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The Effortless Economy of Science?

The Effortless Economy of Science?

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A leading scholar of the history and philosophy of economic thought, Philip Mirowski argues that there has been a top-to-bottom transformation in how scientific research is organized and funded in Western countries over the past two decades and that these changes necessitate a reexamination of the ways that science and economics interact. Mirowski insists on the need to bring together the insights of economics, science studies, and the philosophy of science in order to understand how and why particular research programs get stabilized through interdisciplinary appropriation, controlled attributions of error, and funding restrictions.

Mirowski contends that neoclassical economists have persistently presumed and advanced an “effortless economy of science,” a misleading model of a self-sufficient and conceptually self-referential social structure that transcends market operations in pursuit of absolute truth. In the stunning essays collected here, he presents a radical critique of the ways that neoclassical economics is used to support, explain, and legitimate the current social practices underlying the funding and selection of “successful” science projects. He questions a host of theories, including the portraits of science put forth by Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn. Among the many topics he examines are the social stabilization of quantitative measurement, the repressed history of econometrics, and the social construction of the laws of supply and demand and their putative opposite, the gift economy. In The Effortless Economy of Science? Mirowski moves beyond grand abstractions about science, truth, and democracy in order to begin to talk about the way science is lived and practiced today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822333227
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/21/2004
Series: Science and Cultural Theory Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 472
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Philip Mirowski is Carl Koch Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. Among his books are Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science; More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics; and Science Bought and Sold: Essays in the Economics of Science (coedited with Esther-Mirjam Sent).

Read an Excerpt

The Effortless Economy of Science?

By Philip Mirowski

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8564-6


Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible

How This Essay Works

Anyone who has kept up with literary theory over the past two decades would probably quail at the idea that simple, heartfelt apologiae pro vitis suis chronicle success in any walk of life, and would deny most emphatically that they play any pedagogical role in academe. I myself have been very much taken with some work done on the genre of the autobiography, subgenre vindication (Furbank 1993; Sturrock 1993). Briefly, and crudely, there are two classes of autobiography: let us call them the Academy Award Speech and the Adventures of a Self-Made Man. In the first, you are put at great pains to thank everyone from your kindergarten teacher to your shrink for their wonderful communal effort in bringing you to the brink of success and recognition; all hints of envy and struggle and despair and randomness are banished in a warm diffusion bath of responsibility and self-congratulation. Morals are of course drawn, but they inevitably verge on the platitudinous. Sitting through even one of such testimonials immediately makes clear that this genre will never be art. At best it can be of minor interest to those who will construct our narrative histories after we are gone.

And then there are autobiographies of the second class, those more substantial Confessions, from Augustine to Rousseau to de Quincey to Hobson to Verlaine to Richard Rorty: the ones that to varying degrees can be elevated to the status of art. Here the pattern is decidedly different. The topos is the story of someone fearlessly opting out of staid convention and the fellow feeling of mankind to wander in the wilderness and, with success, to return preaching strange and novel doctrines. Intrinsic to the narrative is the conviction that the author is self-made or self-taught (men write these much more often than women: feminists, take note!). "They are likely to tell us of some turn in their experience when they were thrown back on their own resources (like Descartes, alone in his stove-heated room) ... rendering them unsociable for the moment, with a need one day to make their terms again with humankind ... As a class, they have a tendency to megalomania ... For all their self-castigation and earnest proclamations of indebtedness, [these] autobiographers are an arrogant and autarkic bunch" (Furbank 1993, 6).

