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A Failed Postmodernist Experiment
on August 20, 2014
Philip Mirowski, More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Philip Mirowski is a talented, widely read, exceptionally broad thinker with excellent training in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities and philosophy. He is well equipped to contribute fruitfully to the history and interpretation of economic theory. In fact, as I explain below, his substantive claims are mostly wide of the mark, and even egregiously so. But first, we must understand what led him to take the shockingly intemperate and arrogant tone exhibited in virtually every paragraph of this long work?
I will spare the reader an account of the ungenerous stance Mirowski assumes facing both physics and economics, but rather recall two reviews of this book. The first appeared in Methodus by UC Davis economist Kevin Hoover. Hoover writes “I hold no special brief for neoclassical economics. … Yet, reading this book gave me a slowly rising feeling of outrage. Taken as a whole, it is an outrageous book: neither the history nor the methodology is persuasive; the scholarship is often slapdash; the tone is intemperate; and the style is often obnoxious. Mirowski's hatred of neoclassical economics borders on the pathological… Mirowski strikes a flashy, bullying tone throughout the book, patronizing the reader, economists and physicists.”
The second review, by D. A. Walker, appeared in the Economic Journal. Walker writes “Mirowski portrays neoclassical economics as a conspiracy to delude the public hatched by prevaricating fools… A dispassionate critique of the work of the neoclassicals, both old and new, would not destroy the perception that they were scientists. Scientists, after all, have often been wrong, but have nonetheless been scientists. To destroy the perception it would be necessary to demolish the neoclassicals' legitimacy, moral authority, and prestige in the mind of the reader, and to do that it would be necessary to destroy their dignity. That is the effect, if not the intent, of Mirowski's presentation. Whereas the reader would refer to their scientific dedication, their search for truth, their research papers and scholarly debates, Mirowski refers to their 'tiffs and squabbles', their 'contretemps over marginal productivity, periodic shouting matches over capital theory, pothers over supply curves and empty boxes, and pouts over the superfluity of the firm and the entrepreneur' (page 284). At best their work had a superficial resemblance to science; they 'were dazed into incoherence' by it; but they pretended to be scientific (page 271). As Mirowski tells the story, the neoclassicals' motives, sincerity, and veracity were questionable. They 'smuggled' assumptions; they made 'gambits'; and even the modern neoclassicals engage in 'one big shell game' (pages 273-4). Paul Samuelson, for example, is disingenuous and deliberately misleading on the relation of his work to physics (pages 378-85). The neoclassicals may have used mathematics 'to browbeat and hoodwink their colleagues' (page 249), and they concocted their theories 'surreptitiously, generally under the guise' of one or another pretense (page 273). Of uncertain mental health, they 'clutched neurotically' to their field theory of value (page 275; cf. pages I97, 243). Emerging from the pages of Mirowski's script as petty and childish, they are given to throwing tantrums, 'breast-beating, wailing, crowing, and soul-searching' (page 356), and to 'calumny and cacophony' (page 28i). They 'squirm in a most apprehensive and guilty manner' (page 287), but are also prone to 'smug satisfaction and self-congratulation' (page 356). 'Lost in the funhouse' (page 377), they caper and emote, by turns coy and assertive, naive and cunning (pages 279, 367-8, 37I). Thus, under Mirowski's expert direction, they perform exactly as he wants, deftly reduced to the undignified status of buffoons in an animated cartoon.”
To understand Mirowski’s stance, we must recognize the author as experimenting with a mode of analysis known as postmodernism, which Wikipedia describes as “a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism [i.e., Enlightenment thought]. Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.”
The most important tenet of postmodernist treatments of science is that all truth is socially constructed. In particular, theories create their own criteria for truth, and the Enlightenment method of testing theories against exogenously given “facts” is completely discredited. It follows that one cannot compare theories by assessing their relative ability to explain the facts, because different theories explain different sorts of facts. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn is often drawn on for support of this position, although he was in fact a strong critique of this interpretation of his work.
If theories produce their own facts, then the scientist who follows the Enlightenment method is of necessity deluded and even complicit in hiding the true nature of the scientific enterprise. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate to consider scientists as fools and scam artists, and to treat their “discoveries” as deceptions no different from that of the astrologist and reader of tea leaves. Whence comes Mirowski’s intemperate and arrogant tone.
Postmodernism is today mostly discredited, although it leaves a powerful residue in the older members of university faculties throughout the world. It was an interesting experiment, but its limits were carefully revealed in the literature prior to 1990. The Enlightenment method of comparing theories against empirical reality reigns supreme in most areas of natural and behavioral science. For this reason, Mirowski’s work now seems bizarre and embarrassing. If I had written this book, I would apologize. I might ask that the book be read as an exercise in (academic) mob psychology, however.
Neoclassical economics does some things right and some things wrong. I have outlined my take on the theory in my book The Bounds of Reason (Princeton 2009), which includes strong support for the rational actor model, and my work with Antoine Mandel, which shows how to handle the many weakness of the standard general equilibrium model. My critique of Mirowski is very simple: the only effective critique is one that (a) shows explanatory weaknesses in some area and (b) provides a theory that conserves the correct parts of the old theory and modifies the incorrect parts so as to explain the area in question and (c) explains new, previously unanticipated, phenomena.