From a recent blog posting by economist Brad DeLong, entitled The State of Economics in the 2000s Analogized…:
But I think there also has to be an explanation in terms of the sociology of academic disciplines. And in that light, it seems to me that if I were a journalist, I’d consider writing a piece comparing freshwater economics to the other major recent case in which an academic discipline went completely off the rails, namely English departments’ swing into postmodernism in the ’80s and early ’90s. Offhand, there seem to be some real similarities, e.g.:
- In both cases, the people involved maintained, credibly, that you couldn’t really assess the work in question without putting a lot of effort into understanding it.
- In both cases, that required mastering difficult stuff. (In econ, all the math and models; in pomo lit stuff, mastering the literally incomprehensible language in which a lot of that stuff was written.)
- In both cases, that deterred a lot of people on the outside who were generally puzzled and skeptical, but didn’t want to spend years getting into a position in which they could credibly say: yes, this is, in fact, nuts.
- So in both cases practitioners were largely insulated from criticism they had to take seriously.
Relatedly, in both cases it took shocks from the outside to expose the problems in this (in the case of English, things like the Sokal hoax; in the case of econ, the near-collapse of the global economy.)
Both cases involved a lot of arrogance, and a generally dismissive attitude towards other approaches. Since, in both cases, practitioners were able to seize significant amounts of control over a discipline before their approach crashed and burned, this did real damage to the disciplines in question (leading to, e.g., large chunks of previous disciplinary history being forgotten.)
In the last sentence DeLong identifies clearly what is most sad and disturbing about this kind of story.
Update: As a commenter points out, the text quoted is from DeLong’s blog, but is not his own words, he’s quoting someone else.
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