Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Derp genera

I put up a joke post about various schools of economics. However, in all honesty the whole idea of "schools of thought" is ridiculous. It happens in fields like politics (e.g.), literary criticism or philosophy because there is no measurable data that allows you to accept or reject ideas. Therefore ideas just proliferate -- and therefore only organizing principle is taxonomy. Basically, we have evolutionary trees with a school being like a genus. In science, the organizing principles are frameworks: evolution, quantum field theory, statistical mechanics. Since ideas cannot be rejected in philosophy, frameworks (things capture the information in previous rejected ideas) cannot be built.

Additionally, all schools of thought in literary criticism or philosophy are in a Bayesian sense effectively derp. Since you cannot reject them, their priors are effectively infinitely strong.

So why does it happen in economics? There's lots of things to measure and lots of data. Check out FRED: there are 383,000 easily downloadable time series.

So here's my theory of schools of economic thought: each school is a derp genus.

Since derp cannot be rejected, the only organizing principle is taxonomy. Therefore we get names like "post Keynesianism", "market monetarism" or "MMT" and pictures like this:


I think adopting this terminology ("school" = "derp genus") would really help discourse. Simply replacing the words "post Keynesian economics" and "market monetarist" with "an economic derp genus" would be not only a good marker (like the bright colors of poisonous species), but might actually help the members of various derp genera realize they are peddling derp. We could easily recognize whatever comes next has never been compared to empirical data -- and never will be because the priors are too strong.

12 comments:

  1. Lol!... OK, now you're poking with a stick. If I were a betting man, I'd give it about (1e-4)% chance that "derp genus" will widely replace "economic school of thought" anytime in the next 50 years. Interesting point about taxonomy though. I'd never thought of that. I see John Handley has a response on his blog as well (concerning your "joke post").

    And of course now I really want to hear your views on Austrians (and all their sub-genera: i.e. "internet Austrians," Rothbardians, Hyakians, and George Mason-ites) should you ever get spun up on what they're up to. And Marxists, and mercantilists too maybe (I wonder if any of the candidates' economic policies could be described as neo-mercantilism?). And perhaps this guy (Mike Sproul).

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  2. "I put up a joke post about various schools of economics. However, in all honesty the whole idea of "schools of thought" is ridiculous. It happens in fields like politics (e.g.), literary criticism or philosophy because there is no measurable data that allows you to accept or reject ideas."

    Sometimes I wonder if you forget that economics is a social science...

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    1. That gives me an idea for a post!

      What do you mean by "economics is a social science"? What does this admonition mean for you?

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    2. For me science is the way to figure out how reality works. If that's not what you're after, science may not be a good choice. I personality don't see why a social science should be fundamentally different, but then what do I know? Not much.

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    3. The reason they must be different (and I'm saying this as someone who elsewhere is as draconian an empiricist as Jason) is that the data can't falsify economic models; quantitative research in economics is basically a waste of time. For a more complete argument, read my blog post or my comment on Jason's recent post.

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    4. I think Tom got in the way of my question to you John:


      What do you mean by "economics is a social science"?
      What does this admonition mean for you?


      Is it that "data can't falsify economic models"? I had considered that as an answer to my question, but not the answer I thought you'd give.

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    5. I'm content with Wikipedia's definition of social science: "Social science is ... concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society."

      I would argue that, because economics deals with human behavior, it must be a social science, which I think follows from my (Wikipedia's) definition.

      This, in my opinion, puts economics in a grey area between science and philosophy (not quite sure that philosophy is right here, but I'll keep going with it). To a certain extent, there is no real way to invalidate economics models, but this is more of an issue about the inherent lack of a closed system than anything else. I guess the point is that in, e.g., Biology, it is possible to isolate a dependent and independent variable and therefore prove a hypothesis (right along with Hume, and probably Popper, but I've only as of yet read Hume) whereas this really can't be done with economics.

      In this way, economics should be somewhere between, to use one of your examples, literary criticism and [insert desired physical science] in terms of numbers of schools of thought, which it is. That being said, I think that neither Austrian economics nor PK have a right to exist, but that's probably mostly because of my bias as a card carrying member of mainstream economics.

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  3. Jason, was this post on derp genera at all inspired by the link that Noah Smith provided in his grade of King-of-the-World candidate Yudkowsky? ... I was just reading it... and I had a "strong prior" about what was coming when I saw that "alternative terminology" was a link in this bit:

    "While incredibly strong priors are technically rational in the Bayesian sense, people in the Pan-Galactic Imperial Court have been hesitant to label this approach as "Reasonable," after the fashion of the Earth planetary internet. We have, however, employed certain alternative terminology."

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  4. Three proposed additions to your list of fields: theology and law are organized by taxonomy. And then the obvious one: taxonomy itself. (Personally, I'm for giving taxonomy a pass ... it says what it's up to right there in its name)

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