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The Effortless Economy of Science?

Author(s):Mirowski, Philip
Reviewer(s):Boland, Lawrence

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Philip Mirowski, The Effortless Economy of Science? Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. v + 463 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3322-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence Boland, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.

This book is a collection of sixteen essays of which six were published in readily available journals and eight in collections. In addition to the Introduction, there is one original essay at the beginning. All of them will provide new evidence for Mirowski’s critics, particularly those who complain about his over-the-top style.

The common thread for the essays is that all are about heretics — starting with Mirowski himself. Readers with first-hand familiarity with the academic life of a heretic will easily appreciate these essays. The sub-theme for all of the essays is a challenge for the common view that in science there is a market place for ideas. The sub-theme is common place in so-called Science Studies and apparently even in some Philosophy of Science literature.

Much of this book will be familiar to readers of Mirowski’s previous books. But the focus throughout is what he calls the science-economics nexus. In his Machine Dreams that nexus concerns how modern economics is financially promoted by outside agencies such as the U.S. Air Force and Naval Research, etc. One could say that even though the economics of research matters, it is not a “market place of ideas” as some would claim, but (I would say) a competition for “shelf space.” As is well known in the grocery store business with the Pepsi-Coke wars, this is not really a case of perfect competition. Machine Dreams explains why the competition was not market-based and to a great extent rigged. The heretics discussed here were the ones unable to get shelf space and the question addressed is why.

The book is divided into five parts. In Part One, after an introduction that explains everything one needs to know about the essays, Mirowski begins by confessing to being an aging enfant terrible. In Part Two, he begins his critical examination of those who try to see science as a “market place of ideas” and other attempts to characterize science by using characterizations of society. The chief heretic to be examined is Michael Polanyi who is of primary interest because he explicitly tried to create an economics of science. Thomas Kuhn comes in for critical examination for his attempt to create a sociology of science, as does the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher who goes so far as to use neoclassical and game theory as a basis for characterizing social structure of science. Of particular concern is the apparent privatization of science which seems to be rendering ordinary academic science journals to be useless.

Part Three raises many questions concerning the na?ve presumptions of economists and social scientists about numbers and constants that they think can be found in natural sciences. One issue raised is that too often social scientists think that measurements involve a natural process when in fact even in physics the constants needed to establish measurements depend on the stability other alleged constants and thus can often be open to question. Part Four takes this into the common quantitative territory of econometrics. In particular, Mirowski takes on the proponents of Cliometrics and the na?ve presumptions of proponents of rational expectations, as well as others who equate neoclassical rationality with economic success. He provides evidence of a convincing counter-example to such presumptions. The more general questions involve when economists adopt the latest mathematical fad to model neoclassical economics without thinking things through. This discussion involves another heretic, Benoit Mandelbrot, a mathematician who understood the limits of mathematical model building.

Part Five strikes at the heart of neoclassical economics, the so-called Laws of Supply and Demand. The chief heretic here is William Thomas Thornton who was a friend of John Stuart Mill and yet was critical of the Laws of Supply and Demand and in particular the basic notion of such a thing as a demand or supply curve that is taken for granted in textbooks today. Armed with Thornton’s perspective, Mirowski turns to the obvious culprit, Alfred Marshall, whose presentation of demand and supply curves is the fountainhead of almost every neoclassical textbook. This part closes out with a consideration of historiographical questions that might be asked by a wise historian of science. The heretic here is Henry Ludwell Moore, who Mirowski argues began an empirical approach to economics that was intended to be a critique of Marshallian demand and supply analysis contrary to conventional wisdom. And in the last and most difficult chapter, the challenge for historians of economic thought is how they go about reconciling ordinary demand and supply analysis or market exchange analysis as a view of science with an alternate view that might see sciences as a “gift economy”.

An obvious audience for this book is all of the aspiring heretics out there who will find Chapter 1 to be particularly interesting. Obviously, it is a book that should be read by all true-believers in neoclassical economics. But since economics today is being taught as if it is a matter of catechism rather than critical thinking, there is probably not much hope. Surely, historians of thought can find a lot here to cause them to reconsider some sacred cows.

Lawrence Boland’s recent publications include Foundations of Economic Methodology: A Popperian Perspective, free PDF copies of his previous five books and many other publications can be found at www.sfu.ca/~boland.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative