The Glamour of Macho Epistemology

One of the central claims of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics is that there is a major disconnect between the practice of economics and how economists describe that practice. She indicts the field for embracing the ideals of reductionist modernist scientism; that is, of thinking that it is possible to develop a single scientific method that can be explained and easily understood by undergraduates, which nevertheless provides an unshakable foundation for progress in science.

I’ve taken up this argument elsewhere, but I want to focus on an interesting aspect of it here. Unlike the party line at many of the heterodox schools of economics, McCloskey does not deny that economists have made progress in the past 50-100 years. She thinks the proliferation of mathematical models and econometrics have been tremendously beneficial, in fact. She simply thinks that, by taking too narrow an interpretation of what counts as science, economists have handicapped themselves unnecessarily.

But isn’t it interesting that they could hold onto an epistemology that is completely wrong, and yet continue to make progress in practice? The divide between what is described as scientific and what economists do in practice is uncanny; why does it exist? Why does it go so largely unnoticed? Could it serve some purpose?

I am reminded of Karl Popper’s description of the towering figures of the Enlightenment—how they were seized by the notion that truth is manifest, that it is visible and recognizable if only you seek to find it. Popper argued that this is utterly wrong, yet amazingly, belief in it motivated some of the best work in science and scholarship in history.

The irony of this example is that Popper and his intellectual descendants are the primary targets of McCloskey’s book and its sequels. But could Popperian falsificationism play a similar role for economists as the doctrine of a manifest truth did for the Enlightenment thinkers?

It puts me in mind of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, though glamour is visual rather than verbal. Still, there is an image here—an image of oneself as scientist, and image of what it means to be a scientist. Glamour is an image that is more simple, more perfect than reality could ever be, and it provokes a sense of longing. It is “known to be false but felt to be true.”

The glamour of Popper’s epistemology is hard to deny. The essay in which Popper discusses the doctrine of manifest truth, “On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance,” is part of the collection called Conjectures and Refutations. Throughout the collection Popper calls for scientists to advance “bold conjectures” and then “attempted refutations.” Popper makes the aspiring scientist feel akin to the courageous warrior; not advancing timidly but boldly, sticking your own neck out for the greater good of all. In short, he makes science sound exciting—no small accomplishment.

McCloskey doesn’t deny that science often requires courage—and the rest of the virtues. What she denies is that the practice of science boils down to Popper’s very simple formula. For one thing, falsification is not so straightforward as Popper claims. People must be persuaded that a falsification has occurred, a much more spongy matter than hard-headed methodologists like to make it sound. For another, most of science is getting up to speed on other people’s accomplishments, ideas, failures, and so on. In short, it’s immersing yourself into a body of scholarship. There is simply nothing sexy about that.

What macho epistemology along the lines that Popper and other methodologists may do is spark people’s initial interest in a field. Science, like all practices, has standards of quality that are accessible only to those who have been inculcated in the norms of the community of practice. Before that inculcation takes place, the thing that draws people in the first place, the carrots, are external goods. That is, the promise of material rewards, or fame, or glory, or anything other than the “goods internal to the practice”, and MacIntyre would say.

What are we to make of this? Does science need a noble lie? I would not go that far. Like McCloskey, I believe in the strength of committed self-consciousness. But I also don’t think that sweeping aside shared myths and glamour is a guarantee of future success; for one thing, history has shown us that a great deal can be accomplished even while buying into some very implausible myths. For another, we all need objects of aspiration, even if complete attainment is forever out of reach.

But not all such aspirations are made equal. And there’s a strong case to be made that the methodologist mythology worshipped in economics has run out of resources for spurring further advancements. I stand with McCloskey in believing that it is high time for economics to step out of the sandbox.