIONS
Poznań Summer School in Heterodox Economics
Poznań University of Economics and Business
The School is intended for PhD Students and early-career researchers interested in heterodox approaches to studying complex economic phenomena. We provide an international learning environment for those interested in deepening their knowledge in heterodox economics or considering applying it to their own research area. Over five days, participants will have an opportunity of attending lectures, presenting their findings and ideas, as well as discussing them with highly competent faculty. They will also take part in workshops and seminars that will improve their analytical skills.
– MACIEJ GRODZICKI (Jagiellonian University, PL),
– PAOLO RAMAZZOTTI (University of Macerata, IT),
– LOUIS-PHILIPPE ROCHON (Laurentian University, CA),
– MARC LAVOIE (University of Ottawa, CA, University of Paris 13, FR),
– HANNA SZYMBORSKA (The Open University, UK)
– ANNA ZACHOROWSKA-MAZURKIEWICZ (Jagiellonian University, PL).
The event is supported by the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy, the Review of Political Economy and the Forum for Social Economics.
Ongoing Recruitment – please send us an email to check if places are still available.
Please send your application to: firstname.lastname@example.org
School fee: 120 euro/500 zł
Fees include lunches and coffee breaks. Budget accommodation can be provided by organizers upon request.
Deadline for payment: 15 August 2018.
The Organizing Committe:
Krzysztof Czarnecki (Poznań University of Economics and Business),
Marcin Czachor (Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne „Heterodox” – Publishing House „Heterodox”),
Anna Piekarska (Praktyka Teoretyczna; Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne „Heterodox” – Publishing House „Heterodox”)
Agnieszka Ziomek (Poznań University of Economics and Business).