Economics made fun

Yes, really. [amazon_link id=”1138902675″ target=”_blank” ]Economics Made Fun: Philosophy of Pop Economics[/amazon_link] edited by N Emrah Aydinonat and Jack Vromen is a collection of essays (previously published in the Journal of Economic Methodology) exploring the phenomenon of popular economics books. I have a short chapter in it, and along with Robert Frank represent the defenders of popularising economics.

[amazon_image id=”1138902675″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Economics Made Fun: Philosophy of the pop-economics[/amazon_image]

It’s fair to say most of the other contributors are critical, largely because they don’t like the version of economics that is being popularised. I’m not wild about all of it myself, particularly the [amazon_link id=”0141019018″ target=”_blank” ]Freakonomics [/amazon_link]version, which is often broader quantitative social science rather than economics, and does do Chicago-style economic imperialism/reductionism to the exclusion of all else.

In his essay Emrah Aydinonat also argues that the genre over-simplifies the research on which it’s based to a misleading extent, using the example of Peltzman’s research on the effect of compulsory seatbelts. The ‘fun’ version is that seatbelts encourage more reckless driving so might not save lives. Aydinonat suggests that a reading of the Peltzman paper indicates that this conclusion requires strong assumptions and rests on flawed data – it is a controversial paper.

This is interesting, but popularising necessarily requires simplification. I think the Peltzman example is a useful way to flag up the fact that regulations can and often do change behaviour, although of course it should be used carefully. And I don’t think many [amazon_link id=”0141030089″ target=”_blank” ]Freakonimists[/amazon_link] actually argue for abolishing seat belt laws, so they implicitly recognise this.

Anyway, as a populariser, I found [amazon_link id=”1138902675″ target=”_blank” ]these essays[/amazon_link] a bracing read; they won’t stop me trying to communicate economic research to the wider public. (And of course lots of thoroughly mainstream academic economists look down on popularising too!)

As social scientists, and particularly influential in public policy, it’s our responsibility to do so.

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