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Economics’ billiard-ball model

“The social extension of atomistic methods . . . is not, of course, really a scientific project at all, though it uses scientific language.  It is a distortion that tends to discredit the whole idea of science by exploiting it to draw dubious political and moral conclusions.  This distortion itself has become obvious over the very notion of an atom – the idea of an impenetrable, essentially separate unit as the ultimate form of matter.  We know that today’s physicists no longer use this billiard-ball model.  They now conceive of particles in terms of their powers and their interaction with other particles, not as inert separate objects.  The seventeenth-century idea of a world constructed out of ultimately disconnected units has proved to be simply mistake.  Instead, physicists now see many levels of complexity; many different patterns of connection.

At an obvious level it follows that we ought no longer to be impressed by social atomism, or by behaviourism, in the way that we once were.  We can see now that it cannot have been scientific to impose on social affairs a pattern which turns out to have been so inadequate for physics.  But the moral goes much deeper.  It is one that would still hold even if physics had not changed.  That moral is that, quite generally, social and psychological problems cannot be solved by imposing on them irrelevant patterns imported from the physical sciences, merely because they are seductively simple.”

Mary Midgley, p.7-8, Science and Poetry

  1. Rob
    September 16, 2019 at 2:11 am

    As economists aspire to be physicists, and political scientists to be economists, some humanists aspire to be anything but humanists. Economists suffer from “physics envy”; humanists experience “humanities embarrassment.” We see repeated attempts to overcome the merely human element and focus on something hard, scientific, digital, evolutionary, or at least objective, like the solidity of objects. The words on the page can be counted, their symbols catalogued, their devices exposed. The hoi polloi may fall in love with Anna Karenina or Mr. Darcy, but the textualists have gone beyond all that.

    But you can’t study something by removing what makes it what it is. This is a version of the fallacy of abstraction. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 214). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
    ~ ~ ~
    Behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks, “Wouldn’t it make sense to modify standard economics, to move it away from naive psychology (which often fails the test of reason, introspection, and—most important—empirical scrutiny)?” A humanist might suppose that empirical scrutiny would lead to examining the role of culture, even if doing so entailed surrendering scientific predictability. But behavioral economics does nothing of the kind. The model of a decision maker changes but remains just as acultural. And people remain just as predictable, as they would not be if something as complex as culture were taken into account.
    A humanist might identify a fallacy not limited to behavioral economists: what we call the fallacy of abstraction. The mistaken idea is that because cultures vary, nothing cultural can be essentially human. One can therefore understand what people essentially are by abstracting everything merely cultural from them. In the case of behavioral economics, we have a particular kind of fallacy of abstraction that might be called the fallacy of the abstract person. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 273). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

    Along the same line …

  2. ghholtham
    September 16, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Everybody seems to be searching for the ultimate scientific method or even “truth”. In the words of Damon Runyon we “are reduced to doing the best we can”. The billiard ball analogy in physics worked for a long time and is still adequate for some problems. It proved inadequate for others and new models and methods had to be invented. If you are playing billiards or pool it is quite good advice not to worry about quantum theory; you won’t find the cue ball in two places at once or exerting action at a distance. Similarly in social sciences individualism is inadequate for many questions and should be criticised when wrongly applied. For some questions it has been found illuminating. The British government was able to extract much more money in auctions of the radio spectrum, for example, by using game theory that supposed tendering companies were rational profit maximisers. To answer different questions about those same corporations it would be appropriate to treat them as coalitions of political operators with a range of objectives. We don’t have a theory of everything and the best approach to use depends on the question being put. Lars Sylls has complained about methodological eclecticism. I can see no other sane approach in economics/

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