Friday, January 17, 2014

"In the history of human thought, science has often come out of superstition. Astronomy came out of astrology. Chemistry came out of alchemy. What will come out of economics?"

     Bernard Lewis, as quoted by Helen Rittelmeyer in "Bloodless moralism," First things, February 2014, 36.
     But then, according to Brad S. Gregory, it was actually economics that, beginning in the late 13th century, gave rise to the mathematical precision of natural philosophy!
This mathematization of natural phenomena, which began in late thirteenth-century Paris and Oxford and was preoccupied with measurement, gradation, equilibrium, and the attempt to quantify qualities, derived significantly from the influences on natural philosophy of scholastic economic analysis that sought to comprehend an increasingly monetized world of exchange characterized by market practices
(The unintended Reformation:  how a religious revolution secularized society (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 39, citing Joel Kaye, Economy and nature in the fourteenth century:  money, market exchange, and the emergence of scientific thought (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998)).
     In any case, back to Rittelmeyer:  Only very rarely is First things anything even close to this funny:
"During the Cold War, especially its early stages, the books written in defense of the Soviet model fairly bristled with statistics. Wisely, the West's more effective defenders did not attempt to refute tractor-production figures from the Ukraine with tractor-production figures from Moline, Illinois. They made more fundamental points, like the difficulty of collecting accurate statistics in a police state, or the conclusiveness with which even accurate statistics are trumped by the brute fact of mass starvation. 
     "At a more Kirkian level of abstraction, there were such simple observations as: Our people are free, yours are not; we produce poetry, you produce propaganda; our cities are beautiful, yours are hideous. The equivalent arguments in the modern context might be (1) no amount of creative accounting will convince a sane person that you have made a money-saver out of a vast new entitlement like Obamacare; (2) no study could ever refute the fact that character is both a cause and a casualty of government-subsidized poverty; and (3) I will listen to econometricians as soon as you show me one that can write with more fluency than a high school sophomore" (38).

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