Heroes of Uncertainty

The desire to be more like the hard sciences has distorted economics, education, political science, psychiatry and other behavioral fields. It’s led practitioners to claim more knowledge than they can possibly have. It’s devalued a certain sort of hybrid mentality that is better suited to these realms, the mentality that has one foot in the world of science and one in the liberal arts, that involves bringing multiple vantage points to human behavior.

David Brooks has a decent op-ed out entitled “Heroes of Uncertainty”. The main point of the article is about the flaw of trying to assume that Psychology is a hard science like biology or physics. Though, this article can also apply to other behavioral fields like economics. For example take this passage:

The field of psychiatry is better in practice than it is in theory. The best psychiatrists are not austerely technical, like the official handbook’s approach; they combine technical expertise with personal knowledge. They are daring adapters, perpetually adjusting in ways more imaginative than scientific rigor.

The best psychiatrists are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments. They are combining an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being. They certainly are not inventing new diseases in order to medicalize the moderate ailments of the worried well.

Apply this to the economics field. The best economists are not the purely theoretical ones, they are the ones that deal with the real world. They do not go by the “official handbook” sort of speak, in other words, those nice neat college textbooks. They “are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments”, they are those that combine “an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being”.

Good economists take into consideration real world institutions, political factors, laws, etc. and try to see how the actions of humans respond to these factors. This might be common sense but just think about how many economists aren’t doing this and are instead stuck in their world of abstract principles (economic laws) and concepts and pay little attention to the actual world around them.

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4 responses to “Heroes of Uncertainty

  1. I think there is one distinct difference though. Psychology is a unique social science in that it is both a social science like economics, and a field of medicine. Most psychologists are involved in both research and clinical therapy. Psychologists are both experts on the mind and mind doctors, and it does make it somewhat different. The psychologist in practice, like the doctor, is ultimately concerned with giving the best outcome for his patients, which means that like medical doctors he needs to be creative and do what works. They are constantly confronted with the challenges of their science because they are directly working in it. Every mind is different and they are constantly challenged by the unique challenges each patient brings.

    Economics on the other hand, is not medical science. It is perhaps more like Geology in that your totally subject matter is ultimately forensic, the real world events you are studying are things that have already happened. Like a geologist giving advice to a mining company or bridge builder, an economist may give advice to firms or investment funds, however this is far different from the hands on medicine that a psychologist deals with in which their entire subject matter (the human mind) is at play in front of them. The economist at most lends his expertise on certain subjects for limited circumstances (like forecasting where bond markets might go).

    Outside of the forensics of studying past economic events, the economist can utilize the scientific method with things like logical proofs, game theory and of course psychology. I personally think that neurology is ultimately what links the social sciences to the hard sciences and it has real implications for all social sciences. And of course a good economist should have a solid understanding of all the social sciences and history as they all interrelate. I would take it one step further and say that what I would I really like to see is the creation of a unified social science which ultimately seeks to create models of humanity that goes beyond simple focus areas like psychology or economics.

    You could probably get away with being like Nate Silver (who is really more of a statistician despite his economics degree) if you just stick with the numbers and calculations of things like financial and commodity markets. But if you really want to get a full understanding of how economies work it means really understanding political science, psychology, sociology and history(since its really just one big case study of what humans are actually like). Sadly many economists are deficient in these areas.

    This is probably one reason why I enjoy the insight of the classical economists who were closer to the roots (economics and all social sciences were originally just philosophy) and looked at the full picture. I also find it interesting to read what people like stock traders have to say since any good stock trader needs to be able to know what’s going on in the economy, yet most of them are not trained economists, so they tend to have unique takes on the markets that you often won’t find within the structure of academia. A lot of it is bullshit though lol.

  2. I think its important to note that psychology and psychiatry are unique among the social sciences in that they are both a social science and a field of medicine. And most psychologists are both researchers and care providers. Obviously when you are practicing medicine you have to be creative and realize the uniqueness of the situation and the patient, all good doctors are the ones who combine their knowledge of science with the art of practicing medicine. You can’t just stick to your theoretical models when practicing medicine, you need to be creative and do what produces results.

    Economists on the other hand are not doctors, they may serve in some advisory positions to governments and firms but that is far different than practicing medicine like a psychiatrist is doing. Economists are more tied into their models. In many ways they are like geologists. Both economists and geologists are dealing with forensic laboratories, in that the only real world things that they can observe are usually events which have already occurred. Its their job to analyze those past events, and try to figure out what processes and drives were taking place. However outside of their models and some testing of the fundamentals, there is really no way to test their real world findings.

    The art of being an economist or a geologist is far different from the art of being a psychiatrist. The economist and geologist know that they will never be able to fully test out their subject matter because it is something that is on a scale that goes beyond what can be tested, and it involves many sources. The key instead is to utilize what empirical tools they do have, namely to test out the key elements involved. The geologist can use small scale models to observe these things, an economist can use game theory and sociological experiments for some things. The geologist can look at physics to see how gravity and weather can affect things, the economist can look at neurology and psychological findings to test the behavioral aspects of markets. And of course the geologist can go in the field and absorb rock formations to deduce what happened, and the economist can look at history and try to piece together how certain economic trends operated, both of them taking the solid empirical knowledge they do know, and using logic to see how it fits in.

    Although somehow at the end of the day the geologist ends up looking more legit than the economist. My guess is that this may have something to do with the fact that geology has a good comprehensive model (plate tectonics) which fits everything together, which economics still doesn’t have a unifying theory. But regardless, the economist is still working in a different way from the psychologist. Though if there is one thing they can borrow from psychiatry and medicine in general, its that you need to be completely open minded and cognizant of the possibility that anything can happen.

  3. One could make the argument that economists don’t truly practise positivism, but that’s another matter. That stated, good science ought to be based upon proper use of logic and proper examination of the evidence.

    That stated, isn’t it the tension between the “humanities” aspect of social science and the “hard, scientific” aspect of social science that makes the field to a certain extent, a mess?

    While John Maynard Keynes once said that the economist had to embody the role of mathematician, philosopher, historian, and statesman in some degree (I’m paraphrasing from his eulogy for his teacher, Alfred Marshall), it’s hard to find anyone who excels at all four roles equally.

    P.S. Isaac – I sent you an e-mail.

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