This IS knowledge !!!

Reviewing (i.e. bashing) David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations for the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Philip Mirowski (2007: 492), concluded:

I pity the poor student of modern economics, trying to make some sense of what can only appear to the outsider as cryptic oracular pronouncements emitted from people who claim to be experts in the nature and validity of knowledge.* But when you get your news from Jon Stewart, your history from Paul Krugman, and your research facts from Wikipedia, maybe the nature of knowledge has itself changed.

The end of the sentence is tinged with what I believe is Mirowski’s utter disdain for popular culture. It takes, however, just a few days for a non-American person to realize that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is certainly a better source of information than any other cable news (CNN included …), though I personally prefer the Colbert Report.

But my question is: what about Wikipedia? I have to confess I use it quite frequently,  for some basic research at work as well as for some more silly inquiry about music, cinema or celebrities at home.  Of course, I never take the information that is given there as granted and I think it is rather crucial to double check it with a more formal source of information, but I have largely benefited from the bibliography that is often provided at the end of articles. I am fairly impressed by the fact that some anonymous people have spent some time writing on E. Roy Weintraub or Waldemar Kaempffert, sometimes advertising the works of others without any reward. All in all, there is an underlying model of disinterestedness scientists should be proud (or envious?) of … Why, on the contrary, they spend so much time bashing it is therefore a mistery to me. Where does this idea that an increasing dissemination of knowledge corresponds to a degeneration of its substance come from? Jealousy? Elitism?  Declinism? Conservatism? Repugnance for the “neoliberal” ideology they think such modes of dissemination sustain?

PS: Thanks to Wikipedia, for example, I learned that philosopher of science Susan Oyama has been married to the late great contemporary composer Luciano Berio from 1966 to 1972. Pretty interesting …

* I should point out that Mirowski is not referring to David Warsh here but to Paul Krugman, though his using the plural of “experts” is quite intriguing.


  1. I completely share your point about Wikipedia. I found some pretty incredible good stuff there, especially on “minor” (meaning that do not held a major place in the traditional academia lore) intellectual figures. Some historians tend to share their Phd or even master memoir research there for the benefit of the research community.
    My take on Mirowski is that he is from a generation that is to a large extent trained as intellectual historians and do not feel comfortable with the idea of reconstructing an economic culture, not by looking at big names, be they scientific of political, but collecting bits of information on a whole lot of lesser individuals/events trying to create a detailed picture of a specific scientific/economic culture. Hence for all its daring originality, it seems that it is a line Mirowski would not to cross here, whereas I believe that looking at what is sometimes call “popular culture” (movies, photos, cartoons, novels and so on) is a major road for a better understanding what has been going on in economics or in any intellectual movement/discipline. There is not such thing as a great divide between academic disciplines and the rest of society, merely some vague and porous frontiers.

  2. It remains that the book by David Warsh left me with mixed feelings: yes, a popular account of a very difficult subject, but with a narrative line which is a path to discoveries carpetted with heroes, puzzles that are eventually deciphered, dramatic moments, and celebrations of great breakthroughs etc. Very internalist, in the sense that it adopts the values and the assumptions of its subject, without submitting them to a [sociological, historical] critical analysis. This is in this sense that I also had the feeling that it was a bit like Wikipedia – no distance with the “facts”.

    [Granted, it also contains some illuminating images explaining difficult concepts, such as his pictorial view of the simplex method. But I closed the book with a feeling that it was far from enough. Popular accounts of economics can surely do better].

  3. I write having David Warsh as my facebook friend. He has been very generous to me talking about economic journalism and sometimes even how he goes about doing what he does.

    I understand Clement when he says the book lacks some distance from the subject, but that is exactly its achievement, the ability to come close to the subject without being an economist or requiring readers to be economists.

    What we do as historians is different. (Warsh never claims to be an historian and I think he is sincere.) We want distance and analysis. We want authorial voice. It is in this that Mirowski is sometimes disappointing because predictable. Once in a autobiographical text, Mirowski called himself the enfant terrible, but I think him more as a hitman, ready to strike down however comes his way. That can be so dull sometimes (in a guy that can be so not dull).

  4. The problem, which Tiago mentioned, is that Mirowski reviews Warsh’s book as if it was intended as a contribution the to History of Economics, which is not the case. The other problem, and I remember that the same thing happened with the review that was published on the HES-List at the time, is that the reviewer often operates an unfortunate confusion between his criticizing the book and his criticizing the theories that are presented in the book. You can perfectly enjoy reading a book that deals with ideas you’re not comfortable with.
    As for Wikipedia, I am perfectly happy with the fact it does not provide enough distance with its subject, because it leaves room for us to fill ! In addition, I would say that distance is not what you expect from that kind of encyclopedic writing. Roger Backhouse and I have just finished an entry on circular flow diagrams for a book by Blaug and Lloyd, which is a bit like “Great Economists …” except it is about various visual representations, and of course, it does not incorporate all the content I would like to put into a research article. It’s more “internalist” in some ways, because of the audience it is intended for (students in economics, I assume). To write this entry, we looked at something written on the same subject for the New Palgrave, and I can tell you it was a-historical and seriously misleading. The paper reconstructed Quesnay’s Tableau Economique using circular flow diagrams, eventually bringing the confusion that Quesnay’s representation was a circular flow diagram in the first place. Our contribution corrected that kind of confusion, bringing a bit of context in the story, but it does not go as far as to provide a complete contextual account of the diagram. I believe audience is rather important, here.

  5. Since I am being psychobiographically criticized here, I found it hard not to jump in. First Yann, my comment was not a throwaway hostile to pop culture– it was based upon a deeper point being made about Wikipedia, fleshed out in my contribution to (out in June!). First off, do you know what % of its own articles the Wiki editors themselves deem to rise to the standard of a modern print encyclopedia? It is .2% (no decimal mistake there, BTW). The salient point is that Wikipedia is a failure by its own metrics (read the entry “Criticisms of Wikipedia” and the attendant links). It is a journalistic commonplace that Wiki is wickedly radical and democratic, but the reality is something else. Secondly, you can’t just judge the quality by glancing at the entry itself– did you bother to check the discussion pages? (Most people don’t). It will give you pause. The Internet (and blogs) encourage lazy intellectual grazing; real thought requires long difficult arguments you can’t fit onto a few screens (or this tiny box that hems in my response). And finally, did you ever look into the actual history of Wikipedia? If you did, you would find it was initially intended to illustrate the propositions in Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society” according to its founder, Jimmy Wales. Hence Wikipedia is demonstrably a manifestation of the neoliberal approach to knowledge, as is, BTW, Paul Romer’s ‘New’ Growth theory. They are both symptoms of what I would argue is the same debilitating Weltanschauung, that conceptualizes the process of communication and learning as a ‘market-like’ phenomenon. But of course I can’t explain it here– there is an actual argument made in an extensive text.
    And Tiago: a hitman is paid to assassinate people. I am not paid for what I do; indeed my bank balance and career suffers for it. This is not about Warsh being a good guy– I like him too. It is about the fact that the New Growth Theory is an abysmal empirical and theoretical failure, if you follow the orthodox literature, and yet, almost no one is willing to stare that fact in the face, including, it seems, all you good-looking HET scholars. It that makes me an Old Fart in your eyes, so be it.
    I personally think Twitter makes one dull– all that self expression, and so little substance.

  6. I’ve been hit! Phil, I don’t know where you are getting your money, haven’t done the archival research yet. (less than 140 characters, so twitter ready.)

  7. I’m unsure whose wikipedia users Phil Mirowski is worrying about/for ?

    Researchers, historians, intellectuals? Because W articles are crowded with mistakes, are not up to the standards of encyclopedia? Isn’t it true of many articles in encyclopedia (see Yann’s anecdote), many research papers. Because W carries a political orientation and its authors have ideological agenda? Isn’t it true of research? Because Wiki’s discussions pages “give you pause”? Well, so does the reading of some research articles on the Chicago School written in the 70s by self-called historians, so do the debates at some HET conferences or seminars. We know all this, we have learned not to trust, we have learned double, triple checking. We don’t consider wiki entries as final results, but more as a PI would consider a police statement (and as Loic says, Wiki enable us to hear the testimony of unnoticed witnesses), knowing he will have to subject it to cross examination.