Economists, it seems, inevitably find themselves torn between these two genres. Insofar as they are wont to be satisfied team players (not to mention eager to reinforce their reputations as dull and dismal souls), they should opt for the first narrative, pretending that there are uncontentious transpersonal rules and an orderly structure to their discipline, a functional meritocracy of incremental normal science. Yet however much this would seem to be the harsh imperative of academic etiquette (Hamermesh 1992), economists' own social theories tell them that this communal conception of social life is bunk, that everything law-governed springs directly from individual consciousness, that the lonely genius is the only real fount of innovation, and that aggressive self-promotion is the law of the jungle. The commonplace fallback of a competitive "marketplace of ideas" best captures this latter temptation among economists to apply their own theories to their own economistic lives, with the coda that the inevitable reintegration into the society of scholars comes in the stylized format of chastened, vanquished opponents humbly acknowledging the prophet's property and ideas as coin of the realm.

I couldn't possibly produce a plausible version of either narrative; I just can't summon sufficient faith in either genre, much less the requisite enthusiasm. Because I am not a product of a successful socialization into the economics profession, lots of things that economists say strike me as funny. The idea that we are paid according to our marginal productivity, for instance, is risible; the suggestion that an economy "overheats" is a richly wrought satire. The doctrine that the market maximizes the freedom of a set of agents identical in all relevant respects is a joke worthy of Nietzsche. At the University of Michigan, where I did my graduate degree, the people who worked in the econometric forecasting unit used to call tinkering with unsatisfactory predictions "adding the bump constants." These are fine as harmless entertainments, but turn to ashes in my mouth when I am forced to render an account of my own life.

I have resisted becoming integrated into the "normal science" practices of the discipline, and I know that this sedition has been one common thread connecting the diverse areas within which I have labored. Others sense this instinctively: I am frequently reprimanded in print for my style and tone; some of my teachers in graduate school warned me ominously that I would not fit in; and fellow faculty at Yale cautioned graduate students to keep an assured clear distance from any of my projects while I was a visiting professor there. Economists from outside Notre Dame conspired to segregate me and other heterodox colleagues in a ghetto sequestered from a newly formed neoclassical department while I was there. Now, in retrospect, I can appreciate the kernel of wisdom in all this unsolicited advice. The ingrained stodginess of the social structures of science does serve certain cognitive functions. The most immediate is fostering the feeling of being a part of something larger than oneself. Asking me now to write on how I feel about economics journals is like asking a lamppost to write a memoir on dogs. But the alternate narrative portrayal of myself as a Nietzschean Übermensch, performing the magic trick of conjuring myself out of thin air, or even more incongruously, the idea that some of my writings have somehow become valorized in the marketplace of ideas, is just ludicrous. Anyone who had actually read any of my other stuff would immediately have detected an inauthentic note from page one.

One consequence of my scrambled sense of identity has been an attempt to understand myself as a product of my age by understanding economics as a product of the social conditions of its production. This may sound like an impossibly misplaced motivation, rather like trying to understand Mozart by studying Freemasonry, or to take the comparison down a notch, Charles Manson by studying the lyrics of the Beatles. Perhaps a surfeit of incredulous reactions will one day convince me of that fact. Yet until that day dawns, I will continue to be taken with the notion that philosophical discourse is a species of veiled autobiography, "the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown" (Nietzsche 1966, 13). Thus, when I read confident, imperious declarations by economists –for example, that children are consumer goods, or that countries in the Third World should be dumping grounds for toxic industrial wastes since life is cheap there, or that no sound economist would oppose NAFTA, or that some price completely reflects all relevant underlying fundamentals in the market, or that magnetic resonance imaging locates the seat of utility in the brain, or that no credible theorist could recommend anything but a Nash equilibrium as the essence of rationality in a solution concept–I do not see an occasion to dispute the validity of the economists' assumptions of their "models"; rather, for me, I see an opportunity to investigate the conditions which allow such classes of statements to pass muster, as a prelude to understanding what moral presuppositions I must evidently hold dear, given that I find them deeply disturbing. However unpopular it may be, I find it hard to understand economics as anything other than a subset of moral philosophy, even though this definition of "philosophy" awaits explication. Thus, by learning about economists and their peccadillos, I learn about myself; discovering how these things work helps me understand How I Work.

