Railways and culture

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes is a history of the emergence of a common European culture in music, art and literature in the late 19th century, told mainly through a narrative about three people: leadingopera singer Pauline Viardot (no, me neither), her husband, manager and also expert on Spanish art and music Louis Viardot, and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who ended up in a menage a trois with the Viardots.

For me, though, rather than this domestic drama, the main attractions were the railways, the publishing techniques and business models, the intellectual property debates, the great exhibitions. All the splendid artistic creations rested on these physical and institutional structures. Some artists and novelists learned to market themselves effectively to ensure commercial success – Zola was one for example, while poor Turgenev was far less worldly. The book even tells of a 19th century superstar economics effect, driven by technology on the supply side and the emergence of mass demand on the demand side, Sherwin Rosen avant la lettre. The Franco-Prussian war started to break the shared culture, and of course the first half of the 20th century torpedoed it. The book is a cracking read.

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Big conversations

I met Vikas Shah when I was working at the University of Manchester (where he is an honorary prof in the business school) and among his many impressive characteristics was that in his spare time from being an entrepreneur and suporting voluntary organisations and engaging with the university, he had a website, Thought Economics, where he posted interviews he conducted with a huge range of people. What’s more, the interviews were always very thoughtful: he brought out the best in the many people he talked to. The list includes novelists (eg Elif Shafak), business people (eg Steve Ballmer), academics (eg Noam Chomsky), astronauts (Chris Hadfield), philanthropists (eg Melinda Gates), politicians (eg F W de Klerk) sportspeople, poets…. an amazing cast list. I was so impressed that Vikas had just started doing this out of interest simply by emailing people to ask if they’d take part.

Now he has brought out a book, Thought Economics, which pulls out themes from the interviews, such as identity, injustice, democracy, leadership. Each is divided into several questions posed to a number of respondents, such as ‘How does adversity shape who we are’, or ‘Are leaders born, not made?’ It’s a really interesting read, focused on the ideas not the personality, and giving the selected answers space to breathe. I commend the website – Nitin Sawhney and Nicola De Benedetti are recent interviewees, for instance – but the book is a great way of catching up with previous interviews.

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Experts and values

What is the scientific method? How does science advance? Why did modern science emerge when it did about 300 years ago? Will it continue? All questions addressed by Michael Strevens’ interesting and enjoyable The Knowledge Machine: How an Unreasonable Idea Created Modern Science.

The book begins by setting out two competing theories about the scientific method: Popper’s claim that scientific knowledge progresses through falsfication of hypotheses and Kuhn’s even more famous claim that it occurs through revolutionary changes in paradigm. These are incompatible explanations – if falsfication happened, how could scientists hold on to an incorrect paradigm – and both wrong, the book argues. The falsfication hypothesis not states that ‘facts’ are only tentatively true, always vulnerable to falsification – so we can be no more confident that the sun will rise today (Hume’s induction problem) than that a human born today will live forever. The paradigm revolution hypothesis seems to rule out progress or at least doesn’t account for why the scientific community jumps from one paradigm to another with better predictive power. Strevens is even more critical, though, of the radical subjectivists who argue that there is no scientific method, that science is fundamentally all about the status of scientists, how they exercise power within the scientific institutions so that certain ideas come to dominate.

It is not that scientists are not subjective, he says; of course they have personal priors in evaluating evidence. However, the key point is that in the official public discourse in scientific publications and seminars is that there is an iron rule: only empirical evidence with predictive power counts. The evidence will often be microscopic or concern minute differences in measurement: much scientific endeavour is super-dull, detailed collection of measurement. Scientists have to be trained to have a high tolerance for this painstaking work, because it is the only way progress happens – much as in their private lives they are fascinated by the big philosophical theories or the beauty of the universe. In scientific debate, “Victory does not come through smooth rhetoric, metaphysical inquiry, moralizing, or any other sort of sweet talking or big thinking. To win, players must front up with meticulous observations.” The subjectivists, the book argues, overlook this actual scientific method – which was cemented as the way to do science by Newton.

Is this immensely successful scientific method secure? The book ends with a section on the need to retrain every genertion of scientists in this approach – dull meticulousness in disciplinary debate whatever their private philosophical flights of fancy. And on the need to sustain the institution of modern science in the face of the challenges facing humanity today, from covid to climate.

It’s a very enjoyable book, with plenty of stories of science past and present. The argument certainly persuaded me. Economics differs substantially in that the social processes we investigate do not generate data in the same way as physical or biological ones, but the ideal method is the same: of course we bring our own values to evaluating evidence but it is the evidence that wins the official disciplinary debate. We cannot ultimately be objective and impartial but we can and should set objectivity as the standard for evaluating claims. So I recognised the book’s description of the iron rule as the way researchers (try to) operate. And similarly, I reject the subjectivism of those who say economics should be pluralistic – can only be so – because there is no way of testing claims against each other.

419TbK7hZPL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_My other reading this week has been Behold, America by Sarah Churchwell. Having been comforted by the arrival or President Biden, the book got me worried all over again about the long and strong roots of American fascism – shocking and startling photos of the swastika flying in Madison Square garden rallies. The book analyses the histories of the slogans America First and the American Dream – tracing the more-or-less constancy of the first (white supremacy) and the evolution of the second (from an evocation of equality and civic participation to a claim about material prosperity) through newspapers and other records. Along with this evidence about the persistence of populism, perhaps we should stay worried.

