Boring and dismal sciences? Not at all - they can transform our lives

Funding for economics and other related disciplines is being cut just when we need their insights most and are warming to their popularisers, says Jon Adams

April 23, 2009

Dismal, bastard and pig: all are adjectives that have been applied to the so-called science of economics (by, respectively: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and Carlyle again). And economists are boring, too. Here, with a shrug, is Nobel laureate Paul Krugman admitting as much: "The reputation is justified: most of us are quite boring, at least when we talk about our work."

Ill will towards economists is longstanding, and right now there is no shortage of voices willing to concur. The ongoing collapse of the financial system implicates economists in much the same way as physicists are implicated in the threat of nuclear war: their theories are responsible for the fallout.

So perhaps the recently announced and significant cuts in funding for the social sciences match that mood; perhaps they seem like a well-deserved kick. Serves you right, social scientists, for messing everything up. But before we proceed with a lynching, it's worth stopping to ask exactly where this antipathy is rooted. And, of course, whether it is at all justified.

Although economists arguably attract the worst of that ire, the social sciences in general occupy a peculiar position. We're not sure what they are and where to put them. They take as their object the machinations of exclusively human practices and institutions (which ought to make them humanities), but in very few other respects are they similar to the humanities. Their publications - spliced with graphs and equations - look a lot more like the work of the natural sciences. (Incidentally, around social scientists it's politic to mark this distinction - to not speak of the natural sciences as if they were the actual sciences.)

The comparison is immediately unfavourable. What the natural sciences do is simply more exciting - dinosaurs, lasers, space rockets, black holes. Against this, the social sciences - with their proposals for taxation and welfare reform and poverty indices, their theories of pricing and goods - are just so pedestrian, so very quotidian.

But it is the pedestrian nature of so much social science work that is precisely what makes it so valuable. Because for all that we enjoy finding out what the natural sciences have recently discovered, it's also the case that (on most issues) we're largely indifferent to what physicists and chemists are telling us. I don't mean to say that we're not interested - we're obviously interested, we're entertained, excited, amused; but once you've shaken out the theological hooks, one account of the formation of the Universe or the pace of evolutionary change is as good as another. Which is to say: when Fred Hoyle and Stephen Hawking argue over the Big Bang, neither account really changes the way we live.

By contrast, pretty much everything social scientists write about concerns us - deeply, intimately, on a daily basis. And that, in short, is both the root of the disdain and the reason why they are so important.

Having admitted that economists are boring, Krugman was quick to note: "But so are most other people, from scientists to supermodels. Why do economists get singled out?" And his answer - which rings true - is that we're disappointed. Not because we're not interested, but precisely because we are: we want to know why there is a mismatch between individual will and the behaviour of groups, and why the price of bread isn't fixed at 30p per loaf.

Krugman sees that as an unrequited affection, and bemoans the absence of popularisers able to convey not just the subject matter of economics but some of its intellectual excitement - "Where," he asked in 1998, "is the economics equivalent of Carl Sagan?"

Gratifyingly, the intervening decade has seen his call answered. Rather than just "business guru management books" (a genre that is to economics what self-help is to neuroscience), works such as Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and even Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point have all employed social science thinking to explain how the world around us works - in much the same way that Sagan and Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould explained where it came from.

At the moment, we're perhaps still catching up to the idea that what we like about these books is that their authors think like social scientists. And with this, the sense that much of what we mean when we call someone smart is precisely that facility, native to social scientists, to unpick causal chains, to tune salience from the noise, and to do so on issues that concern us personally. The withdrawal of funding from social scientists occurs not only when we need them most, but when we're finally beginning to like them.

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