Teach the Debate!

By Eric Crampton 02/12/2013

Oh but Chris Auld is a mischief-maker.

The Guardian has been running a series of half-baked critiques of economics. While economists of left and right recognize them as humbug, demand for humbug remains as strong as ever.

Chris Auld responds by recasting an essay by biologists critical of the idea that schools should “teach the controversy” about intelligent design:

What is wrong with the notion that students should acquire the skills of critical thinking by grappling with the controversies surrounding mainstream economic theory? I argue, first, that materials offered by opponents of mainstream economics are actually designed to misinform and obfuscate the real controversies in economics. Educational materials offered to encourage “critical thinking” consist mainly of “evidence against” mainstream economics — a “catalogue” of specific cases for which economic theory has presumably failed to provide a complete or compelling explanation.

Second, I argue that opponents of mainstream economics confuse the source of economic controversies in two important ways. The first is semantic; Mainstream economics is incorrectly equated with Neoclassical economics, which in turn is incorrectly equated with all modern economic theory. Materials from the Guardian, for example, typically trumpet the shortcomings of neoclassical theory—conveniently ignoring more than a century of research that has expanded, modified, and some cases, even replaced strictly “neoclassical” ideas about economics.

He continues, but you can head there to read the whole thing. Auld concludes:

The gist of the article is that creationists commonly attack introductory biology textbooks on highly questionable and ideologically-motivated grounds, pounce on errors or outdated information in such textbooks, and demand that the obscure and/or scientifically invalid theories which conform to their religious ideology be taught along with mainstream biology.

I do not mean to imply that economic theory is as well-understood as the fact that evolution occurred (although evolutionary theory—modeling how evolution actually occurred—is subject to many of the same limitations as economic theory, and is often based on strikingly similar formalisms). But I do think that the criticism of undergraduate education in economics offered by the Guardian parallels in form and intent attacks by creationists on introductory education in biology: they are thinly-veiled attacks on the discipline itself rather than course content, and they are offered by people with no real understanding of the actual scientific issues on misguided ideological grounds. The only substantive difference is in one case the ideology is religious and in the other it’s political.

There are actually problems with undergraduate education in economics. The point of an academic, as opposed to a professional, degree is to train students to understand and perhaps, if they continue their studies, to contribute to the research literature. Judged relative to that goal, the current curriculum is not sufficiently mathematical and places far too much emphasis on theory relative to empirics, amongst other problems. Some long-standing core material (e.g, the Marshallian theory of the firm) could be ditched to make space to cover more recent theoretical developments and empirical results and methods. This will happen over time, and hopefully we can prompt it along.

But the Guardian and its fellow travellers have quite a different set of reform criteria. Their criteria are political, not scientific. No, we don’t need more courses in Marxian economics, for example. Marxian economics comprises zero percent (give or take) of the academic literature, and thus under the criterion above for academic degrees, even if one thought Marxian approaches superior it would be irresponsible to replace large portions of the curriculum with Marxian theory. It would also be infeasible, as there are zero Marxian economists in the vast majority of economics departments.

I note the difference between academic and professional degrees: it is increasingly difficult to provide academic training in economics in New Zealand. We’ve been holding the line at Canterbury, keeping the core math theory in our three year undergraduate degree so we can focus on more interesting applications at Honours level rather than using the Honours year to teach the math they missed at undergrad.

I’ll further note Auld’s rather trenchant critique of “teach the controversy” in case there’s suggestion that we need to re-do our undergraduate programmes to take account of the Guardian/Manchester critique.