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Ismail Lagardien | A lesson for economists



With the death of Stephen Hawking last week, the world lost one of its brightest minds. Hawking's contributions to physics stand out as turning points and mark a milestone for our understanding of the universe.

His work and ideas are enormously complicated, and I feel insufficiently ready to enter into his finer qualities.

And anyway, this column aimed, initially, to demystify the economy, introducing more heterodox, pluralistic, realistic and political economic ideas.

The death of Hawking did, however, highlight, again (at least in my mind), the almost religious obsession with scientism (which is quite different from the scientific one) and the rather fallacious belief that economics is a discipline "like physics".

Like so many people who were not trained in physics or natural sciences, in general, I came to know Hawking's ideas and work relatively late in life, as a thirty-year-old, through his book, A Brief History of Time .

The book revived the interest in physics that I had as a child and after reading A Bri In the History of Time, I submerged myself, silently, I should add, in some of the publications on theoretical physics, particle physics, astrology and cosmology.

I say "silent" because I feel confident enough to say only that my knowledge of physics has not yet reached a measurable level in the smallest possible variable.

In summary, when it comes to discussions about physics (as in other areas of life) I prefer to keep my mouth shut and listen.

On the other hand, I look forward to the day when economists show humility to keep their mouths shut, and admit that their "science" and their "models" can not explain everything in the human world.

This is, of course, a generalization. I'm sure there are economists who treat their own children with the greatest love and affection. They can not be so bad. The literature on physics inevitably led me to the work of Richard Feynman.

Leaving aside his ideas and his work in physics, I was impressed by his irreverence and audacity, his teaching methods and his relations with the students.

I especially liked Feynman's vision of science (real science, not economics) that was "a philosophy of satisfactory ignorance".

It is not too caricatured to suggest that economists, more than any other social scientist, indulge in "imperialism." "

Before the red haze falls on our educated friends, this reference to imperialism has nothing to do with communism or capitalism, although the dominant economy has tended to serve quite well liberal capitalist beliefs."

] The reference to economic imperialism "It is used to describe the ways in which economists would insist that theirs is the only social science that can, and that should be used to explain and understand all other fields of human activity.

Economist Gary Becker actually wrote a book, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, in which he argued that all human behavior and behavior could best be explained by economics.

This is a way, then, to understand the assertion of economic imperialism.

The great irony is, of course, that while economists insist that theirs is a science "like physics" and they want us to believe that they have all the answers that beset human society, physicists are often much more humble and invariably thrive when they are proven wrong.

When he delivered one of his papers on the dangers of economic orthodoxy in January 1998, Nobel laureate economist Joe Stiglitz urged mainstream economists to adopt "more instruments and broader objectives" if they were to go beyond the spread of consensus from Washington to the rest of the world.

To begin with, Stiglitz said, "a greater degree of humility is required, recognition of the fact that we do not have all the answers."

I will then make two final observations, which I have made in this column before, but in deference to physics, I will give the physicist Feynman, a true scientist, the last word.

First, economics is not a natural science like physics. If economists must restore some of the credibility they believe they enjoyed before the most recent world crisis, they must take into account history, culture, geography, institutions, group psychology, politics, sociology and philosophy. . Second, they should be more humble. As Feynman once said: "It is much more interesting to live without knowing than to have answers that could be wrong."

"I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I'm not entirely sure of anything and there are many things that I do not know about. . . I'm not afraid of not knowing things. "Then, hamba kahle, Stephen Hawking, you were a great scientist and you expanded our knowledge of the world in ways that we can still appreciate in the coming decades."


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