"I'm an economist. I don't think in historical terms."–Polish government official, on the erstwhile "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour"

The separation of "is" from "ought," the positive from the normative, is of course the byword of our stridently secular discipline. I am perfectly well aware that political economy traces its lineage out of moral philosophy, essentially renouncing the terms of that earlier discourse in favor of the instrumentalist terminology of Science in order to assert its novel identity as "economics." For most of my colleagues, this reality dictates that the language and concepts of moral philosophy are an anathema, the province of confused claims and counterclaims. Although they might differ as to whether it happened in 1776 or 1838 or 1870 or 1944, at some juncture economics attained its status as a science and forswore moral philosophy.

My little epiphany, which occurred quite early in my career, was to decide that I should provisionally accept the economists' ukase regarding philosophy, and follow them part of the way into their kingdom of preferred legitimacy, namely Science. This did not mean for me, as it did for so many of them, starting off with a degree in physics or engineering or mathematics; nor did it imply direct recourse to the self-conscious philosophy of science or its bastard offspring in economics, "methodology." Rather, it meant following my own prior inclinations to learn some history of science and history of economics. In this quest, I was fortunate to be encouraged by a few open-minded individuals along the way: Warren Samuels, Gavin Wright, and Lawrence Sklar.

Because this sounds like such a prescription for disaster in modern economics, I want to stress that the whole thing was not the result of some decision-theory calculation on my part.

I was only dimly aware in the early 1970s that an interest in intellectual history was tantamount to career suicide in academic economics, though things certainly have got worse in the interim. I acted simply out of curiosity. I would never counsel anyone else to follow me in this respect, because that career path no longer exists. However intemperate, I have never been able to accept the definition of "economic science" prevalent among my colleagues. It has remained my practice down to the present day to do at least a third of all my reading well outside of economics, both in the natural sciences and in literature, and further, to sporadically read randomly, trusting my instincts and keeping copious notebooks in order to trace my way back to any particular node. In a world where it is cute to think that the only famous Ricardo was the second banana on the "Lucy" show, but getting the Euler equation wrong is grounds for getting you booted from the profession, imputing rationality to my actions would be a shameless whitewash. Sometimes I wonder the extent to which my younger self was conscious of living in the material world.

Once I had gained a fair grounding in the history of physics (having also had a few courses in the area), I began to discern a repetitive set of invocations of Science among various economists, and then my ear became attuned to some of their ambivalences and ambages along the way. Luckily, I was living through an era in which belief in any context-independent Scientific Method was being unsentimentally deconstructed, so I did not have to take the various economists' characterizations at face value. I began to understand how their dependence upon Science was inextricably time bound, and further, the astounding degree to which these economists would persistently confuse imitation of the trappings of physics (or lately, biology) with privileged access to the ontological heart of the economy. I still marvel at the extent that economists openly pride themselves on living in the material world, when they are mostly surrounded by shadows in their own private cave.

Once I had become convinced of the pervasive character of this dependence upon diverse meanings of "science," I became more and more excited, like Borges in his Library of Babel; so many of the things about economics which had nettled and disturbed me now had a context and a frame, inviting detailed clarification through comparison of the history of the sciences. Just one product of this reconfiguration of the history of economics which has subsequently attained some notoriety is my argument (1989b) that the "Marginalist Revolution" of the 1870s was no discovery, but rather a fairly straightforward appropriation of the energetics movement of the mid-nineteenth century, with utility being the direct analogue of potential energy, prices the analogue of forces, and the budget constraint a deformed version of kinetic energy. While some readers misunderstood the message of More Heat Than Light as "economics copied physics and that's patently wrong," others have seen that I tried to explore what it is that makes certain metaphors and their attendant special mathematics work in some disciplines and fail miserably in others. Images of physics must be separated out from real physics; children's fairy tales about the scientific method must be distinguished from the historical practices of real scientists; images of a generic mathematical rigor must be distinguished from mathematical arguments in action. Other examples of the use (and misuse) of physical and biological concepts in diverse areas of economics were the subject of an inaugeral conference of my chair at Notre Dame, the proceedings of which have been published (1994b). The shock waves of the wartime genesis of the computational sciences and their consequences for the rise of the American neoclassical orthodoxy have been recounted in Machine Dreams (2002).

