The biologists try economics

But the complexities introduced by behavioural economics make it too unwieldy to be applied across the board. And it has had little to say about macroeconomics – the workings of financial markets and national and global economies, which have been so troubled in recent years.

Not a good start there, is it? Given that finance is usually considered part of microeconomics……

38 thoughts on “The biologists try economics”

  1. It’s New Scientist which prints scientivist claptrap. I gave up reading it in 2001 when it became the propaganda arm of the thermageddonist cult, mild dissent and criticism not tolerated.

  2. “No wonder there’s talk of revolution”

    Funny thing really: you write something like that; I stop reading.

  3. From my reading of works published by biologists with no training or particular expertise in economics or any other social science, is that it’s terrible, horrendously wrong (if makings forecasts) and utterly smug.

    I hate this elevation of someone with a doctorate in a narrow subset of science to worldly sage, irrespective of their skill at turning their hand to other disciplines.

  4. Oh, God, I couldn’t even make it past the strapline.

    Orthodox economics is broken.

    No, it’s not broken. In the same way that car crashes don’t prove classical mechanics is broken. Or the HIV epidemic doesn’t prove epidemiology is broken. I would hope a scientist would understand that distinction.

    Applying what we know about evolution, ecology and collective behaviour might help us avoid another catastrophe

    Yes, because those are definitely three catastrophe-proof things.

  5. I am a biologist: the article is crap because it was written by someone with only a rudimentary knowledge of economics talking to biologists with a rudimentary knowledge of economics. Most biologists can’t do maths very well, so they think anything that is based on maths is suspect.

    The final paragraphs are laughable, saying that smaller groups of people tend to act collectively and collaboratively, and larger groups will not has been discovered by ‘evolutionary biologists’. I can’t remember when the ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first described but it seems the ‘evolutionary biologists’ have just re-discovered it. Must have taken them years. They could have just bought an elementary economics text book.

  6. Scientists seem to suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect more than any other group. Except maybe taxi drivers.

    Most scientists spend their entire professional lives in the wacky world of academia or the public sector, so their views on economics and the state tend to predictably reflect that.

    If only some geniuses – perhaps with biology PhDs – would tell us normies what to do!

    Mrs Thatcher was, of course, formerly a chemist. But that didn’t get her much respect from the science geeks.

  7. OK, I scanned the rest. It’s not quite as bad as the strapline.

    I think behavioural economics is fascinating and valuable, but it is simply not based on the assumption that economics is broken and needs to be replaced; it is, rather, an effort to better understand a wider range of human incentives. It still assumes that those incentives matter.

  8. I wonder if anyone thought to ask these biologists and ecologists what they thought economics is. From the article, they seem to think it is about predicting crashes. I wonder how they would react if someone asked them how many frogs they had dissected today.

  9. I generally find physicists and engineers are generally worse than biologists at the whole ultracrepidarian “oh, you’re doing it wrong — here, let me make some assumptions and write a model for you and solve it” thing.

    XKCD firmly blames physicists but engineers definitely fall into the trap too.

  10. S2,

    “Applying what we know about evolution, ecology and collective behaviour might help us avoid another catastrophe”

    What do we know about evolution? Well, we know that the stronger animals push out the weaker ones. Grey squirrels replace red squirrels because they’re a superior lifeform in every way except looking cute to humans.

    And when push comes to shove, how much different are we? Do lingerie models go after reasonably well-off software consultants, or rich footballers, princes, rock stars and actors?

    It’s why communism doesn’t work. All the men are still competing for the ballet dancers.

    That doesn’t mean that we don’t empathise with our fellow man. Or believe in looking after the weak. But we still want to be at one level above them.

  11. AHPE – It’s why communism doesn’t work. All the men are still competing for the ballet dancers.

    Not me. Ballet dancers have even pointier elbows, no boobs, and the body shape of a 12 year old boy.

    I’m after the busty lasses with flared hips who blush and bite their lip when you talk to them…

    …I’m away to see what the wife’s doing.

  12. Steve,

    “Not me. Ballet dancers have even pointier elbows, no boobs, and the body shape of a 12 year old boy.”

    I’m inclined to agree but with all the stories about the Bolshoi abroad some successful men seem to go for them.

  13. It helps if you have some understanding of economics before you apply your ‘expertise’ from another wing of academia to it. Clearly not the case in that article!

