Intelligent Design, Austrian Economics, and Mainstream Academia

Advocates of Intelligent Design theory frequently complain that they are being shut out of mainstream biology. Advocates of Austrian economics frequently complain that they are being shut out of mainstream economics.

Whereas I am perfectly comfortable saying that all IDers are kooks and should be kept as far away as possible from teaching or publishing anything to do with mainstream science, I am not as willing to say the same about Austrians. Why?

One of the main differences is that Austrians--when they do good work--can get published in mainstream journals, even when the content of what they are writing about is thoroughly Austrian, whereas IDers cannot get ID "scholarship" published in mainstream scientific journals. I think Milton Friedman had it right: There is no such thing as Austrian economics (if understood as entirely separate from neoclassical economics); there is only good economics and bad economics.

I don't see the difficulty Austrians have in dealing with neoclassical economists as necessarily a bad thing. I think the Austrians at NYU and GMU--Pete Boettke representing--are doing just fine getting their work published and accepted by others. The folks at Mises Institute like to portray Austrian and neoclassical as an Us vs. Them sort of thing, where never the twain shall meet. That may be great for funding purposes, portraying the LvMIers as the lone libertarian truthseekers in a world where Chicago School economists are "worse than Communists" and "intellectual criminals" and other Hoppean claptrap, but it's not a great way to get published or to influence the mainstream. I certainly wouldn't want to be called worse than a Communist or an intellectual criminal if I was an academic gatekeeper deciding whether or not to hirer or publish someone.

I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, and that's exactly what Intelligent Design and the LvMI-flavor of Austrian economics depend upon. They both depend upon believing in an academic conspiracy that is intentionally keeping them out of mainstream circles, not because of truth, but because of an irrational bias in favor of atheism or statism, respectively. It's a lot easier to believe it's just a function of bad scholarship: when ID is packed up in decent philosophical wrappings, it gets published in respected philosophy journals (see Plantinga), and when Austrian economics is packed in decent non-hostile LvMI wrappings, devoid of methodenstreit ramblings, it gets published in respected economics journals.

The Kuhnian explanation of science as it is practiced has obvious advantages to an alternative free-for-all that allows any and all-comers to challenge and dispute the basic building blocks of a research paradigm. Without a consistent set of internal rules, interests, goals, terminology, and styles, academic disciplines cannot get very far, because every use of a technical term would need to be immediately followed by a definition and a defense of the underlying epistemological assumptions inherent in that term.

This sort of activity of definition and justification is perfectly fine and appropriate for certain purposes - introductory texts, interdisciplinary work, and the philosophy behind the discipline itself. But when doing actual science, economics, or whatever, having to reinvent and rejustify the invention of the wheel each and every time a wheel needs to be mentioned is not likely to lead to productive results.

ID has failed to convince those working within the existing scientific paradigm that it even rises to the level of competing scientific theory. IDers should be--and are--free to create their own journals, found their own academic publishing houses, and even try to submit their methodological arguments to philosophy of science journals. But don't expect actual scientists to willingly let them sabotage the day-to-day practice of science, any more than expect the Catholic Church to hire Richard Dawkins to participate in its inner workings of policy and dogma.

[inspired by discussion from this thread]

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The selection process of modern economists

If you want to have faith in the building blocks of a research paradigm, you need examine the process by which those blocks were selected.

In pre-1900, ( and for centuries before that), conventional wisdom held that the gold standard was the only stable way to run an economy, and that fiat money inevitably led to inflation and economic ruin.

In the 1930's we had a disastrous depression. There were several explanations for it.

Monetarists noted that the countries that left the gold standard soonest, ended the depression soonest. They also observed that the depression correlated with an enormous destruction of the money supply, and inflationary policies could prevent this. Keynesians noted that Roosevelt spent a lot more money than Hoover, and that the depression lessened under Roosevelt. They came up with a theory that government spending could get a country out of a depression.

Austrians pointed out that every other single president had been far less interventionist than both Hoover and Roosevelt, and previous recoveries had come far quicker. They also noted that under the Federal Reserve system set up in 1913, the gold standard was a sham. There were far more dollars in existence than gold to back it. The way to prevent depressions is to not subsidize reckless credit expansion.

From the 1930's to 1950 the federal government was run by progressives who 1) wanted to spend money 2) wanted to inflate the currency to make government debts more manageable. Also at this time, the government began massive funding toward the university system, created the modern grant process, and created the IMF and World Bank (with lots of jobs for economists).

The Keynesian and Monetarist views won out. This may have been because they won a battle of ideas. Or it might have been that the state is naturally going to promote the ideas that justify the actions that the state wishes to take. In this case, the fact that the bulk of economists at state funded institutions tend towards statist economic policies, says nothing about whether those policies are correct.

