Mar 10th 2014

In Praise of Foxy Scholars

PRINCETON – We live in a complicated world, so we are forced to simplify it. We categorize people around us as friends or foes, classify their motives as good or bad, and ascribe events with complex roots to straightforward causes. Such shortcuts help us navigate the complexities of our social existence. They help us form expectations about the consequences of our and others’ actions, and thereby facilitate decision-making.

But, because such “mental models” are simplifications, they are necessarily wrong. They may serve us well as we navigate our daily challenges, but they leave out many details and can backfire when we find ourselves in an environment in which our categorizations and ready-made explanations fit less well. The term “culture shock” refers to situations in which our expectations about people’s behavior turn out to be so wrong that we find ourselves jolted by the experience.

And yet, without these shortcuts we would be either lost or paralyzed. We have neither the mental capacity nor the understanding to decipher the full web of cause-and-effect relations in our social existence. So our daily behavior and reactions must be based on incomplete, and occasionally misleading, mental models.

The best that social science has to offer is in fact not much different. Social scientists – and economists in particular – analyze the world using simple conceptual frameworks that they call “models.” The virtue of such models is that they make explicit the chain of cause and effect, and therefore render transparent the specific assumptions on which a particular prediction rests.

Good social science turns our unexamined intuitions into a map of causal arrows. Sometimes it shows how those intuitions lead to surprising, unanticipated results when extended to their logical conclusions.

Fully general frameworks, such as economists’ beloved Arrow-Debreu model of general equilibrium, are so broad and encompassing that they are totally unhelpful for real-world explanation or prediction. Useful social-science models are invariably simplifications. They leave out many details to focus on the most relevant aspect of a specific context. Applied economists’ mathematical models are the most explicit example of this. But, whether formalized or not, simplified narratives are social scientists’ bread and butter.

Stylized historical analogies often play a similar role. For example, international-relations scholars use the famous meeting between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938 as a model of how appeasing a power bent on expansionism can be futile (or dangerous).

But, as inevitable as simplification is for explanation, it is also a trap. It is easy to get wedded to particular models and fail to recognize that changed circumstances require a different model.

Like other humans, social scientists are prone to over-confidence in their preferred model of the day. They tend to exaggerate the support for the model and discount new evidence that contradicts it – a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.”

In a world of diverse and changing circumstances, social scientists can do real harm by applying the wrong model. Neoliberal economic policies, predicated on well-functioning markets, misfired in developing countries – just as planning models, presuming competent and capable bureaucrats, failed in an earlier era. The efficient-markets theory led policymakers astray by encouraging them to undertake excessive financial deregulation. It would be costly to apply the analogy of Munich in 1938 to a specific international conflict when the underlying situation is more reminiscent of Sarajevo in 1914.

So how should we choose among alternative simplifications of reality? Rigorous empirical tests may eventually settle questions such as whether the US economy today is suffering more from Keynesian lack of demand or from policy uncertainty. Yet often we need to make decisions in real time, without the benefit of decisive empirical evidence. My research on growth diagnostics (with Ricardo Hausmann, Andrés Velasco, and others) is an example of this style of work, showing how one can identify in a specific context the more binding among a multitude of growth constraints.

Unfortunately, economists and other social scientists get virtually no training in how to choose among alternative models. Neither is such an aptitude professionally rewarded. Developing new theories and empirical tests is regarded as science, while the exercise of good judgment is clearly a craft.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two styles of thinking, which he identified with the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog is captivated by a single big idea, which he applies unremittingly. The fox, by contrast, lacks a grand vision and holds many different views about the world – some of them even contradictory.

We can always anticipate the hedgehog’s take on a problem – just as we can predict that market fundamentalists will always prescribe freer markets, regardless of the nature of the economic problem. Foxes carry competing, possibly incompatible theories in their heads. They are not attached to a particular ideology and find it easier to think contextually.

Scholars who are able to navigate from one explanatory framework to another as circumstances require are more likely to point us in the right direction. The world needs fewer hedgehogs and more foxes.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "