Our colleague Susan Webber reviewed Tim Harford’s latest book, The Logic of Life, in the current issue of the Conference Board Review. Harford also penned the bestseller The Underground Economist and writes regularly for Slate.
Webber wasn’t terribly taken with it. While her entire article is worth reading, we thought this section stood out:
Why does this matter? Because economists are the only social scientists with a seat at the policy table, and they need to be careful with their recommendations. Compared to the physical sciences, social sciences are woefully limited in the depth and certainty of their findings. Human beings are difficult and costly to study; research rests on relatively few data points gleaned in particular circumstances. Generalizations should be made with great care and humility. Yet Harford frequently and annoyingly asserts that economists enjoy superior powers of perception: “It takes an economist to realize that . . . ” “The economist’s way of thinking suggests suggests a deeper answer . . . ”. Similarly, he claims that, “Tournament theory has stood the test of time and has been supported by many subsequent pieces of empirical research.” A friend who knows the literature disagrees, supplying citations.
It all reminds me of a recent argument over free trade, in which Harvard economist Dani Rodrik chided colleague Greg Mankiw, saying: “I want to take issue with the general philosophy behind Greg’s argument, which is that a less than full (and possibly misleading) story in support of your argument is OK as long as it helps disarm your opponents. . . . I am not sure I like this stance very much. For one thing, it goes against the grain of what I think is the most important job of economists in public debate—to educate and not simply to be an advocate. Second, it is bound to backfire, and ultimately undercut the credibility of economists.”
Likewise, Harford has done a disservice to his book, and ultimately to his profession, by misusing evidence in the interest of telling a tidier—albeit more colorful—story.
Surely a pop economist is entitled to steal the title of a Nobel prize winner’s book? Then again, Francois Jacob was only a biologist.
☺☺”For one thing, it goes against the grain of what I think is the most important job of economists in public debate—to educate and not simply to be an advocate. Second, it is bound to backfire, and ultimately undercut the credibility of economists.”
Josh Rosner’s comment says it all:
Rosner: The difference between Fed’s prior to the Greenspan and the Bernanke Fed is that the former did not see themselves as part of the President’s Cabinet
Science trumped by ideology–back in the days of National Socialism they had a name for it–pseudo science.
Economists engaging in public policy engineering should study engineering, and in particular the history of failures in engineering. An excellent place to start is Henry Petroski’s:
Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering
Re: Yet Harford frequently and annoyingly asserts that economists enjoy superior powers of perception: “It takes an economist to realize that . . .
You see this at some blog links (tanta comes to mind), where the smart people keep the dumb ones in place, as if it matters…
As an example of economic nepotism:
“Kevin Warsh is not a good idea,” said former Fed Vice Chairman Preston Martin, who was appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1982. “If I were on the Senate Banking Committee,” which must approve Fed nominees, “I would vote against him.”
“The Warsh nomination came out of left field,” said Tom Schlesinger, executive director of the Financial Markets Center, a Howardsville, Virginia-based group that monitors the Fed.
The nomination of Warsh, who has been executive secretary of the president’s National Economic Council, was one of two that Bush made on Jan. 27 to fill vacancies on the Fed. The other nominee, Randall Kroszner, 43, is a University of Chicago professor and a former Fed visiting scholar with a doctorate in economics from Harvard University.
“Kroszner is a distinguished academic,” said former governor Edward Gramlich, who left the Fed in August. “The other one, Kevin, I don’t know.” Martin said that “Kroszner is absolutely at the top of the list.”
I remember you mentioned a few weeks back that you thought the book was disingenuous. If you have the time, I’d love to hear that idea fleshed out. I liked Harford’s previous book, but I didn’t read it with a very critical eye…
Can somebody comment on Partha Dasgupta’s “Economics: A very Short Introduction”? Of the ecent popular books that I browsed through, that is the one I liked best. But I am not an economist and would like to know what economists think about it.