Spotting the Spoof

According to this view, individuals within an economy follow simple rules of thumb to determine their course of action. However, they adapt to their environment by changing the rules they use when these prove to be less successful. They are not irrational in that they do not act against their own interests, but they have neither the information nor the calculating capacity to ‘optimise’. Indeed, they are assumed to have limited and largely local information, and they modify their behaviour to improve their situation. Individuals in complexity models are neither assumed to understand how the economy works nor to consciously look for the ‘best choice’. The main preoccupation is not whether aggregate outcomes are efficient or not but rather with how all of these different individuals interacting with each other come to coordinate their behaviour. Giving individuals in a model simple rules to follow and allowing them to change them as they interact with others means thinking of them much more like particles or social insects. Mainstream economists often object to this approach, arguing that humans have intentions and aims which cannot be found in either inanimate particles or lower forms of life.

Kirman et. al. (2018, 95) in Rethinking Economics: An Introduction to Pluralist Economics, Routledge.

Even such purely academic theories as interpretations of human nature have profound practical consequences if disseminated widely enough. If we impress upon people that science has discovered that human beings are motivated only by the desire for material advantage, they will tend to live up to this expectation, and we shall have undermined their readiness to moved by impersonal ideals. By propagating the opposite view we might succeed in producing a larger number of idealists, but also help cynical exploiters to find easy victims. This specific issue, incidentally, is of immense actual importance, because it seems that the moral disorientation and fanatic nihilism which afflict modern youth have been stimulated by the popular brands of sociology and psychology [and economics] with their bias for overlooking the more inspiring achievements and focusing on the dismal average or even the subnormal. When, fraudulently basking in the glory of the exact sciences, the psychologists [, theoretical economists, etc.,] refuse to study anything but the most mechanical forms of behavior—often so mechanical that even rats have no chance to show their higher faculties—and then present their mostly trivial findings as the true picture of the human mind, they prompt people to regard themselves and others as automata, devoid of responsibility or worth, which can hardly remain without effect upon the tenor of social life. (….) Abstrusiveness need not impair a doctrine’s aptness for inducing or fortifying certain attitudes, as it may in fact help to inspire awe and obedience by ‘blinding people with science’.

— Andreski (1973, 33-35) in Social Sciences as Sorcery. Emphasis added.

Complexity theory comes with its own problems of over-reach and tractability. Context counts; any theory taken to far stretches credulity. The art is in spotting the spoof. It is true irony to watch the pot calling the kettle black! To wit, mainstream economists questioning the validity of complexity theories use of greedy reductionism — often for the sole purpose of mathematical tractability — when applied to human beings; just because mainstream economists also have unrealistic assumptions (i.e., homo economicus) that overly simplify human behavior and capabilities doesn’t invalidate such a critique. Just because the pot calls the kettle black doesn’t mean the kettle and the pot are not black. Building models of human behavior solely on rational expectations and/or “social insects” qua fitness climbing ticks means we are either Gods or Idiots. Neither Gödel nor Turing reduced creatively thinking human beings to mere Turing machines.

~ ~ ~

The best dialogues take place when each interlocutor speaks from her best self, without pretending to be something she is not. In their recent book Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Nobel Prize–winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller expand the standard definition of “phishing.” In their usage, it goes beyond committing fraud on the Internet to indicate something older and more general: “getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman” rather than their own. In much the same spirit, we would like to expand the meaning of another recent computer term, “spoofing,” which normally means impersonating someone else’s email name and address to deceive the recipient—a friend or family member of the person whose name is stolen—into doing something no one would do at the behest of a stranger. Spoofing in our usage also means something more general: pretending to represent one discipline or school when actually acting according to the norms of another. Like phishing, spoofing is meant to deceive, and so it is always useful to spot the spoof.

Students who take an English course under the impression they will be taught literature, and wind up being given lessons in politics that a political scientist would scoff at or in sociology that would mystify a sociologist, are being spoofed. Other forms of the humanities—or dehumanities, as we prefer to call them—spoof various scientific disciplines, from computer science to evolutionary biology and neurology. The longer the spoof deceives, the more disillusioned the student will be with what she takes to be the “humanities.” (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 1-2). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

By the same token, when economists pretend to solve problems in ethics, culture, and social values in purely economic terms, they are spoofing other disciplines, although in this case the people most readily deceived are the economists themselves. We will examine various ways in which this happens and how, understandably enough, it earns economists a bad name among those who spot the spoof.

But many do not spot it. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize largely for extending economics to the furthest reaches of human behavior, and the best-selling Freakonomics series popularizes this approach. What seems to many an economist to be a sincere effort to reach out to other disciplines strikes many practitioners of those fields as nothing short of imperialism, since economists expropriate topics rather than treat existing literatures and methods with the respect they deserve. Too often the economic approach to interdisciplinary work is that other fields have the questions and economics has the answers. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 2-3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

As with the dehumanities, these efforts are not valueless. There is, after all, an economic aspect to many activities, including those we don’t usually think of in economic terms. People make choices about many things, and the rational choice model presumed by economists can help us understand how they do so, at least when they behave rationally—and even the worst curmudgeon acknowledges that people are sometimes rational! We have never seen anyone deliberately get into a longer line at a bank. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Even regarding ethics, economic models can help in one way, by indicating what is the most efficient allocation of resources. To be sure, one can question the usual economic definition of efficiency—in terms of maximizing the “economic surplus”—and one can question the establishment of goals in purely economic terms, but regardless of which goals one chooses, it pays to choose an efficient way, one that expends the least resources, to reach them. Wasting resources is never a good thing to do, because the resources wasted could have been put to some ethical purpose. The problem is that efficiency does not exhaust ethical questions, and the economic aspect of many problems is not the most important one. By pretending to solve ethical questions, economists wind up spoofing philosophers, theologians, and other ethicists. Economic rationality is indeed part of human nature, but by no means all of it.

For the rest of human nature, we need the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). In our view, numerous aspects of life are best understood in terms of a dialogue between economics and the humanities—not the spoofs, but real economics and real humanities. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 3-4). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

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