Also note that any profession wants to raise the barriers of entry to that profession. Doctors want to restrict the number of med students, architects want to require more years of training, police officers want to make the academy entrance tests more difficult. Economists have tended towards insanely complex mathematical models. The track record of these models has been abysmal. Yet they are popular because they are difficult for outsiders to criticize and tremendously raise the barriers of entry. A professor has never been fired for being wrong about the economy, but it is difficult to get published unless you fill your paper with high level math. The selection process is simply not correlated with being correct.

You don't need a conspiracy theory to understand why Austrian economics could be unpopular even if it was right. You just need to follow the old adage, "He who pays the piper, calls the tune".

It's interesting to contrast this to Intelligent Design. From the 4th century, Christianity had been the state religion across Europe. Darwin, meanwhile, was a self-funded gentleman scientist. His ideas won out, not because it was favored by the powerful, but because the evidence was overwhelming.

The history of Christianity demonstrates clearly that when the state funds the sources of information, systematic distortion is not only possible, it's the norm.

Patrick, For what it's


For what it's worth, I don't think most people care all that much about the integrity of building blocks. They care about results. You don't have to understand how electricity works, or how airplanes work, to see and be impressed by the results and trust that the results will continue to be the same. So too with academic theory. Even if the initial assumptions are off, if this leads to worthwhile and useful predictions, so much the worse for accurate initial assumptions. This, of course, was Milton Friedman's argument for modern economic methodology.

I certainly agree that Austrians are fighting an uphill battle, for all the reasons you gave. But just because the deck is stacked against them doesn't make it impossible for them to succeed. Austrians succeed in academia all the time. IDers, by contrast, do not, and for good reason. The deck truly is stacked against ID in a way that it isn't stacked against Austrian econ, and it should be stacked that way, because Austrian econ is compatible with regular econ in a way that ID and regular science is not.

As a layman, LvMI and

As a layman, LvMI and associated groups do seem a bit too intractable and fundamentalist. Criticising GMU because they are not purist Rothbardians is frankly absurd. They should engage critically rather than with name calling. Why is Rothbard's view of public choice or game theory in economics correct? Its not enough to say Rothbard didn't agree. That would be as bad as saying Rothbard must have been wrong on those things von Mises disagreed with him over.

Most of the arguments would doubtless go far over my head, but the tone of the current 'debate' makes me shy away from Rothbardian views.

Really ?

Is there a single article in LvMi's frontpage right now that fits this dreadful description. Most articles from the LvMi are interesting readings and not Chicago School bashing articles. I think most of the bashing is done against the keynesians and mercantilists, which is wise since they represent the main dangerous influence in politics. I've read much more bashing of the LvMi than bashing from the LvMi, and I read more stuff from the LvMi. Of course you take take Rothbard who on many occasions couldn't help arguing without assaulting his opponents, but that's hardly representative and besides, only the substance should matter.

My experience

The articles are typically as you describe, but my experience at Mises U (their summer program) was a bit different. Some of the speakers were great, getting into detailed arguments and keeping the name calling to obvious jokes. Hulsmann and Garrison stand out in my mind here. Klein as well. Others sounded more like fundamentalists, in particular, Block, Reismann, and Hoppe.

I vividly remember Hoppe and Reismann lambasting an audience member for asking a question that made the questioner sound not quite as libertarian as them. One was on how anarcho-capitalism wouldn't devolve into chaos. Hoppe didn't like the question too much and launched into ad hominem attacks involving a reference to the mafia I can't remember. The other was on trade, I think, which got Reismann pretty excited. I talked to the kid Reismann went off on afterwards, he was asking a serious question and was pretty dismayed afterwards. The worst part about Reismann's incident was that a large contingent of the audience cheered him on. Needless to say, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Block wasn't as bad as Hoppe or Reismann, but he had a tendency to assert his views rather than sufficiently back them up. For example, during his public choice co-talk (I can't remember who the co-speaker was), his main criticism of public choice econ was that they weren't anarchists, which didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. He never explained why they should be anarchists.

Drifting away

Maybe they lambasted some students, but isn't this drifting away from the original charge:

Advocates of Austrian economics frequently complain that they are being shut out of mainstream economics.

It doesn't sound as though Reismann claimed that the kid was shutting Reismann out of mainstream economics.

I haven't attended but I've listened to about thirty hours worth of lectures, downloaded from their website. After a while the lectures were repeating things said before so my listening tapered off. One of my favorite lectures (which I think was from that bunch) was an extended argument that the commercialization of art benefits the art, mentioning that some of the greatest artists of the past were highly commercial and were prodded (to the betterment of their art) by commercial considerations.

I was mainly responding to

I was mainly responding to Arthur's response to Tristan's charge of fundamentalism, so I was drifting away, but it relates to the larger point. When the Austrians act fundamentalist, like Reismann was doing, I suspect that it alienates them from the field as a whole. In other words, they create the rift themselves, then complain about it.

IMHO Reismann was not asking

IMHO Reismann was not asking like a fundamentalist, he was acting like someone pissed to receive an exoterical question, a waste of time in this kind of assembly.

I don't see how it's a waste

I don't see how it's a waste of time when the purpose of the assembly is to educate young students about Austrian economics.