It has been difficult not to let this excavation of physical metaphors come to usurp my entire research life, since it has opened up so many new questions and areas of inquiry. Indeed, I am heartened to observe that some others have seen fit to take up the gauntlet, as is evident from Rob Leonard's exploration of the role of structuralism in game theory, Bruce Caldwell's inquiry into the role of the computer in the socialist calculation controversy, Geoff Hodgson's fine-grained explication of the metaphor of biological evolution in a number of economists, Roy Weintraub's demonstration of the importance of Alfred Lotka and E. B. Wilson for the evolution of the neoclassical stability literature, Michael White's unpacking of the meaning of equilibrium in Jevons, Abu Rizvi's connection of British psychophysics to modern doctrines on the nonrecoverability of neoclassical preferences, Tinne Kjeldsen's clarification of the rise of the Kuhn-Tucker theorem, Esther-Mirjam Sent's exploration of the importance of artificial intelligence for Tom Sargent's and Herbert Simon's peregrinations, and Paul Christensen's detailed exposition of the importance of Quesnay's training as a surgeon for his innovation of the concept of the circulation of value. But as Arjo Klamer has written in his contribution to the Natural Images volume, this work has yet to get much beyond the stage of "Look, Ma–a metaphor!" Certainly no one else has felt the force of this observation more than I. As someone who has gone on record as skeptical of the McCloskeyesque version of a "rhetorical program" in economics, I have come to appreciate how effortlessly this work might be shrugged off by a profession contemptuous of its own history, overtly hostile to philosophy, smug in the trappings of academic success, ready to absorb any intellectual challenge as an analytical special case, and quick to hurl accusations of the genetic fallacy at any of these scholars wishing to reopen consideration of the meanings of Science in practice. This standoff has nudged me ever closer to the discipline of "Science Studies," as the present volume attests.


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Table of Contents

Part One From Economics to Science Studies 1

Introduction: Cracks, Hidden Passageways, and False Bottoms: The Economics of Science and Social Studies Economics 3

1. Confessions of an Aging Enfant Terrible 37

Part Two Science as an Economic Phenomenon 51

2. On Playing the Economics Card in the Philosophy of Science: Why It Didn’t Work for Michael Polanyi 53

3. Economics, Science, and Knowledge: Polanyi versus Hayek 72

4. What’s Kuhn Got to Do with It? 85

5. The Economic Consequences of Philip Kitcher 97

6. Re-engineering Scientific Credit in the Era of Globalized Information Economy 116

Part Three Rigorous Quantitative Measurement as a Social Phenomenon 145

7. Looking for Those Natural Numbers: Dimensionless Constants and the Idea of Natural Measurement 147

8. A Visible Hand in the Marketplace of Ideas: Precision Measurement as Arbitrage 169

Part Four Is Econometrics an Empirical Endeavor? 193

9. Brewing, Betting, and Rationality in London, 1822-1844: What Econometrics Can and Cannot Tell Us about Historical Actors 195

10. Why Econometricians Don’t Replicate (Although They Do Reproduce) 213

11. From Mandlebrot to Chaos in Economic Theory 229

12. Mandelbrot’s Economics after a Quarter-Century 251

13. The Collected Economic Works of William Thomas Thornton: An Introduction and Justification 273

14. Smooth Operator: How Marshall’s Demand and Supply-Curves Made Neoclassicism Safe for Public Consumption but Unfit for Science 335

15. Problems in the Paternity of Econometrics: Harry Ludwell Moore 357

16. Refusing the Gift 376

Notes 401

References 427

Index 459

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