Authoritative Arguments in Economics

November 9th, 2014
in uncategorized

Fixing the Economist Article of the Week

by Philip Pilkington

Unlike almost all the other human sciences economics suffers from chronically poor scholarship. Bad habits of citation and scholarship have become so ingrained in the discipline that to not adhere to them is often considered to be poor form or a sort of sin.

Follow up:

Every heterodox economist has probably heard this facile accusation thrown around a million times before: if you cite old sources or bring up old debates you are said to be ‘arguing from authority’. Here I hope to show that it is actually the mainstream that typically argue from authority.

First of all, what is an argument by appeal to authority? Here is an example from the Wikipedia page:

A says P about subject matter S.

A should be trusted about subject matter S.

Therefore, P is correct.

Note here the key point: it is asserted that P is correct because the authority figure says it. Here is a variant of the same type of argument again from the Wikipedia page:

B has provided evidence for position T.

A says position T is incorrect.

Therefore, B‘s evidence is false.

Again, the key point is that the evidence is said to be false because the authority figure says so. So, for example, the archaeologist’s findings of very old dinosaur bones is incorrect because the Bible says that the world is not that old. But it is obvious that neither I nor most other heterodox economists do this (and I invite readers to find one instance in which I have). In order to do so I would have to explicitly say: “Keynes said that position T is incorrect, therefore position T is incorrect.”

Here is a typical instance from a commenter on this blog apparently showing that I have appealed to authority to make an argument. I paraphrase the first part but it captures the essence of the accusation.

[When you make an argument you] appeal to authority by printing some irrelevant quote.

Now, why would I print a quote from a source? In academia we call this ‘citation’. The Wikipedia has this to say about citation:

Citation has several important purposes: to uphold intellectual honesty (or avoiding plagiarism), to attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources, to allow the reader to determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author’s argument in the claimed way, and to help the reader gauge the strength and validity of the material the author has used.

While these are all valid reasons to engage in citation, I think that Wikipedia page has left out one other important reason for citation: namely, to contextualise the discussion in terms of the historical debates. If an historical debate might be said to be ongoing then it is useful to ground the debate within that historical discussion. In academia this typically takes the form of a literature review and these are usually thought better the further the scope of the sources used. For example, if I write an essay on Free Will my literature review will be stronger if I start the discussion with the debates of Luther and Erasmus in the 16th century rather than with the discussions of free will by the existentialists in the 1940s and 1950s.

Now this is all basic scholarship practice. One of the things noted by employers today who are supporting the students that are protesting the economics curriculum is that they come out of their economics training unable to write essays properly. This is reflective of the fact that these people are not taught basic academic standards in university and they have to be retrained in the workplace. This can create enormous issues. It can lead to unintentional plagiarism, an inability to communicate ideas properly and an inability to give a balanced view of a debate. These are problems that mainstream economists often display in my experience. Most especially the latter. Past debates that maintain relevance are buried and forgotten as if they had never happened. Mainstream economics moves forward not through logical development and integration, but through forgetting.

I also said that it is typically mainstream economists who engage in arguments by appeal to authority. What do I mean by this? Well, simply that they appeal to the authority of the hard sciences as justification for what they are doing. This is a very crude 19th century mode of appeal to authority that has been distrusted in the social sciences since the beginning of the 20th century.

It runs like this: hard scientists reason in manner X therefore manner X is the correct mode of reasoning to apply to social discipline Y. This particular appeal to authority grew up in the 17th and especially 18th century but I will not give a history of it here. Needless to say it is not considered proper scholarship in the humanities today. But economists who do not have proper methodological training engage in this all the time. Here is an example from the same comment left on my blog that I quoted from before:

Moving averages and time series filters are not inventions of economists. They are standard and well accepted part of statistics and engineering…

Here the question is avoided as to whether the method in question is actually appropriate to the material being studied and instead it is said that these methods are well accepted in statistics and engineering. Here “statistics and engineering” are brought in as authorities on the matter. So, the question is assumed to be closed. What is really at issue is whether these methods are appropriate for the particular purpose under discussion. But a general appeal to authority is made to lay the issue to rest without dealing with it. This is then buttressed by a fairly overt appeal to authority:

Climate science tells us there’s a long-term relationship between CO2 (and other) emmisions and temperature increase. Would you deny this just because yearly changes in CO2 and temperature are noisy and have low correlation? I hope not.

Here the authority rests with the climate scientists. The implication is that if I say that certain ways of calculating supposed long-term relationships in economic statistics may not be appropriate then I am also saying that the findings of the climate statisticians are incorrect. The “I hope not” at the end translates roughly as “I hope you wouldn’t violate that particular authority figure”.

The specific structure of this argument by appeal to authority is rife in economics. It runs like this: hard science discipline X uses method Y therefore if you say that method Y is inappropriate when used in soft science discipline Z then you are arguing against its use in discipline X. After this fallacy is deployed the authority of discipline X is invoked to shut down debate.

Another more simple variant on this theme is as follow: hard science discipline X uses this method therefore soft science discipline Y is de facto justified in using it without further methodological justification. Again the authority of discipline X is used to close down debate.

I have what I think to be a rather humorous paragraph in my forthcoming book on this argument by appeal to authority that runs as such:

In the late-19th century the marginalists found that if they reduced the world in such a way the thought experiments that they asserted were valid representations of world could be treated using mathematical methods derived from the physics of the era. They took on these methods – methods which are still taught in the classroom today – in order to lend their ideology a cloak of mystical objectivity borrowed from the physical sciences (Mirowski 1991). People then assumed that because they were using a similar mathematical method to manipulate their variables as physics was using then the truth-value of the content of marginalism were the same as the truth-value of the content of physics. This reasoning, if one can call it such, is a bit like assuming that when a person dresses up like a policeman they thereby gain the powers of arrest. Just because a discourse wears the same clothes as a sister discourse does not mean that the first discourse thereby gains the truth-value of the second discourse. To think otherwise is ridiculous in the extreme and is based on a most fundamental logical fallacy. But in the world of ideology the ridiculous is often elevated to the status of the sublime.

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