How should interdisciplinary exchange occur?

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.

  • Part of my answer also is outreach, James. When we launch our SciBlogs syndicated feed, think of it in that light.

    • That’s a good point, I forgot about your SciBlogs efforts when I wrote this. I’m hoping that everybody I’ve caricatured will come along and tell me why I’ve misrepresented them 😛

      • We haven’t done the big formal announcement yet, so easy to forget.

        I get angrier about PhD bench scientists assuming that they can start tabula rasa in economics than about layfolks making the same assumption. I don’t expect the latter to know better. But the former should.

        • It is because they assume economists are idiots – even though they won’t say it, that is the presumption.

          It is disappointing 🙁

          • If that’s all it is, it wouldn’t be hard to put up the tables of incoming GRE scores so that economists and physicists can together turn in derision and scorn towards those in social work and education.

            • Although that doesn’t account for the fact that some in the “hard sciences” simply believe that, by virtue of the discipline, they have superior knowledge and insight for the same given GRE score.

              It comes with the general dislike of studying the philosophy of a discipline – I would be willing to wager that those from other discipines who try their hands at attacking economics have a weaker understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of science and social science than those that don’t. The more time you spend looking at issues of philosophy and methodology, the less faith you have in your own knowledge being “true” – and as a result, the less likely you are to impose your methods adhoc into other fields.

              • Sane for them to expect that superior insight into their own field; not so much for other fields.

                I have no clue how much philosophy of science goes on in other disciplines’ PhD programmes. I did a year-long hounours history of thought course, one-semester PhD history of thought, a one-semester PhD Economics & Philosophy (heavy on philosophy of science, welfare econ underpinnings), one-semester with Buchanan on Constitutional Political Economy that was heavy on history of thought. Wrong to assume that the bench scientists have similar background in philosophy of science?

                • There will be a distribution of exposure though – just like there is in economics. My vicious oversimplification is that those with less of a methodological/philosophical background will be more willing to try to do the discipline without giving sufficient credence to past work within a field they are not from – instead of treating it like a potentially interdiscipinary field where we can build insights together.

                  There is acres of scope for disciplines to work together – but when it comes to hard scientists wanting to discuss social sciences the onus is on them to build something with economists and other social scientists … how can social scientists know in advance that a physist is trying to overturn estabilished theory?

          • I don’t think that is either true or helpful. Because they are fairly ignorant about economics they (a) underestimate their level of ignorance, and (b) overestimate the value of their contribution. However, that doesn’t make their contribution useless. The question for us is how best to engage with them to make use of the helpful stuff that they do know.

            • Assuming that you can come in and overturn a whole field without looking at its specific literature – that is a clear signal of assuming that the people who wrote up said literature are idiots.

              This is in the context of scientists – so presumably they use the scientific method and understand the level of work behind formulating theories and testing them.

              The way to make their contribution more useful would be for them to actually engage economists as well – this is definitely not a one way street. Economists were guilty of this same thing when it came to other social sciences, and they received deserved criticism.

              • You’re using extreme hyperbole and a lack of contextual information to justify an unlikely conclusion. Writing on the subject is a very reasonably way to engage with the profession, surely.

                • This could be because I’m running late for lunch.

                  Or it could be that I don’t completely agree. Writing on a subject that is in the defined scope of another discipline, asking questions they asked before, without appropriately covering their literature is relatively insulting to the people on the other side. And I think it does imply a certain level of “assuming idiocy” even if it isn’t intended to.

                  However, I also agree with the idea that writing is a good way of engaging 100% – but the context here is important. What tool from their own discipline are they applying, and how does it add breadth to the literature? That is the question to ask. Doing such things does not lead to the “policy relevant” conclusions we often get from groups doing this though!

                • “What tool from their own discipline are they applying, and how does it
                  add breadth to the literature? That is the question to ask.”

                  I hope that’s what I’ve been saying all along 🙂

                • And if they are being fair that should be their aim 😉