    However, I have long thought there is something to be said for considering the study of economics as similar to ecology; in both cases we are trying to understand the emergence of spontaneous order in a complex natural system. In both cases we can know vast amounts about what is in the system, yet be unable to plan an artificial one that can function without immense artificial support.

    I’m reminded of this when I visit nature reserves and see the vast army of people and resources required to ‘maintain’ habitats that are artificially created. We can’t even recreate wetlands next to estuaries – in locations where we know they existed just a few decades ago – without requiring manual sluice gates to control the water flow! If not, it will get too wet or too dry, and the wildlife you are trying to help will find it no more suitable than the industrial estate or farmland you’ve replaced. The parallels are fascinating!

  14. “the things that actually make economic systems tick”: no, economics doesn’t actually fucking tick.

    “Most biologists can’t do maths very well”: not changed since my schooldays then – Biology was for those who couldn’t do maths.

  15. P.S. I don’t mind their not being able to do maths: it meant I could spend part of my career doing maths and physics for them. Bless their little cotton socks.

  16. FFS!!
    ” there is a growing feeling that orthodox economics can’t provide the answers to our most pressing problems, such as why inequality is spiralling”

    For a start, on a global scale, as millions are being lifted out of poverty, inequality could be said to be decreasing. But let’s take it as just the UK, say, and accept (for the moment) the there is an increase in inequality. Economics can and does give complete answers to “why inequality is spiralling”. What economics doesn’t do, is to say whether or not that is a good or bad thing. That is a moral, ethical or philosophical question. And economics can and does give solutions to such a thing. But it is the political realities (eg do we want to be like North Korea or Amazonian hunter-gatherers?) which means that such policies are not effected. To blame “economics” as a science, is nonsensical.

  17. AHPE – there’s no accounting for taste.

    I dunno why ballet dancers get all the gushing praise from kultchah snobs while lap dancers get no respect.

    No heterosexual man has ever looked forward to seeing the ballet.

    I say we scrap all state funding for ballet and get a decent lapdancing club in every town instead. And I do mean decent – no munters allowed, even on Tuesday nights in Huddersfield.

    This would increase the happiness of the British population and improve our birth rates by giving men ideas about what to do when they get home to the wife.

  18. BTW, have you ever been in a lapdancing club with a clueless guy who thinks that, because the girls smile at him, he’s in with a chance?

    I have. Bloody embarrassing.

    I had to tell him straight: “Stop asking for her number or we’ll get chucked out. You’re only making a fool of yourself, Dad.”

  19. Steve,

    “I dunno why ballet dancers get all the gushing praise from kultchah snobs while lap dancers get no respect.

    No heterosexual man has ever looked forward to seeing the ballet.”

    Ballet does take a higher degree of training. That’s not to say lapdancing doesn’t require skill, though. People generally undervalue the skills that go into some of the tackiest things that are produced.

    I do like ballet a bit. As in, if the kids want to go, I’ll take them and enjoy it, although I’d not have it as my first choice for entertainment.

    I tell you what doesn’t get enough cultural respect, though – martial artists. It’s more ballet than fighting and requires the same sort of levels of training as discipline as ballet.

  20. Ballet has some of the best music ever written. Worth going and lying back with your eyes shut and enjoying it. No interest whatsoever in the prancing.

  21. The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.

    Unfortunately the article positions this the wrong way round.

    It is not that Homo economicus is the problem (in that they don’t exist), it is how to make Homo sapiens behave like Homo economicus so your economic model works, this is something not apparent with financial markets, and it wont be fixed by economics or anything else.

    Consider the Kidney Exchange. A theory that discussed a economic model where price was removed (it concerned houses that had no value) was put into practice and helped live donor kidney operations to increase by several factors. Not many of the -ologies can lay claim to saving thousands of lives and winning a noble prize on top? This worked because it devised a model that forced Homo sapiens’ selfish behavior to operate in a predetermined way.

    The purpose of Homo economicus is as an ideal model not an assumption, you identify how Homo sapiens behaves differently, and then explain why and address those differences, the economics fails in global financial markets not because of Homo economicus, but in spite of it.

  22. Bloke in North Dorset

    When LPUK first formed and Labour was at its most authoritarian a campaign was organised to send all MPs a copy of 1984 with a not saying that it was a warning, not a training manual.

    Perhaps whenever ultracrepadrians like these come along the ASI or IEA could send hem a copy of the naked economics or The Undercover Economist or similar book with the the advice start here.

  23. Bloke in North Dorset

    Steve’s comment about his dad in a lap dancing club reminded me of the time a good friend who lives HK took his father to his favourite brothel and paid for his father to get laid.

