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.