A question that’s regularly arisen of late is how economics can learn from, and inform, other disciplines. I think it’s been sparked by the prevalence of scientists commenting on economic growth. We’ve had numerous bloggers up in arms about Shaun Hendy’s semi-informed comments, and now the Royal Society is broadcasting a discussion of the matter.
Economists all seem to agree that it would be a good idea if scientists took the time to understand something about economics before making pronouncements. Where there is substantial disagreement is over the way in which the exchange with practitioners of other disciplines should occur. I don’t think there’s any doubt that disciplines borrow from each other in a fashion that is helpful to both. Witness the success in economics of optimisation and evolutionary game theory, borrowed from physics and biology respectively. The question is how that should occur.
I’m of the view that scientists commenting on economic matters bring new and interesting metaphors to bear on the problems that we can learn from. Unfortunately, their narrative is often hopelessly naive because they’re completely unaware of core concepts in economics. However, that doesn’t preclude us from learning from them, if we can ignore the mistakes. I’d go further and suggest that their lack of awareness of basic economics makes them more likely to challenge our core assumptions in new and interesting ways. The danger of this approach is that non-experts take seriously the pronouncements of biologists on economic matters. Seamus has suggested that it would be better to avoid that pitfall by listening to the biologist talk about biology, where their metaphors are better developed, and then porting them to economics.
His approach is sensible but does raise a couple of questions in my mind. First, do economists actually attend presentations of technical material outside their area of expertise? Secondly, would we be able to understand the metaphors they were using when the narrative was so incomprehensible to us, being so far outside our expertise? I don’t know the answer but I think these things need to be balanced against the problems Seamus identifies with my preferred approach.
Slightly more extreme are Bill, Eric, and our regular commenter Kimble, who all seem of the view that naive comment is extremely damaging to the public perception of economics. They appear to think that it is more important to inform the public about economic methods than to engage with the scientists, and an essential element of that is publicly disparaging the views of uninformed commentators.
As economists this is not a subject that we have expertise in but is an extremely important one for the discipline. With economics becoming increasingly prominent as a tool for public policy it will naturally attract more ill-informed commentators, both in the media and in academia. How we deal with that could have a huge impact on the influence and evolution of our discipline.