Archive for the ‘History of Science’ Category
Wandering the streets of New York I found myself at a street-side book vendor, and in picking up the Letters of the Younger Pliny I found a wonderful sentiment in the introductory quotation:
Familiar letters written by eye-witnesses, and that, without design, disclose circumstances that let us more intimately into important events, are genuine history; and as far as they go, more satisfactory than formal premeditated narratives.
-Horace Walpole to Sir John Fenn on 29 June 1784
I add to that, two definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1906), which constitute my second purchase of the day:
History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.
In a 1950 paper, Paul Samuelson wrote:
The most rational man I ever met, whom I shall call Ysidro [when] told that he did not satisfy all of the v. Neumann-Morgenstern axioms, [..] replied that he thought it more rational to satisfy his preferences and let the axioms satisfy themselves.
This introduced in the extensive correspondence between Samuelson, Savage, Marschak, Baumol, and Friedman the idea of the “Ysidro Man” or “Ysidro functions.” In the letters (but not in published print) Samuelson also introduced his mother – as the non-economist acting on her common sense. Thus, for instance, Marschak would discuss with Baumol how best to axiomatize the behavior of Samuelson’s mother.
These archetypes are more commonly labelled homo economicus and homo sapiens – very dull terms indeed (and why the Latin anyway?). So, from now on, when we talk about the homo economicus let’s instead ask: What would Ysidro do? And when criticizing that economic conception as unrealistic, let’s do that by referring to what Samuelson’s mother would do.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is one of the top selling video games of all time, part of the Call of Duty series that has a loyal and cultic following. Black Ops “Easter Egg” (hidden feature, sub-game, plot, messages) is obtained at the starting screen where the character can release himself of the torture chair and walk to a computer console.
At the console, the player can run a command based adventure game, a zombie arcade game, and personal advice game, and it can access the CIA and Majestic-12 files of characters of the game (for more story content), plus some famous folk. I was surprised to find Vannevar Bush as one such entry, passwords: MANHATTAN and MAJESTIC1. Bush is a well known name in the history of science as the father of the post-1945 federal research system, including the National Science Foundation (NSF). He makes a cameo in the game as the Dr.-man of science in the service of the no-rules, intelligence agencies.
Black Ops’s plot line is a race against the clock to prevent a chemical Armageddon. But of course, it is not Bush that has the finger on the trigger, it is the Soviets. Damn you Soviets!
Since almost a year now I’m involved in local politics (a few long evenings a week). Apart from all the obvious differences between the business of politics and the business of history of economics, I’ve noticed an unexpected similarity. Whenever politicians receive information of any kind, they will immediately do two things: 1) Check where the information is coming from, and 2) See how they can spin the information to their advantage. Politics is founded on the firm belief that there is no such thing as objevtive, or value-free information – even though part of the rhetoric is that there is. Ok, you might say, surely you knew that before entering politics. I did, although I had never realized how strongly and deeply rooted this conviction is in every nerve of the political process. But I also think that how readily you, reader of this blog, recognize the self-evidence of this observation, testifies to how similar the history of economics perspective is to the political perspective. Although we do different things, we historians also treat all information – publications, archival sources, interviews – always and everywhere very explicitly as the product of its source. That is, we never treat the information without taking into account the origin of the source.
But academic economists (including the IMFs and OECDs of this world) do. In fact, when we as historians of economics are alerted by fact that economists could take some information about some phenomena as THE truth, we are alerted in the very same way as are politicians about the same economists. Ipso facto, when economists are alerted because we introduce this source- or context-dependence in the discussion, they are alerted in the same way as they are alerted when politicians start questioning the source of their information (or worse, start spinning it). Economics is a self-perceived body of value-free, objective knoweldge in between two realms of politics and history of economics with surprisingly similar world views.
Ps: Not implying any of the three is better than the other of course….
In his correspondance with Jimmie Savage and Will Baumol in the early 1950s, Maurice Allais would write in French and the two Americans would reply in English. Also Italian mathematician Bruno de Finetti started his corrspondance with Savage in French in the 1940s, although he switched to English in the mid 1950s. In addition, it appears from remakrs here and there that people such as Samuelson, Baumol and Savage could read German, that Savage’s Latin wasn’t so bad, but that Baumol apologized not being able to read Latin.
Which all begs the question: In general, how well did American economists in the twentieth century read and speak other languages? Could American professors in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s be expected to read French and/or German? Or was this really an exception?
Dans l’attente de votre réponse, je vous prie d’agréer, mon cher Baumol, mes salutations distinguées.
The great and good of economics have responded to an NSF call for ‘grand challenges‘ in economic research over the coming 20 years, and I can’t help wondering if the history of economics has any? No out-and-out historian appears to have replied, and none of the other authors seem to include historical topics. So are there no grand challenges in history?
Off the cuff I can’t think of a BIG question which lies unanswered, and I wonder what everyone here thinks? My immediate response would be that historians of economics should engage in a project to gather and make publicly available historical data – as recorded in past records, not translated into 21st century definitions – so that better empirical work can be done on the past. I guess a second point is a fuller exploration of the recent crisis and comparisons with past crises, although I am not sure how far such an endeavor could go. If one had to respond to the NSF call – in retrospect – what do you think the grand challenges would be?
For inspiration about the scope, In the NSF response Esther Duflo outlines a research agenda for all of development economics, Dale Jorgenson talks of reforming the national accounts, Nordhaus discusses global public goods and Rogoff talks of three challenges to Macro… So it’s BIG thoughts as we enter the new year – do we historians (of economics) still think those?
[Clement makes a set of suggestions below, and I have tweaked this posts to put it on top. Hope that is ok]
This is not only a metaphor. The History of Science Society’s 2010 annual meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency in Montreal and the hotel is indeed located in a mall!
Because our methods and interests are increasingly evolving toward those of the history of science, it seems logical to want to get closer to the HSS community as well. Problem is: is there such a community? And if so, can we really get the gist of it only by attending a few sessions more-or-less randomly? Apparently not. Though I enjoyed some nice presentations such as David Kaiser on the role of hippies in drawing cohorts of students to physics departments and was fascinated by the new publications on the University of Chicago Press’ stand, I was mostly unable to identify new trends in research. Some attendants do archival work of some kind, some other visit museums and others curate exhibitions. While classic intellectual history and attempts at reinterpreting the canonical literature are still going strong, some others are making movies and investigate the more cultural aspects of science. In front of this methodological bonfire, it is difficult to have an accurate vision of what History of Science is in 2010. One meaningful anecdote is that I unexpectedly met Jonathan, a friend I had not seen for a long time. I knew Jonathan as an American writer, musician and poet living in Paris. I thought he was undertaking work in literary criticism. I knew his interest had moved toward the philosophy of science – well, honestly I had forgotten this information – but I would not have imagined myself attending his presentation at the HSS meeting – I have to add here that it was a joint HSS/PSA (Philosophy of Science Association) meeting but Jonathan’s session, though dealing with philosophical aspects, was really part of the HSS part of the event. My failure in identifying my friend as a member of the community I am targeting says much about the diversity of styles that co-existed there.
Another remark on the meeting: I realized looking at the book of abstracts that unlike HET meetings, the HSS meeting mostly draws North-American and British researchers. While the Dutch and the Germans are well represented, the French and the Italians, who are attending the ESHET and HES meetings en masse, are barely visible at the HSS.
Last but not least, another contributor to this blog was there (as well as a former one), so he may also have something to say.