Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Heterodox Economics and the Scientist's Role in Society

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Heterodox Economics and the Scientist's Role in Society

Article excerpt

Introduction

The present work starts from a simple question: Why should a state pay the salary for an academic researcher in economics? As futile as it might seem, this question raises some important points that need to be discussed carefully. Generally speaking, research should be financed because it is useful for socioeconomic development: knowledge represents a productive input and it increases social welfare. Knowledge drives progress and carries with it positive effects, both on a material and on an immaterial level. As for the first, the role knowledge has played in technological, economical, and social progress was reconstructed in many different analyses, both on a theoretical and on an empirical level (Mokyr 2002; Kuznets 1965). As for the second, human beings like to develop a more complete understanding of the world they live in, even in cases where their increased knowledge does not have an immediate application: this "insatiable curiosity" (Nowotny 2008) is what drives human endeavors in science, culture, and innovation.

How much does this argument indeed hold for economic knowledge, at least in the present situation? In other words: Are we sure that economics is helping us to gain a better understanding of how economic systems really work? Also, is economics helping improve wealth and well-being? Is economic knowledge useful for society, and to what extent? The point is worth considering as more and more researchers, even within the economics community, are questioning the effective role and social usefulness of the discipline. Indeed, a sort of paradox seems to arise: a discipline that is so involved with the attribution of "value" has been at the same time so little concerned in self-evaluating its own contribution to the social progress. Indeed, clear empirical reconstructions of the usefulness of economics for society seem to be almost completely lacking in the literature.

Many contributions to the subject are based on mere assertions, speculations, and wishful thinking. Empirical "evidence" often takes the form of selected, nonrepresentative events that, moreover, are often presented in anecdotal form. Convincing empirical evidence on the effect on the economy and society of economics is missing (Frey 2000: 17). The limits of economics, and its difficulties in producing a knowledge that can actually be useful for society, have been dramatically emphasized by the present financial crisis. Economists were not able to warn against what was going to happen. Some even wonder if their recipes, and their blind faith in the market, might have been among the factors responsible for the crisis. An extensive list of all the criticisms that have been raised in this sense by other social scientists, journalists, politicians, and even laypeople is beyond the task of this contribution, but a few examples are worth mentioning. (1) The complete incapacity of economists to forecast the crisis and their lack of humility have been fiercely attacked by Giovanni Sartori (2008), a well known political scientist, in an editorial published in the top Italian newspaper. Luca Ricolfi (2009), sociologist and editorialist, noted that the only scholars capable to anticipate the crisis were noneconomists, such as Mandelbrot (2004) or Gilpin (2000). Nassim Taleb (2009), in his bestseller The Black Swan, blames the "scandal of prediction," that is, the arrogance of economists and their failure to recognize what they do not know, notwithstanding the systematic bias of their expectations. During an academic briefing on the turmoil of the international markets held at the London School of Economics, Queen Elizabeth asked why nobody had been able to notice what was going on. The "Festival of the Economy," held in Trento, represents one of the most popular events for public discussion of economics in Italy involving many scholars, workshops, and consistent media coverage. One of the main themes of the 2009 edition was "The Trial of Economists," in which some of the same arguments discussed here were debated on a public base. …

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