Visualization @ ESHET 2010 (March 25-28, 2010)

Hans Hoffman, The Gate, 1959-60

I am interrupting the sleep mode of the playground to publish a selfish and self-centered call for papers. For the 14th conference of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought in Amsterdam, I am submitting a session on the use of visual representation in economics, with the following blurb:

The last two decades have witnessed a growing literature on visualization in the history of science following the publication of Lynch and Woolgar’s Representation in Scientific Practice (1990) – see for instance a recent focus section in Isis (March 2006). Despite previous attempts to draw the attention of historians of economics and insightful published papers on the subject – e.g. a ECHE conference in 2002 and a related mini-symposium in JHET in 2003), the use of visual representation in economics remains largely misunderstood. Graphical methods, for instance, are still regarded as a mere subdivision of mathematical analysis, whereas Klein (1995), Cook (2005) and Giraud (2007) have demonstrated that they have been considered distinct from mathematics since the early days of neoclassical economics. More generally, though anyone would concede that graphs, charts, tables, pictures and illustrations are part of the economist’s workaday tools, few efforts have been engaged to understand precisely how they operate within the larger models and theoretical frameworks in which they are used. Failure to recognize the role of visualization in economics is related to the fact that historians of the field tend to focus on the development of theory rather than on the practices in which theorization is entrenched, favoring a foundational approach which undermines cultural specificities. The most recent contributions to the history of science, indeed, have pointed out that the role of visualization in science is best understood within the framework of visual culture – see for instance Luc Pauwels (ed.), Visual Cultures of Science (2006).In this session, we would like to follow this literature by bringing together a set of papers which explore the use of visual representation in connection with peculiar cultures, whether disciplinary or operating at a larger level – the birth of mass-media in the US, for instance. Contributions will focus on the invention of visual devices in relation with specific practices, on the interaction between economists and artists or on how certain visual methods are affected when audiences are different from those they were originally intended for. They need not be focused on theoretical economics but also on the use of visual representation by economic propagandists, state administrations or practitioners operating on markets

I already have two papers for the session, including one by Loic and myself on the visual display of economic information in the US during the interwar period (we draw on the FSA pictorial project and on Otto Neurath‘s Isotype method). I would be happy to include one or two other papers. These may not be strictly papers on the history of economics but also papers on the history of management or general history articles which cover economic themes (for instance, economic history, history of measurement and the larger history of social sciences). Beyond the ESHET conference, this session may help launch the discussion on this neglected aspect of scientific practice and to help increase multidisciplinary work on the subject in the near future. If you have an abstract to submit, you can do this directly to me (yann.giraud[at], replace [at] with @), I will re-submit the session as a whole before the papers are individually submitted through the ESHET website. You can also contact me if you have already submitted a paper which you think may fit this session in particular.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

pj-orourke-1-1You don’t find jokes about economic graphs every day. Looking for a catch phrase for a paper on visual representation and economics textbooks, I came across political satirist PJ O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, subtitled “A Treatise on Economics”. On page 110, O’Rourke introduces an absurd diagram in which he relates “the number of pages of Econ text devoted to graphical analysis” to “the number of Econ students asleep in the lecture hall”.  On page 105, he summarizes the attitude of most undergraduate students toward the principles of economics class: “I. There are a lot of graphs II. I’d better memorize them III. Or get last year’s test”. Okay, that’s funny. And so I have my catch phrase.

What is not as fun, on the other hand, is the rather populist background that comes with that joke when we get deeper into O’Rourke’s book. What he really means, in fact, is that economic diagrams as well as other technical elements are thrown in the introductory course only to introduce socialist ideas, for example the idea that “all wealth is the result of criminal conspiracy among: A. Jews B. Japanese. C. Pirates in neckties on Wall Street” (Ibid.). One of the examples provided by the author is the Keynesian equation Y=[C+I+G+(X-M)]/(1-c). He notes that “it’s hard to imagine applying the above formula to any ordinary economic question, e.g. should I put my bonus in a certificate of deposit or buy new stereo speakers?” (p. 106). O’Rourke may well have his definition of “economics” from Aristotle rather than from Robbins, so it’s easy to disembowel the guy for writing that but most importantly, all of the chapter is to show us that mathematical economics is simply socialist thinking dressed in fashionable mathematical nonsense. I thought this kind of thinking had been thrown out with McCarthyism. So this is not so funny, after all …

What is a bit funnier, on the other hand, is that the opposite discourse has become as fashionable: thanks to Sonja Amadae, we know that mathematical economics and assumptions about rational behavior necessarily imply the defense of capitalism as a political discourse. Amadae is probably more researched than O’Rourke in her demonstration but the similarity between the two theses is that mathematical economists are just idiots who are not even aware of the political implications of their discourse. For O’Rourke, they’re just a bunch of socialists in disguise; for Amadae, they just underwrite the protection of big corporations. I am not naive: I would not assert that there is no politics in methods. I just wonder whether it is too much asking for more subtlety…