Re: poly: Econ, the final frontier...

From: Robin Hanson <>
Date: Tue Jan 06 1998 - 14:08:31 PST

Damien S. wrote (on 21 Dec 1997):
>... a few days ago I tried out on some friends Robin's puzzle
>of why people have emphatic opinions about economic and social issues
>they don't know much about, and not about physics issues. The response
>was the usual "Ha! What's to know about economics!" I then thought
>that I had very little idea of what was happening in economics; in
>physics I can at least hand-wave something about supertrings and
>11-dimensional M(embrane) theory. So perhaps I should go look at some
>journals. I did so, and eventually it was exciting. ...
>I hope this stimulates some new directions of discussion.

I'm delighted that Damien took the time to survey some recent economics
journals, but I could have told him that his summaries were unlikely
to generate much discussion here.

The sad fact is that most technical "polymaths" know next to nothing
about technical social science. You can talk with them about
number theory, complexity theory, astronomy, particle physics,
electronics, natural selection, viruses, computer languages, traffic
routing, war machines, space travel, etc. But beyond simple supply
and demand reasoning and some awareness of the prisoner's dilemna,
they just don't know much about technical social science.

Of course there are limits on how broad people can be, but I do find
it curious that so many people choose such similar bundles of topics
to be broad about. Part of the explanation is that many people are
not aware that there is a large and useful area of technical social

As an aside, many people have this odd impression that while there are
a bunch of people who use math in social science, they are a disjoint
group lost in formalism that has little relevant to say about real
social systems. But I think any one who, like Damien, surveys recent
issues of the major economics journals (AER, RES, QJE, JF, JPE, JET,
JLEO, JLS, ...) will come away with a very different impression.

Robin Hanson
RWJF Health Policy Scholar, Sch. of Public Health 510-643-1884
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 FAX: 510-643-8614
Received on Tue Jan 6 22:11:24 1998

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