    Is Phil Mirowski worrying for casual wikipedia users, “laymen”, “the great public”? What matter in this case is not Wikipedia’s founder’s initial encyclopedic project or political agenda, nor their “metric”, nor even authors’ intentions. What matters is how the public use W in comparison to other sources of knowledge. Based on my experience on how I educate myself (or don’t) and how students proceed, I don’t see any reason to worry more that in the pre-wiki era. Yes, they uncritically copy W pages of distorted, twisted, partial and sometimes false knowledge where they used to copy entries of universalis encyclopedia. Yes, they parrot the “underemployment” or “rationality” W pages when they have to give a talk on these subjects. But we (teachers) know it, we show them the discussions pages, we introduce them to the use of multiple source and even to the delusion of true knowledge or historical account. Lectures on wiki are developing in high schools as in universities. And anyway, “true” knowledge is not always what you look for. Had I watch S Coppola’s Marie Antoinnette 15 years ago, I would have asked my grand father about the social status of “La du Barry” in Versailles or about Louis XVI’s apparent stupidity, he would have advised me to look in a dictionary, and I wouldn’t. Now I can browse wiki and even find a fair amount of controversy on Louis XVI’s psychology and abilities. I don’t look at the discussion history, I don’t care. I just need rough landmarks.
    So yes, the nature of knowledge is changing, and yes, students and people are lazy. But they are neither stupid nor credulous. Manipulating the masses is no easy task to perform. My students even display a systematic suspicion toward any source of information, from govermental reports to newspapers to web content. I don’t remember such widespread distrust toward authorities in my generation. And they’re perfectly able to confront sources and evidence when they have some interet in. They are able of “real thought,” screen-size “real thought” (I doubt that you can measure the quality of “thought” by its length).

    As for Krugman’s claim to tell history, we should be worried for ourselves, not for the NYT readers.

  8. I use Wikipedia like I would use any source, i.e. to the extent my professional intuition tells me it is reliable. Have no idea who some person is? Wikipedia will usually tell you when they lived and generally what they were up to, but if I need it for more than that I wouldn’t trust it.

    So, for instance, when I was still working on OR coming from a history of physics perspective and reading Machine Dreams, and trying to figure out what the hell all this “Walrasian” business was about, I went first to Wikipedia to get a toe-hold, but then sought out more reliable sources, including the original (available in full via Google books in French!)

    In this sense, Wikipedia is actually a lot like Machine Dreams. It has a hell of a lot of information arranged in a generally correct order, but one really should be aware of the limits before using it. On the economics coming out of axiomatic mathematics, for example, you might become aware of the issue via Mirowski, but you should probably go pick up Weintraub if you want a better understanding.

    Wikipedia is a valuable tool, but, like all tools, only if you know how to use it conscientiously. As for non-scholars, information sources have always been terrible, and I know of no evidence that “people” now live under a delusion that they know something about things they in fact know nothing about, under which they did not live 20 years ago.

    As to Loic’s point about cultural history vs. intellectual history, I would offer a couple of caveats. First, cultural history is alarmingly easy to do, and as a consequence tends to squelch out important but difficult conversations about intellectual pedigree. Read Martin Rudwick’s recent Bursting the Limits of Time/Worlds Before Adam set for a mightily disillusioned view of a historical discipline where intellectual developments have been subsumed by cultural concerns. Second, I would defend Mirowski here, since he tends to side with Paul Edwards’ discursive “closed world/Cold War” argument about Cold War culture and the cultural importance of digital computing to understanding the rise of the economics of rational agents, which in turn feeds back (rather too simply for my tastes, actually) into an intellectual defense of the more general cultural understandings of the rational power of unfettered markets.

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