Home > RWER > Seeking short summaries of major works in economics

Seeking short summaries of major works in economics

from Edward Fullbrook

In 2014 one post on this blog was viewed more than twice as many times as any other post, nearly ten thousand.  It is Asad Zaman’s Summary of the Great Transformation by Polanyi.  Although it was posted back in late 2013, it continues to attract viewers at a rate that every month places it in the ten most viewed posts, and in recent months its download rate has even been growing.

So how do we account for the extraordinary success of Zaman’s post?   Part of the credit is due of course to the quality of Zaman’s writing and to his reputation.  But surely there is more to it than that, and three possibilities have occurred to me.  One, which I reject, is that it is the name Polanyi which attracts so many readers.  Another is that a network of links has been created leading people, most likely students, to Zaman’s post.  But after examining extensive site data I have found no evidence that such links exist.  A third possibility, and the one in which I am inclined to believe, is that it is the idea of a short (blog-post-length) summary of a famous work that attracts the readers and which lends itself to discovery through search engines. I can see how this might especially be appealing to students who education is structured to not only keep them away from all primary sources, but also to deny them direct summaries of important works.

So banking on the third explanation, I am extending a broad invitation.  I would like over the coming year for the RWER Blog to publish a series of short (750 words or less) summaries of famous works in economics.  Initially at least, I am interested in publishing only one such summary per work. So if you are interested in writing one, you should first clear the possibility with me at pae_news@btinternet.com.

If over the coming year we establish a small library of these major work summaries, then there is a good chance that network effects will lead to download rates for individual summaries that exceed that of Zaman’s Polanyi to date.

  1. Dave Raithel
    December 31, 2014 at 1:24 am

    This is excellent!!! I promise to read every one of them, serious as a heart attack. Had to look to make sure I had seen the Zaman on Polanyi. Reminded me I heard the woman on NPR today re exploding oil tankers moving Bakken oil: Well, the railroad was here first, it was the town that grew up around it…[and those who heard the story also know the woman’s child was not so …ambivalent.]

  2. December 31, 2014 at 7:06 am

    The recent controversy on scientific methodology led me to the realization that although Kuhn’s terminology of paradigm shifts has become very popular, many have not absorbed the deep implications of his work about the nature of science, and its relation to the Truth. I am therefore now planning to write a short summary of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

  3. Paul Schächterle
    December 31, 2014 at 10:05 am

    It would be great if someone could do Popper’s “The logic of scientific discovery”.

  4. wilsyson
    December 31, 2014 at 10:45 am


    Your “Deification of Science in Economics” article stated clearly and correctly that mathematics is not science.

    Indeed economics is not science because it has theories, and more recently mathematical theories, which are not based on facts, either in its axioms or in its deductions. Economists have confused mathematical theories (neoclassical) and semi-mathematical theories (Keynesian, neo-Keynesian, post-Keynesian) with scientific theories.

    The empirical side of economics in econometrics is concerned with statistical inference which is a form of induction. But it is known that knowledge derived purely from induction has many pitfalls. But to identify empiricism only with induction is a serious error. Empiricism is primarily about facts. Induction is only one method of searching for truths suggested by facts. It alone is insufficient to create science.

    Because economics has never merged the theoretical and deductive with the empirical
    and inductive, it has never been a science, because its theories ignore facts, which are basis of empiricism. Two legs of theory and empiricism are both needed to walk, neither one is sufficient. You said correctly:

    Neither of these two distinct approaches is applicable to “social science”.

    I would say more explicitly “Neither of these two distinct approaches alone is applicable to science”, because science requires both these two approaches working together. Indeed, in a letter to Keynes, Marshall wrote : “You talk of the inductive & the deductive methods: whereas I contend that each involves the other…”

    Therefore, it is not possible to deify something which does not exist, as economic science does not exist. For a more detailed discussion see:



    Popper has never actually practised science. (There are many things you can only learn by doing.) Like most philosophers, he has got some things right, but also a lot wrong, e.g “scientific theories are universal statements”.

  5. blocke
    December 31, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I have problems with this suggestion. The people mentioned are not economists but philosophers of science, natural science. So the investigators have not only to discuss the the usefulness of a Popper or a Kuhn as insight into scientific development but try to do so within the context of economics about whose validity as a scientific project natural scientists have considerable doubt. My own experience has been that economic theory has not only provided little access to an understanding of the real world, but if imbibed, actually creates structural obstacles in the mind that hinders an investigator’s inquiry into actuality. So beware of theory. Only approach it after having done lots of work on an actual problem.

    • Paul Schächterle
      December 31, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Well they are only texts. You can read them or not.

      Also whether Kuhn and Popper discuss matters only applicable to the natural sciences or matters applicable also to other scientific disciplines can only be assessed after having read their texts.

      I agree that economics (as it is done today, mostly neoclassical theory) has produced little insight into the real world. But that is not caused by economics imitating the natural sciences. Neoclassical theory does not imitate the natural sciences at all. Indeed they probably fail the test of being a scientific theory in the sense of Popper’s concept of falsifiability.

      • blocke
        January 1, 2015 at 10:51 am

        “So beware of theory. Only approach it after having done lots of work on an actual problem.”

        What I like about Asad’s work is that he brings to it a lot of knowledge from outside the Western World, in which most of economic the theory has been developed. That is what I mean when I said approach theory after having done lots of work on actual problems. Especially if this knowledge of the actual is outside the experiences of the English speaking-world, and its peculiar traditions; then one has a knowledge base with which to test theory. It is certainly ok to read theory but economists need to study at the same time the real, and particularly, the non Anglo-Saxon world.

      • Paul Schächterle
        January 1, 2015 at 11:11 am

        “So beware of theory. Only approach it after having done lots of work on an actual problem.”
        I fully agree.
        B.t.w. That was my argument in the discussion with Egmont Kakarot-Handke. I said: It is good to use logic, quantitative logic if possible, but first you have to do a lot of work, a lot of observation, reasoning, thinking, to get to a reasonable model. Without having done a lot of work on the problem you are just guessing, arm-chair theorizing.
        I also agree that discussions of people with different cultural backgrounds (country, class, gender, whatever) help a lot not to get narrow-minded. That is particularly important in economics because people who have experienced different economic situations or economic restraints have a more complete view of – economic situations.

  6. December 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    The story of economics and scientific methodology is quite complex — I have discussed it very briefly in  “Is Scientific Methodology Axiomatic”  on WEA Pedagogy Blog. Very briefly, in early twentieth century, Logical Positivism became the dominant philosophy, and led to a complete misunderstanding regarding the nature of science and scientific methodology. The Social Sciences, seeking to acquire the respect accorded to Physical Sciences, adopted this positivist MIS-understanding of scientific methodology and built it into the foundation of methodology for social sciences. Even though positivism has long been rejected, the methodological foundations for economics and econometrics have not been revisited, I have traced the consequences for econometrics in my paper: Methodological Mistakes and Econometric Consequences.:

  7. Bruce E. Woych
    December 31, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Asad Zaman’s Summary of the Great Transformation by Polanyi as a #1 revisited post may well indicate that “substantivism” appeals more to the 99% of people than formalism. Perhaps the forest for the trees is an appropriate analogy?

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