Dept. of massively high-powered hindsight

I’m entirely willing to believe interested specialists knew about this long ago, but I have only now discovered that Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics held a conference in May on a topic that falls well outside that institution’s comfort zone: “The Economic Crisis and its Implications for the Science of Economics.” Here’s the program. Basically it’s a What-Went-Wrong seminar: the biggest economic meltdown in decades just happened, and a lot of serious economists didn’t see it coming. Why not?

Some of the discussions were private, but those that aren’t — like every public lecture and open seminar that happens at Perimeter — is online for viewing. Here are links to many of those lectures.

I understand very close to none of this. I’m not good with money, I did very little formal study in economics, and I’m utterly unqualified to follow a critique of economics based in other disciplines of math and physics. But perhaps we can agree the idea is interesting: if economics is a science — which means that it is neither infallible dogma nor worthless voodoo but a rough tool for understanding behaviour, a tool that needs to be refined — then it could use a helpful critique from smart practitioners of other disciplines.

Interdisciplinary research, of course, is all the rage in many areas of science. You don’t do much genetics these days, for instance, without doing some serious statistics as well. Which usually means you need to have some computer scientists on the team too. And so on. But I’m not aware of a lot of cases of physics and non-economic mathematics being brought to bear on economical problems.

This opening lecture by Harvard mathematician and economist Eric R. Weinstein lays out some of the discussion in simple enough terms that even I got a lot of it. Weinstein calls economics the branch of science that is most reluctant to inter-operate with other disciplines. “I’m not making a judgement on economics, but let me tell you. When you talk to physicists and biologists, people talk like they’re coming out of a bad relationship if they have had a relationship with economics.”

From there they all dive off the deep end into very esoteric business. But still it looks cool from here: treat economics, not as a fake science, but as a rudimentary science that could benefit from greater exposure to other disciplines. And do it at a place where brilliant minds spend the day pondering the nature of space and time, but where they are also willing, if asked, to think about money too.

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