    As they were leaving his father turned to my mate and said “don’t tell your mum”!

  24. This is a classic example of beauty in the eye of the beholder.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m unlikely to refuse an offer of any sort of exchange of bodily fluids with your average lap dancer, but in comparison with a ballet dancer – are you serious?

    Ballet dancers are the fittest, tightest females around, in addition to which I understand them to be partial to copious amounts of neat spirits and fags. On top of that they tend to be classically beautiful and probably more capable of contortions than anyone apart from, well, an actual contortionist.

    Apart from being deficient in the bust department (much of that probably not genetic, but self-inflicted), they’re dream females mate.

  25. “The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.”

    Which is a laugh really, as Socialism rests entirely on the premise that humans are altruistic beings willing to work for the general good, at the expense of their own selfish wants or needs.

    Which outlook is the least realistic?

  26. Human biologists / sociologists start from a simple proposition:
    There are four motivations,
    altruism, spite, aggression, cooperation.
    Put in a grid:
    Altruism: you lose, other gains. Extinction
    Spite: You both lose. Slow extinction.
    Aggression: You win, he loses. You lose prey.
    Cooperation: You both win. Happiness.

    Except in the Guardian. If you can dress up spite as altruism…

  27. All this stuff about ballet dancers is reminding me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry dates a gymnast expecting mind-blowing sex, but was disappointed. The punchline was that in her culture, they used “comedian” as a code-word for sexual prowess in exactly the same way.

    “You, Jerry, are no Comedian.”

  28. Look, you’re looking at lefties writing in a highly polemical leftie science rag. It dies the minute they talk about Homo economicus, the classical leftie put-down of economics.

    All you have to do is conflate “economic self-interest” with making as much money as possible from every moment you have, and your standard leftie criticism is complete. No acknowledgement that sometimes foregoing that money-making opportunity to take your sick kid to the doctor’s is also an expression of “economic self-interest”, or at least the economic self-interest of your genetic material. No acknowledgement that in the west we are so many light-years beyond a needs economy that the bulk of our economic activity is performed so that we can be (sometimes hugely) economically inefficient, in the pursuit of our abstract desires.

    And perhaps most importantly, no acknowledgement from those whose careers are funded by the taxpayer that there is a strong element of self-interest in lobbying for a more “collective” and “non-self-interested” world, in which there would presumably be a lot more and bigger grants to be spent on business-class flights to distant conferences.

  29. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Having a degree in physics, and to a lesser extent in other sciency things is a good way to equip oneself with a bullshit detector so that you can rapidly spot when some Daily Mail scare story has numbers in it that are off by three orders of magnitude. But neither my physics degree nor my Master’s in Elec Eng equips me to start acting as if I know much of anything outside that field. I mean, I still don’t grok fiscal or monetary policy things. Quantitative easing seems to be my pons asinorum. Funnily enough, I think wearing my current hat, that of software engineer, encourages me to be a little bit humble about things, because if there is one thing designing a real-world system teaches you it’s that no matter how complex you think it’s going to be, it will be more complex than that, even when you take this assumption into account.

  30. as Socialism rests entirely on the premise that humans are altruistic beings willing to work for the general good

    Capitalism depends on greed, Socialism depends on generosity, which makes a great soundbite. But you can almost guarantee people will be greedy to some degree, whereas it is almost certain that not everyone will be generous, therefore in order for Socialism to work it needs to force people to be generous. The difference with Capitalism and Socialism is not about greed or generosity, it is about freedom and force.

  31. Bloke in Costa Rica

    That’s a great post, particularly the comment about complexity. Cheers.

  32. BiG

    “in the west we are so many light-years beyond a needs economy”

    Indeed, to the point where most of the population, and the entire part of it which is educated, are free to indulge in the most fanciful bollocks imaginable believing they are free from any consequences arising from it.

    Never knowing true hunger is a great thing, a sure sign of human progress, but what if it convinces you and your fellow travellers that growing food isn’t important?

  33. Bloke in Costa Rica

    MBE, thanks.

    Rob, then The Gods of the Copybook Headings arise from their slumber, and much excitement ensues, albeit for many of those involved only briefly.

  34. Biologists have been doing interesting economics since 1975, when E O Wilson’s Sociobiology was published. Marxist academics in related fields, like Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Rose, have spent decades putting politics above rational thought to attack sociobiology.

    The Nude Socialist clowns are not doing interesting economics, though.

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