My Opinion of Noahpinion: A Response to Noah Smith’s Critique About the Future of Economics

Debating the future of economics

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By David Sloan Wilson

It’s a pleasure to be critiqued by Noah Smith in his widely read blog Noahpinion. I have no cause to complain, since his critique is good natured and he agrees with at least some of my points. Still, I feel misunderstood in a way that is consequential for the future of economics.

First, some context. My life’s work is to expand evolutionary theory beyond the biological sciences to include all human-related subjects—including but not restricted to economics. Also, I function in the capacity of a reporter and coordinator, in addition to my personal contributions. The piece that Noah critiqued is excerpted (with small changes) from my book The Neighborhood Project, which was published in 2011 and reflects my experience organizing a conference on economics from an evolutionary perspective, which was also the beginning of my economics education. That conference was followed by four workshops leading to a 2013 special issue the Journal of Economic and Behavior Organization, which in turn was followed by an Ernst Strungmann Forum leading to a 2016 edited volume published by MIT Press titled Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics.

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In my role of reporter covering the beat of economics, I wish that Noah had critiqued my recent interview with Eric Beinhocker or my interview with Alan Kirman (my co-editor for the MIT volume) that was conducted shortly after the Ernst Strungman Forum (see also his own recent article in Then my outsider status would be less of a factor. But the piece that he critiqued is good enough, because there is a certain monotony to critiques of economics, whether from the outside or the inside. I am reminded of the movie Groundhog Day, where the weatherman played by Bill Murray is forced to repeat the same day again and again until he gets it right. Compare Paul Romer’s recent scorched earth critique of Macroeconomics with Maurice Allais’ critique in 1987, which I quote in my piece that Noah read. Twenty-nine years have gone by and nothing has changed.

What stands out in Noah’s critique of my piece is its complacency. It’s like he’s discussing the arrangement of deck chairs aboard the Titanic. There is no sense of urgency about the failure of orthodox economics theory and the need to place it on a new foundation.

As someone who witnessed the discussions that took place during the Ernst Strungmann Forum, I know how much work is required to place economics on a new foundation based on a combination of complexity theory and evolutionary theory. I have also been a critic of the self-described discipline of Evolutionary Psychology from its inception. In my role as reporter, I organized a Special Edition of This View of Life, a magazine that covers all topic areas in the same way that covers economics, titled What’s Wrong (and Right) About Evolutionary Psychology? But Noah misses the point when he observes that evolutionary psychology, the study of cultural evolution, and their applications to economics are nascent enterprises. He seems to think that they can be ignored until they have reached some undefined state of maturity. He doesn’t get that when your ship is sinking, you need to build a new ship and move onto it as soon as you possibly can.

My life’s work gives me a panoramic view of the human-related disciplines such as religion, sociology, the humanities, and the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, to list a small sample. The very fact that I and like-minded colleagues can do this (it is a perspective, not an individual talent) suggests that evolutionary theory has a generality that orthodox economics aspired to and failed to achieve. From my vantage, I can attest that while all human-related disciplines have complex histories that often limit their capacity to change, the economics profession is an outlier in this regard. Don’t take my word for it. Pavan Sukhdev is the latest in a long parade of insiders and outsiders who call for economists to start behaving like scientists.

So thanks to Noah for checking me out in a good natured way, but no thanks for his conclusion that I’m welcome to stick around as some kind of town heretic. That conclusion deeply misunderstands the need for the economics profession to change.

2016 October 18

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