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My week in books

It’s been an eclectic mix of reading this week, as I plough on through this endless grey winter with a significant birthday approaching. First, Antonio Damasio’s Descartes Error. I’m completely unable to evaluate the argument, being no neuroscientist, but I find it very plausible. As the title suggests, the book argues against the Cartesian mind-body dualism, and furthermore proposes that emotions and reason are complements, not substitutes. Sense perceptions cause chemical and electrical circuits in the body which trigger emotional signals enabling reason to operate. Often unnoticed, sometimes these manifest as intuition or gut feelings. Adam Smith of The Moral Sentiments would surely have agreed. It made me wonder what we mean by artificial intelligence. Robots can have sensors, but not emotions: are they going to be like the kind of patients Damasio describes? Not a comforting thought.514GEC4ZTML._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Then it was Amin Maalouf’s Adrift, a sort of memoir and sort of reflection on how a moment when it looked like the world could be an open, tolerant sort of place has decisively passed. Growing up in the Lebanon, the author centres on the degeneration of that country and the wider Middle East as its vibrant cultural centres were overwhelmed steadily by factionalism and violence. But his gloom extends globally now. It reminded me of Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, a book that’s been much on my mind of late.

81cbNLhShWL._AC_UY436_QL65_Then, prompted by an enthusiastic tweet from a colleague, Michelle Murphy’s The Economization of Life. It’s a critique of the way economics counts people as aggregates and averages, drawing on the history of the links between US overseas aid and population control policies, with Bangladesh as the case study. Economists of the mid-20th century saw rapid population growth as the reason for the poverty trap, in a quasi-Malthusian, tainted-by-eugenicism way, Murphy argues. Population dynamics were modeled to ‘prove’ the problem, including the introduction of the idea of the demographic transition. This kind of thinking peaked with books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Time Bomb. Whatever the role played by intrusive aid policies aiming to control women’s and men’s fertility, the ‘transition’ has duly happened in most countries. Modern growth theories imply exactly the opposite, that more people means faster per capita growth because ideas come with people attached. Perhaps it’s the theory for our (western) population ageing and decline times. Anyway, the book was interesting despite its OTT rhetoric.

71aFfbkTSTL._AC_UY436_QL65_My book pile is a bit low – I’m hoping for some joy from the borthday sprite – although with proofs of Philippe Aghion’s The Power of Creative Destruction and Sam Gilbert’s Good Data to read before their April publication dates. Suggestions welcome!

412rqRRw6ULAnd meanwhile I’ve been revising the manuscript of my next book: it looks like Cogs and Monsters: Economics for the 21st Century will be out in the autumn.

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Is weird wonderful?

I’ve been slowly reading The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. Slowly because I’ve dipped into a reading group and that gave me an excuse to dawdle. And also because it’s one of those too-heavy-to-lift books that need an arrangement of cushions to read. Perhaps it’s because of this dilatory pace that I found myself decreasingly impressed by the book as I went on.

Or perhaps it’s because the freshest part of the argument is in the early sections, which document the different responses to psychology experiments from different kinds of people around the world and make the argument about the origins of the unusual ‘western’ psychology lying in the mediaeval Church’s prohibitions on kin marriage. Henrich callis it the ‘Marriage and Family Programme’, although doesn’t really explain where it came from. For those still unaware of the acronym, ‘weird’ stands for ‘western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic’. The book’s accumulation of evidence that there is a distinctive ‘weird’ psychology, correlated with the footprint of western Christianity, is reasonably persuasive – although it is far from obvious to me that an accumulation of individual experimental results and survey correlations of this kind amounts to decisive evidence. Many chapters are a list of: here’s one study in place X; here’s another at another time in place Y; then Z; and here are some scatter plots with regression lines.

The trouble is that the book then dissolves into a less convincing argument that this attitude to kin marriage – which drove people in the west to look for social relations and build trust outside their immediate clan – explains everything. My firm view is that history is over-determined and nothing has only one cause. As the chapters went by, the book more and more seems to be an amalgam of all those other Big Histories such as Guns, Germs and Steel, or Why the West Rules for Now. Inevitably, it has to engage with feedback loops. Having said that, highlighting the feedback loop between psychology and institutional change is interesting and productive.

And oh yes, one last point. There’s the implicit teleological determinism in Weirdest. It always refers to “development” in inverted commas, but there is a value judgment; the west has progressed more than the rest. Cast the argument forward and it’s another matter: will the west stay democratic and prosperous? Aren’t there worrying signs of family dynasties in the US and jobs (only) for mates in the UK (couldn’t one see Eton and Oxbridge as tribal?). Yet this sits oddly with the book’s avoidance of any explicit normative discussion. Is weird good? If it really does correlate with prosperous, surely yes? As a WEIRD person, I htink so.

I think it’s well worth a read, there’s plenty of food for thought and economics tends to underplay psychology and culture. But maybe wait for the paperback.

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