McCloskey on Economics, Economists and Physicists

When Nobel laureate physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937) claimed that “Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting” he was perhaps displaying the arrogance that comes with the territory of knowing certain fundamental truths that are denied to non-physicists.

Economists too can be arrogant for similar reasons. They know something about human society that others are generally not aware of — and what’s more — are unaware of their ignorance.

It’s not a sin to be arrogant but displaying it is definitely impolite and predictably makes a person unpopular. I speak from experience. What am I going on about, you may ask. I was reading Deirdre McCloskey today. 

I find her writing frustrating, brilliant, interesting, instructive and maddening in equal parts. But all in all, I like her sense of humor. She writes,[1]

… I have to mention finally the very widespread opinion that economists are prone to the sin of pride—personal arrogance. … Physicists, for example, are contemptuous of chemists, whom they regard as imperfect versions of themselves. In fact physicists are contemptuous of most people. But when a physicist at North Carolina named Robert Palmer went in 1989 to a conference in which physicists and economists were to educate each other he remarked, “I used to think that physicists were the most arrogant people in the world. The economists were, if anything, more arrogant.” I’m afraid he’s right on this score. Though of course in general he’s a dope: a mere physicist.

That last line cracked me up. I am going to quote a bit more from her. Being a first rate economist herself, she knows what economists are good for and at.

Economists are for one thing serious about the public interest, and are often the only people defending it with any sort of lucidity and persuasiveness against the special interests. The model of worldly philosophy was originated in crude form by the early pamphleteers and political arithmeticians (among them Daniel Defoe). Adam Smith a half century and more later brought it to perfection.

And if you like engineers you will like many economists. Engineers are attractive people, hard working (you have to be hard working to absorb all that engineering math), earnest and practical, bent always on Solving the Problem. True, they are often simpleminded. But simplicity gets the job done. Lots of economists are engineering types.

Engineers are simpleminded. I should know since I used to be one. (Mechanical engineering, if you must know.) I realize, now that I am an economist, how simpleminded I used to be.

However I was never so arrogant or  simpleminded as to believe that social engineering could work. Many lefty do-gooders (and all politicians) believe in that idiocy. As Hayek put it, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Back to dear Deirdre:

Or lawyer types. Like lawyers the economists are good arguers, which is good when you need a good argument (“How do you want it to come out?”). Economists can debate each other and yet not lose their tempers and not make irrelevant appeals to rank. Economists like lawyers are clear-minded, professionally. They are used to getting to the point and staying there. The humor of economists, unhappily, is often cynical, as it is also among lawyers, seldom generous, but that’s true in many fields of the intellect.

But, above all, economics is about important matters. It would be remarkable if the economics-since-Marx that most non-economists would rather not read had nothing worthwhile in it. After all, thousands of apparently intelligent (they certainly think so) economists have labored away at it now for a century and a half. I beseech you, dear reader, think it possible that economists, even Chicago-School economists, even Samuelsonian economists, have some important things to say about the economy.

Economists writing about economics is always interesting. McCloskey is at her best when she turns the mirror and reflects on economics and economists.


[1] The Secret Sins of Economics. Deirdre McCloskey. 2002. {Free pdf copy here.}

Author: Atanu Dey


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