@ EIPE 2008 – Sexy brains

mindcontrolFirst day of the Rotterdam Conference on “Neuroeconomics: Hype or Hope?” I found the meeting hall walking down the Westersingel, right turn twenty minutes from the Rotterdam Central Station, on a breezy Thursday morning. The whitewashed modern room is on the first floor of a Church community center, an otherwise heavy building of old dark wood. The room was well packed and I got stuck on a wooden bench for the whole morning. The first talks went quickly and didn’t hatch to my mind or my notebook. They blended into lists of objections, philosophical, religious, or personal.

The first session of the afternoon was more alarming and arresting. Ariel Rubinstein presented behavioral data drawn from his game theory website. The results of Rubinstein’s large data sets are less interesting than his closing anecdote. After publishing his results in the Economic Journal, he was enlisted by the journal to write a press release. In the text, he played out a conventional tale of behavioural economics that fairness comes out automatically without rational control, and in an ultimatum game reasoning will result in a less fair distribution of endowments. The Guardian liked it and in sight of the collapse of Northern Rock in November 2007, made connections between Gordon Brown’s appeals to calm and public interest and the economists’ findings.

Rubinstein’s punch line was that all this was wrong. It was wrong to be quoted in a Guardian editorial. It was wrong to have economics connect to current events in such sudden fashion. Neuroeconomics was suspect because it was easy to indulge in these excesses.

To me the reason for the sexyness has nothing to do with brains or neuroeconomics (there were no brains in Rubinstein’s paper). Journalists, in media like the Guardian, are writing political narratives, about characters and their feelings and decisions. Journalists are trained in the humanities with no prudishness towards talking morality and justice. Hence, it is holds no mystery or shock when they pick up “soft” economic research, about people’s inner conflicts and irrationality.

What is surprising is how such use can be distressing to some economists. They seem anxious about this attention, when journalists dare to speak in their name, in the name of economics.

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4 thoughts on “@ EIPE 2008 – Sexy brains

  1. I both agree with you and sympathize with Rubinstein’s and economists’ distress. It is going against the “normal” course of events which is supposed to be: the researcher researches, his research topics and results are integrated by the expert who uses them to expertise and councel for governments and lay audiences and the latters opinions are constructed on their expertise. The course you depict is the economist researches and is from time to time visited by the expert who picks whatever he needed for his own purpose which is commanded by the needs of his audience, whether the lay man (the topics that interest the readers of newspapers to sell more of them, the TV gazers, etc.) or the politician who needs one’s “theory” to back up his policies. It is not top down anymore, but bottom up. Moreover, in the process the one which is more likely to be put aside is the scientists who has the bad habit of not agreeing with what he is supposed to have said.
    I have two comments:
    – first, it means that we should look more closely to what happen to the institutional process of dissemination (the very term is called into question, indeed) of one’s ideas. Traditionally, it is viewed as a no problematic top-down process (remember the Keynes’ dictum which has been quoted about a million times about the politician repeating the economic ideas of a dead economist) whereas your story shows that, at least for the recent period, it is no more the case (and I suspect that it was already true for a long time, but we preferred to pretend it was not – it made our job easier).
    – second, the acknowledgement that such a change has occurred puts Krugman’s Nobel prize in a very different perspective. While many were surprised that someone who has turned to politics and vulgarization of economic theory for some time was afforded the Nobel prize in economics, it may say more of their own belief on the traditional top-down dissemination model of economics than of the fact that it was surprising. It seems that, on the contrary, Krugman was very prescient to reconstruct himself as an opinion maker.

  2. Maybe we could call your top-down process (why should scientists be on the top?) the dissemination model, since that is the usual tag given by the economists and historians. In science studies the equivalent is called “deficit model”. There, as here, it is assumed that the academic is the knowledge producer acting away from public and political concerns, often also the only knowledge producer. She will communicate science directly or with middlemen but will often be frustrated and misunderstood. The process is seen from the scientists’ standpoint and it appears that the public or the middlemen/media distort and caricature the message, by ignorance or petty interest. The alternative model in science studies is called contextual. It challenges the convictions that science is unambiguous/useful for society and that scientists are the best qualified to judge about science’s use. The public is no longer passive, a receptacle of knowledge. The public becomes a lay expert that is best qualified to decide how to use science in his/her life. The latter model seems a lot better to do history then the dissemination stuff. It sharpens our awareness that the middlemen and the public also have histories. It allows exchange across history of science, social history and political history.

    Quickly on Krugman, could one construct the counterfactual: had Krugman not been a public intellectual would he have won the Nobel? I know too little of counterfactuals in intellectual history (as opposed to economic history) to carry that on. Undoubtedly, people’s objections are that Nobel fame (science fame) may give his public causes greater credibility. As you say, it feels like a transgression of the sanctity of these boundaries, Mary Furner’s ADVOCACY AND OBJECTIVITY. But on a longer view the scandal is tame compared to the frenzy when Friedman won his Nobel.

  3. Let me just add a quick note on the discussion of Krugman’s Nobel: Krugman was a name figuring in lists of potential Nobel winners for a long time. Several economists considered that he would surely win sooner or later because he has done crucial contributions to economics in the past, despite his actual non-scientist role (remember he won the Clark medal in 1991). Maybe this is something behind the not as great fuss about Krugman’s as about Friedman’s Nobel. Following this comparison, I would include Stiglitz and Krugman in the same group, as opposed to Friedman (all the three won the Clark Medal; 1951, 1979, 1991): there is a similar feeling among economists about Stiglitz as about Krugman, of an economist who has done seminal work in the past (this past is what justifies all awards) and has turned to “politics” more recently. My impression is that economists never saw Friedman having those separate roles so clearly… Is this true?

  4. Having presided the dissertation defence of Beatrice last week, I must agree with your statement since it is exactly Beatrice’s (convincing) argument about Friedman: he did not separate the two roles.

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