Intellectual Darwinism and the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas
Author: Sam Wheldon-Bayes (Originally posted here)
I recently attended a panel discussion, organised by the University of Manchester’s Post-Crash Economics Society as a counterweight to the Royal Economic Society’s conference, between Victoria Chick and Diane Coyle on economic pluralism. The Q&A session became somewhat heated after one audience member suggested that the reason modern economics is dominated by one school of thought is that this particular school of thought has beaten out the others. He referred to the numerous paradigm shifts we have seen in economics – from the classics to Keynesianism and from Keynesianism to the monetarists – as evidence that the best theory prevails.
This, however, is a view which neglects the long history of paradigm shifts, both inside and outside economics. Wherever ideas and viewpoints are challenged, those who hold them are often quite naturally defensive. This is normal, and a perfectly human reaction. I am certainly not accusing anyone of wilfully suppressing debate and critical engagement – I think it happens accidentally because we are all, alas, human. However, just because it happens by accident does not mean it is a phenomenon we should close our eyes to.
Throughout the history of the sciences – natural and social – challenging viewpoints have been met with hostility. Within our own discipline, John Atkinson Hobson’s initial theories on under-consumption were to influence the thoughts of John Maynard Keynes over 50 years later in his magnum opus, The General Theory. However, in his own time, Hobson was not so highly regarded. Having found himself unable to counter the arguments of a friend using orthodox theory, he turned away from it, in what was to be a damaging career move. In his own words (cited in Keynes’ The General Theory, 1936: 365-6)
“The Physiology of Industry [was] published in 1889.This was the first open step in my heretical career, and I did not realise in the least its momentous consequences. For just at that time I had given up my scholastic post and was opening up a new line of work as a University Extension Lecturer in Economics and Literature. The first shock came in a refusal of the London Extension Board to allow me to offer courses in Political Economy. This was due, I learned, to the intervention of an Economic Professor who had read my book and considered it equivalent in rationality to an attempt to prove the flatness of the earth”
This situation – a promising theory which challenged the deficiencies of the orthodoxy of the time – bears a somewhat worrying resemblance to the present situation, particularly the recent cancellation of Manchester’s Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module. Differing points of view are blocked from academic positions, denied funding and effectively silenced. Of course, those doing the silencing do it in good faith, but that does not change the reality of the situation – dissent is possible, but exceedingly difficult. As a social science, we should be fostering dissent, debate and critical thinking, rather than impeding it. As pointed out in the Association of Heterodox Economists’ response to the last QAA review of the economics curriculum, almost all other social sciences view debate between different and legitimate viewpoints as central to their discipline itself.
If, like many in economics, we prefer to view our discipline as closer to the natural sciences than social sciences, there are still powerful lessons to be learned. Many of the natural sciences have a shameful history of suppressing what would later turn out to be revolutionary ideas. Alfred Wegener’s theories about plate tectonics were met with scathing criticism and hostility during his lifetime. Crick and Watson were instructed to drop their research on DNA, yet continued it on their own time – again, much like the recent Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module. Even within the “purest” of fields, mathematics, Gauss was unwilling to publish his work on non-Euclidean geometry for fear of ridicule. This fear proved well-founded, as Lobachevsky was, indeed, to face ridicule for daring to publish work on non-Euclidean geometry.
This pattern of hostility to new thought proves that we cannot simply assume that the prevailing ideas of the time are the best. Much like advocates of Social Darwinism, advocates of Intellectual Darwinism fail to comprehend the structural constraints in a system they perceive to be perfectly competitive. The situation is more akin to a sapling trying to grow under a large tree; even if the sapling could potentially grow to be taller than the tree, it will not do so while the larger tree shades it and stunts its growth. It might, perhaps, be suitable to prune back some of the branches of the larger tree in order to see which sapling might grow tallest.
Building on this, it is difficult to see why a talented young economist who could potentially revolutionise the discipline would stay within it. Expensive degrees, vanishingly low wages for PhD tutors and few opportunities to meaningfully challenge the existing paradigm make the life of the next potential Smith, Marx, Keynes or Friedman a somewhat unappealing one, should they choose economic academia. Suffice to say, it is difficult to see why a rational utility-maximising individual would bother with trying to change economics.
Economics needs to change, and it cannot wait until the next great idea in order to do so. Without changing the discipline, we reduce the likelihood of that idea every coming into existence by driving its potential originators out of the discipline. Only by actively fostering debate and critical thinking, and going out of our way to ensure that orthodoxies can be challenged, do we ensure the survival and relevance of economics.
Whether we view economics as closer to a natural or social science, it is clear that we must learn from other disciplines. If it is to be viewed as akin to a social science, we must be mindful of the fact that paradigms in social sciences are allowed to compete and coexist, and that this complex interaction is a key part of the discipline itself. If, on the other hand, it is to be viewed as closer to a natural science, we must be mindful of the long and shameful history of silencing dissent within the natural sciences, and ensure that our paradigms can be effectively challenged.