Thursday, April 24, 2008

Religionist Methodology in Economics

"Over the years, economists have proffered many reasons for downplaying the relevance of behavioral research challenging our habitual assumptions," writes Matthew Rabin in his essay Psychology and Economics. Written in 1998, it's goal was to summarily dismiss some of the studies in cognitive psychology, behavioral theory and neuroeconomics that were relevant to microeconomic theory.

It was long overdue. The claims of behavioral scientists and cognitive psychologists have posed significant problems for traditional microeconomic models of human behavior that assume rationality and rational agency. Rabin said in his paper that it is common to discuss the "broader methodological significance" of such findings but says he should refrain from doing so since the charges against the models usually stem from "unfamiliarity with the details of the research." This is quite an odd claim to make, since economists themselves were and still are quite unfamiliar with the details of such research, not to mention the methodological significance.

Ironically, it is therefore the aim of the profession to familiarize themselves with the new research, says Rabin. Today we are seeing lots of cross-disciplinary work between chemistry, physics, behavioral science and economics. In so doing Rabin believes the arguments against the profession will "dissipate". Confronting the criticisms with both "healthy skepticism" and "genuine curiosity" should help to "empirically test their validity" and "carefully draw out their economic implications." And with that, economics departments dedicated to the study of neuropsychology began to emerge.

Perhaps it would be unorthodox to suggest this link, but I must. This sort of defense is exactly what American Pentecostals have done with the biological evidence for natural selection and genetic mutation through recombination. For decades, evolutionary biologists have had to put up with religionist lobbyists beating the book over their heads and arm-twisting them into political acquiescence. Likewise, economics has been "autistic" in its vision of a purely rational agent who makes decisions according to the immutable microeconomic Text, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary.

Arguments against economic assumptions are supposed to "dissipate" once economics has camouflaged itself amongst lots of other sciences that carry more legitimacy. That's probably true, but only for the same reasons that creationism looks more credible now that creationist scientists have been camouflaging themselves as real scientists and trying to integrate creationism into lots of places besides church.

The Pentecostal methodology is a relatively easy three-step process to which the microeconomic theorists have quite readily picked up on, demonstrating that it is still possible to denounce science and still maintain important seats of government power. First, claim that the scientific criticism does not really understand science, then, claim that science cannot disprove the religion, and ultimately, claim that your religion is a science.

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