by Mario Rizzo
Once upon a time, in a land far away from New York civilization, a famous economist told a good friend of mine that “we” need more scientists and fewer scholars in the economics profession. He was serious.
This is the time of year that many Ph.D. dissertations are being defended in graduate departments of economcs. We have many would-be scientists and almost no scholars. I think we need more scholars and fewer scientists.
What is the difference?
I prefer to say what a scholar is rather than get into the issue of how precisely to define “science” (or even the abuse of scientific methods — often called “scientism.”)
The scholar knows well the history of the discipline. He is also familiar with the major issues of the philosophy of science as applied to his discipline. More specifically, with respect to economics, he knows the difference between interesting economics questions and perhaps-interesting mathematical questions. He also knows how to interpret theories, that is, how to get to their (potential or actual) relevance to the real world after penetrating the mathematics and the general formalisms that frame their presentation.
So, in the past few weeks, I have been seeing abstracts of NYU doctoral dissertations. Very few, if any, scholars here; a lot of would-be scientists. I ask myself, “What is the point of all this stuff?”
One might think that with so few scholars their marginal utility would be quite high. Not so, in the perception of the job market — a job market where few schools dare to excercise independent or contrarian judgment. Part of the reason is that many academics are quite desperate for approval by the “top brass.” Another part is that they must justify their hiring decisions to deans who know nothing about fields and who want to say to the the higher-ups, “We are hiring what, by consensus at the top schools, are the best.” It is not hard to see what a closed system this is.
But, at least, these would-be scientists are producing a public good — basic research which, though it may not have immediate applications to understanding or solving real-world problems, will generate great insight that may lead to all sorts of good things. Or even insight that is good in itself.
My God, another closed system! What would falsify the public-good claim? Some might say that if the profession values the work it has value. But I ask: to whom? Shouldn’t the profession have to show a value to someone or for some purpose; not simply that they like it? Or else how can we distinguish a true public good from a consumption good or amusement for a small number of economists?
If I were trying to rationalize the public-goods quality of what goes for economic theory or even applied economics at most top schools (Chicago excepted), I would be at a loss.
‘Tis a pity. Economics used to be, can be, and sometimes is about really interesting and important things. Can it be so again? We need more scholars.