The Men Who Stared At Equations
February 14, 2012 2 Comments
Many mediocre minds are impressed by famous colleagues, graduate degrees, Harvard, or equations. Those people aren’t worth impressing. While such signals are correlated with good ideas, they are neither necessary nor sufficient for a good idea. When someone emphasizes these signals, however, that should lower their credibility among thoughtful people because it suggests bad faith, a preference towards pretentious irrelevancies.
Although, I would dispute that such people ‘aren’t worth impressing’. Of course they are, because they control hiring/firing and/or tenure decisions that can affect whether you live out your life as an upper middle-class Smarty or as some grunt scraping by for decades on postdoc-level stipends.
A deeper problem with this criticism though is that it is so far-reaching. Make up an equation out of your butt, write it down, ‘stare at it’, and then claim to deduce from it something profound about the real world economy – I’ve just described virtually all of economics, have I not?
It’s as if economists are bound and determined to become the living embodiments of all the worst stereotypes of mathematicians, right down to the arrogance (‘my equation is all I need to know and it proves I am serious’). And they don’t even do any (serious) math.
I look at all these ‘models’ and equations that economists spend (all?) their time writing down and playing with, and can only ask: ‘Ok so you’re claiming – if you’re claiming anything at all – that this equation describes some interesting attractor/limit cycle/long-term equilibrium/[whatever] of the full economic system. It’s nice that you know how to analyze the equation and understand the properties of its solutions. But gifted high school juniors can play around with solution sets of made-up nonlinear equations. How do you know the equation holds in the first place? And what’s your actual description of the economic system? Where’s the actual real work worth paying attention to here?’