Math or Society: Did Economists Forget Who They’re Supposed to Serve?


Has the servant’s servant become the master’s master?

In a series of blog posts, Tim Johnson of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh raises questions about the use of mathematics in economics and whether economists, who should be serving society, have instead been enslaved by outdated formalist notions of mathematics.

INET sees math as a tool in service of building economic maps, but it does not believe in formalism for its own sake. Dexterity with mathematics is valuable, but it is valuable in the same way that dexterity with words is valuable. It is not an end in itself but a mode of communication for the sake of something else.

Tim Johnson talks about how the profession of mathematics itself gets caught in these tribal conflicts. And he notes that perhaps the jumping off point for economics into the Narcissus pool of abstraction was the popularization by Paul Samuelson of one type of abstract mathematics that was in vogue in the mid 20th century.

This “formalist” mathematics divorced itself from reality and ignored relevancy. But formalism is not science. An economics divorced from relevance is an economics without a purpose. What is economics in service of, math or society? Math should be a tool, not a deity or a magic potion.

Read these posts with the euro crisis in mind and let us know how you see the challenge. Did economics forget its purpose? Willie Mays used to make hard ones look easy in center field. Do economists make the easy ones look hard?

Why Don’t More Mathematicians See the Potential of Economics?

Does Finance Need a Scientific Revolution or Science Need a Revolution Inspired by Finance?

But What About the South Sea Bubble?

An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Why We Can’t Solve the Euro Crisis

And from Colin Macilwain:

Science’s Attitudes Must Reflect a World in Crisis

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