Man Without Qualities

Friday, December 20, 2002

I didn’t fail ten thousand times. I successfully eliminated, ten thousand times, materials and combinations which wouldn’t work.

Why does Virginia Postrel underestimate herself?

Virginia is absolutely correct when she denies "that progress depends on grim, self-denial--what I call the "repression theory of progress."

One of the greatest, most liberating aspects of modern science is that it does not depend on grimness or any other emotional state or posture. My prior post from Richard Feynman amply displays how the objective, non-emotional nature of modern science - including the social sciences, such as economics - allows for the essentially unbounded personal joyful exuberance and sheer fun that Richard Feynman personified.

Grimness is for religious cults - objective scientific truth will set you free.

But why does Virginia bother with those who have spent their careers progressively undoing themselves? Her fabulous 1999 lecture on "Economics Play" makes vastly more sense that the Paul Krugman quote she reproduced in her book and again in her December 19 post:

"You can't do serious economics unless you are willing to be playful. Economic theory is not a collection of dictums laid down by pompous authority figures. Mainly, it is a menagerie of thought experiments--parables, if you like--that are intended to capture the logic of economic processes in a simplified way. In the end, of course, ideas must be tested against the facts. But even to know what facts are relevant, you must play with those ideas in hypothetical settings. And I use the word 'play' advisedly: Innovative thinkers, in economics and other disciplines, often have a pronounced whimsical streak."

Another brilliant Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, told a story of a brilliant dinner party in 1950 at Mary McCarthy's. The conversation turned to the Catholic Eucharist, which, being the Catholic, Flannery was supposed to define. Mary McCarthy said it was a symbol and that it was "a pretty good one". O'Connor replied: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it!"

If economics or any putative science is mainly a menagerie of thought experiments or parables that are intended to capture the logic of economic processes in a simplified way which only in the end must be tested against the facts then to hell with it. As Feynman's lecture points out: there is great, exuberant play in formulating science - but science is mainly about the objective world and repeatable experiments. That is very, very hard work. Without a primary focus on that work, activity that is supposed to be science becomes just self indulgence.

And that, for example, is why another very playful American who really understood these things said: "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."

Professor Krugman, on the other hand, seems more a once-talented person who has not done his homework for a very long time. And this quote gives some insight as to why he has gone so wrong.

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