On Theologians Economists

Peter Radford, at Real World Economics, writes of failed economists,

They are still teaching whatever they first thought. No amount of empirical data threatens their prestige. Why? Here’s the great scam: because economics is a self-contained, self-referential pursuit disconnected, very deliberately and carefully, from the dangers of having to be useful. It is thus immune from disproof. All that Popperian conjectures and refutations mumbo-jumbo is not applicable to economics. Economists have constructed their world so as not to have to be practical. Instead they are quasi-philosophers, quasi-mathematicians, quasi-physicists, quasi-psychologists, and quasi-sociologists. By so being they can dodge between the bullets of practical questioning and never have to improve their art. Being quasi-everything is a great defense. You can confuse all the specialists and answer to no one. Except yourself.

It occurred to me that simply by substituting “theologians” and “theology” for “economists” and “economics” one would arrive at an equally true statement. The only read difference is that it would apply to “successful” theologians even more than it does to either failed or successful economists. Historically at least, “unsuccessful” theologians either recant, are cutoff in one way or another, or form a new religion where they are by definition now successful. I guess the latter is like forming a new school of economics.
Via Mike the Mad Biologist

2 thoughts on “On Theologians Economists”

  1. This is an interesting comment, and there is much in it. We could also instance sociology, the “science” that died of shame.
    In fact could not the same criticism be equally levelled at any of the humanities? Isn’t something of the kind said about all of the arts, sometimes, especially by scientists? English literature springs a little readily to mind. Nor is such criticism always wrong.
    But, while there is certainly something in this, I think that this is too harsh, without further qualification, as addressed to both of economics and theology, and indeed any other discipline.
    What is described is not what economics is. Rather, it is what economics becomes, when those practicing it become intellectually corrupt. The same might be said of theology, and to the same degree. Both are supposed to be doing something real. But the controls in both disciplines are too weak to prevent men without sufficient self-control from corrupting them.
    When I become a Christian as a young man, I knew little about theology. I used to pick up the occasional tome in the college bookshop, read a few pages, and feel — in honesty — contempt for it, on precisely these grounds. But when I later came to patristics, I came to realise that I despised it, not because it was theology; but because it was BAD theology. Once I saw good scholarship, I realised that my impression had been formed by bad scholarship.
    So, perhaps, it is here. We are describing bad economics. But there is also good economics.
    What there is not, perhaps, is any structural mechanism to prevent economics going bad.

  2. Roger,
    I agree (at least in part). Within almost any area of thought, there is a meaningful distinction between good scholarship and bad scholarship.
    But that raises another question. Are there fields of scholarship where the basic facts of the matter are so severely underdetermined that good scholarship is impossible? I once encountered a mathematical econometric model that promised predictability of annual gold price fluctuations with great accuracy. The only problem was that based upon the presuppositions of the model, to be statistically meaningful, the implementing equation needed accurate, inflation and exchange rate normalized, monthly gold prices for the last three thousand years or so. I may not have it quite right but it was something like this. Regardless of the exact details, this model was and is attestable. As a mathematical exercise it was interesting, perhaps even good scholarship, but as an econometric model no good scholarship could ever come of it. While I’m not sure about economics in general, I am rather sure that with one exception, itself problematic, when it comes to theology the controlling issue(s) is so underdetermined that good scholarship is impossible. That one exception is descriptive theology. One can do a more or less good job of describing the theology of a text provided that that text is self-consciously theological in some way or other. Of course, descriptive theology cannot be, as an academic discipline, normative.

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