A student recently asked me to explain my interest in theoretical physics, given its use of mathematical equations, since I had previously expressed an aversion to the reliance on mathematics and modelling in economics and in public policy-making.
I could not miss the opportunity to explain some of the fallacies of “scientism”, the benefits of curriculum reform and of collaboration across different academic disciplines.
Economics, I said, was a social science that dealt with human interactions.
Physics was a natural science that focused on the basic principles that governed the physical world.
I explained that when dealing with human beings you were probably well advised to consider their rights, wishes, dreams, aspirations, their dignity and overall wellbeing.
In physics, studying the mechanics of how or why matter (a physical substance) behaved the way it did, did not involve human rights.
Pretending that the two were the same, and that the principles of physics always applied to our public and private lives was misleading – at best.
I explained, further, that the obsession with “scientism” in the social sciences – the belief that the methods of the natural sciences were necessarily the best when dealing with social affairs – had caused a drift into an apolitical silence.
This is the practice whereby, if anything goes wrong, when people lose their livelihoods or they are plunged into poverty because of policies were prescribe, we remain silent because “we are scientists” and, therefore, beyond reproach.
That twisted logic is based on missing ethical considerations in public policy-making based on “scientific” economics theories.
Most mainstream economists, or people who teach management or business imagine they’re like physicists who cannot be held responsible when there is a stellar collision.
Yet, scientists, like physicists, are often humble enough to accept that they are or have been wrong.
The 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, once said that being wrong was what made scientists great and what caused them to make progress in research. They want to be proven wrong . . . Having said that, progress, real progress that can benefit society is possible when students and scholars are able to imagine collaboration across disciplines considered to be discrete – without claims of “scientific” primacy.
Consider the example of ElecTree, what has been described as an “MBA project”.
A group of students from around the world got together at Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), home of the large hadron collider in Switzerland.
One of their tasks included a project to support displaced people.
The objective was to help workers in refugee camps and in disaster areas distribute electricity efficiently and equitably among families, hospitals, schools and other communal facilities.
They created ElecTree, described as “modular, extendable, plug-n-play intelligent grid solution which optimises energy distribution by prioritising its use”.
The group included MBA candidates, as well as design and engineering students from around the world.
They had to work collaboratively across their academic disciplines, while overcoming their cultural differences, to achieve their main objective.
The management and business students were not “naturally” selected as the project managers, and the design students were not relegated to the arts or the humanities.
Of course, when the project was done, the business students got all dressed up for the show and tell.
In a separate project, MBA students from North America and South Asia travelled to Hawassa in southern Ethiopia to study the impact of urbanisation on communities.
One student, Ria Tobaccowala (who was enrolled in a joint MBA and masters degree in fine art, at New York University (NYU)), explained that she went to business school to become “a well-rounded, empathetic global leader [and] wanted to understand the changes taking place in the global economy, not just what’s going on in downtown Manhattan”.
These experiential learning projects broadened students’ perspective on humanity, Shlomo Angel, a professor at NYU said, and had “nothing to do with making money”.
He explained that the traditional MBA curriculum and even the case studies were often disconnected from the real world, whereas NYU wanted students to “be involved in something real that has real consequences and affects people’s lives”.
I simplified these stories when I relayed them to the student in my office. I suggested references to get the finer details, especially those around how students on the Cern and Ethiopia studies had to overcome clashes in method and break the superficial barriers that exist between different disciplines.
We agreed, however, that humility was almost always a good starting point when you set out on a journey of learning; that there were important differences between the behaviour of supernovae, pulsars or black holes, and the behaviour of people.
If business and management studies, including the much vaunted MBA, were to take on the awesome challenges of the 21st century, they will have to come under curricular scrutiny.
Humility will be a good place to start.
Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.