Ismail Lagardien | A lesson for economists

With the death of Stephen Hawking last week, the world lost one of its greatest minds. Hawking’s contributions to physics stand out as turning points and set a high-water mark for our understanding of the universe. His work and ideas are massively complicated, and I feel insufficiently clever to go into their finer qualities. And anyway this column set out, initially, to demystify economics, by way of introducing more heterodox, pluralist, realist and political economic ideas. The death of Hawking did, however, bring to the fore, again (at least in my mind), the almost religious obsession with scientism (which is quite different from scientific) and rather fallacious belief that economics is a discipline “like physics”. Like so many people who were not trained in physics or the natural sciences, in general, I got to know the ideas and work of Hawking relatively late in life, as a thirtysomething, through his book, A Brief History of Time. The book rekindled the interest in physics I had as a child and after reading A Brief History of Time, I immersed myself, quietly, I should add, in some of the literature on theoretical physics, particle physics, astrology and cosmology. I say “quietly” because I feel sufficiently confident to say only that my knowledge of physics has yet to reach a level measurable in the absolute smallest variable possible. In short, when it comes to discussions on physics (as in other areas of life) I prefer to keep my mouth shut and listen. In counter-point, I look forward to the day when economists demonstrate the humility to keep their mouths shut, and admit that their “science” and their “models” cannot explain everything in the human world. This is, of course, a generalisation – I’m sure there are economists who treat their own children with the greatest of love and affection. They cannot be all that bad. The literature on physics led me inevitably to the work of Richard Feynman. Setting aside his ideas and work in physics, I was impressed by his irreverence and audacity, his teaching methods and his relationships with students.

I especially liked Feynman’s view on science (real science, not economics) that it was “a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance”. It is not too much of a caricature to suggest that economists, more than any other social scientists, are given to “imperialism”. Before the red mist descends on our learned friends, this reference to imperialism has nothing to do with communism or capitalism – although mainstream economics has tended to serve liberal capitalist beliefs quite well. The reference to “economics imperialism” is used to describe the ways in which economists would insist that theirs is the only social science that can, and that should be used to explain and understand all other fields of human activity. Economist Gary Becker actually wrote a book, The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour, in which he made the argument that all human behaviour and conduct might best be explained by economics. This is a way, then, to understand the claim of economics imperialism. The great irony is, of course, that while economists would insist that theirs is a science “like physics” and would have us believe that they have all the answers that beset human society, physicists are often a lot more humble and invariably thrive on being proven wrong. When he delivered one of his signature papers on the dangers of economics orthodoxy in January 1998, Nobel laureate for economics Joe Stiglitz urged mainstream economists to adopt “more instruments and broader goals” if they were to move beyond the consensus spread from Washington to the rest of the world. To begin with, Stiglitz said, “a greater degree of humility is called for, acknowledgment of the fact that we do not have all of the answers”. I will make, then, two final observations – both of which I have made in this column before – but in deference to physics, I will give physicist Feynman, a real scientist, the last word. First, economics is not a natural science like physics. If economists are to re-establish some of the credibility they think they enjoyed before the most recent global crisis they have to take account of history, culture, geography, institutions, group psychology, politics, sociology and philosophy. Second, they might have to be more humble. As Feynman once said: “It is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about . . . I don’t feel frightened not knowing things.” So, hamba kahle, Stephen Hawking. You were a great scientist and you expanded our knowledge of the world in ways we may yet come to appreciate for decades to come.