The Soulful Science: What Economists Really do and Why it Matters

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Stellenbosch]On: 03 October 2014, At: 01:47Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Review of Social EconomyPublication details, including instructions for authorsand subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrse20

    The Soulful Science: WhatEconomists Really do and Why itMattersJack Reardon aa Hamline University , St. Pauls, MNPublished online: 29 Sep 2009.

    To cite this article: Jack Reardon (2009) The Soulful Science: What EconomistsReally do and Why it Matters, Review of Social Economy, 67:3, 395-398, DOI:10.1080/00346760802216756

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00346760802216756

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  • Book Reviews

    The Soulful Science: What Economists Really do and Why it Matters. By

    Diane Coyle, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007, 279

    pp., ISBN 100691125139, $27.95 hardcover.

    I want to persuade you that economics gets an unfairly bad press, writes

    Diane Coyle in the opening sentence of her new book, The Soulful Science.

    Economics is now entering a new golden age, no longer characterized by

    the rigid and unrealistic assumptions of the past. New advances along the

    frontiers of economics, new databases and research techniques bear

    comparison with other epochs of discovery in other sciences (p. 232). The

    objective of this book is to refurbish, revise and update the negative image of

    economics.

    Coyle, a former economics editor of the London Independent and currently

    visiting professor at the University of Manchester, writes enthusiastically for

    social scientists, policy researchers and the general reader interested in

    learning what we economists are up to these days (p. 4). Public

    understanding is important for, unless noneconomists appreciate the vital

    role of the economic way of thought, we will see increasingly bad, even

    dangerous, policies (p. 3).

    The Soulful Science is divided into three sections. The first discusses

    economic development, a fundamental concern of economics since Adam

    Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

    New data sets facilitated by ever-cheaper computer power and more

    powerful econometric techniques are leading to growth theories that,

    according to Coyle will one day make poverty history (p. 95). The second

    part discusses the new microeconomics research that has adopted more

    realistic assumptions of bounded rationality, non-identical agents, imperfect

    information, spillovers and increasing returns, in order to make economics

    more realistic without denting its analytical strength (p. 127). The third unit

    combines the new macro and microeconomics to discuss how individuals

    REVIEW OF SOCIAL ECONOMY, VOL. LXVII, NO. 3, SEPTEMBER 2009

    Review of Social Economy

    ISSN 0034-6764 print/ISSN 1470-1162 online

    http://www.informaworld.com

    DOI: 10.1080/00346760802216756

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  • interact with each other and the links between economics and social

    organization, a key determinant of economic development.

    It isnt often that economics is referred to as the soulful science and the

    catchy title will no doubt attract many readers. Unfortunately, this book

    focuses exclusively on the activities of mainstream economists while ignoring

    the prolific contributions of heterodox economists. While the general reader

    might be impressed with recent advances of mainstream economics, the

    heterodox reader will be amused by the newfound importance of institutions,

    history, entrepreneurs, innovation, spillovers and social capital, long

    acknowledged as rudimentary by heterodoxy.

    Unfortunately, these new findings are molded to comport with

    mainstream neoclassical ideology. For example, institutions are narrowly

    understood as constraining individual behavior and coordinating individual

    outcomes rather than more holistically as determining not only which

    interests will flourish, but also which values will thrive (Vatn 2005: 222).

    While mainstream economists attempt to construct institutions that expedite

    competitive market outcomes, heterodox economists and other social

    scientists strive to create institutions to enable all people to attain a better

    life. Noticeably absent from this book is research on the use of power,

    underscoring its peripheral concern to mainstream economics. By ignoring

    the distribution of power and its effects, mainstream economics presents a

    carte blanche to vested interests to further their values. No wonder the public

    frets that mainstream economics is right wing (p. 238).

    Coyle utilizes the mainstream way of thinking, which includes belief in

    the core concepts of rational choice and equilibrium, as well as applying the

    scientific method to the study of human behavior, as a litmus test to

    distinguish sharply between economists and others who might even call

    themselves economists but dabble in politics, history, politics and sociology.

    And if these are limitations, so be it: every subject has core restrictions in its

    methodology, which in fact represent its strengths and distinctive insights

    (pp. 251252).

    Thus, John Kenneth Galbraith is not one of us, even though he

    delivered a presidential address to the American Economic Association and

    wrote books on important economic issues that resonate with the general

    reader. And neither are Adam Smith, our subjects spiritual elder (p. 4),

    David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and other classical economists. Coyle

    informs her readers, economics isnt defined by its subject matter but by its

    way of thinking (p. 232), a statement that is not accepted by heterodoxy.

    Unfortunately, whatever progress mainstream economics has made at the

    frontiers of economic research has not penetrated mainstream pedagogy, as

    REVIEW OF SOCIAL ECONOMY

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  • Coyle acknowledges, the simplest version of the standard paradigm [forms]

    the introduction to the subject (p. 249). Nevertheless, she is sanguine that

    were not too far away from a core curriculum in economics which reflects

    [these] advances (p. 251). Coyle, however, offers no constructive solution

    other than we economists have to teach what we preach (p. 250).

    But teaching what we preach is the problem. Should we worry that

    students of economics are more likely than other students to act on the basis

    of self-interest alone? (p. 132). Should we worry that if and when the new

    research is presented to students it will be icing on a perfectly lovely cake?

    (p. 249). Regrettably, by the time students are a couple of years into their

    studies, the questions of rationality and whether a simple model can capture

    messy reality are forgotten. Those students that remain troubled by them

    have quit the field; those that remain are socialized and no longer ask about

    such things (John Sutton, quoted on p. 249).

    In addition, the book suffers from several non-sequiturs that will vex the

    general reader. Coyle acknowledges the sloppy use of data and poor-

    quality regressions (p. 244) yet frequently buttresses her assertions with

    regression results without discriminating among them. She refers to the

    dysfunctionality of journal publishing and the extraordinary dominance

    of leading mainstream journals, yet liberally quotes from them while

    ignoring, for the most part, the burgeoning heterodox journals. She exhorts

    that faster growth in GDP remains a good target for economic policy

    (p. 109), yet ignores the nexus between faster growth and global warming,

    which will invidiously affect poor countries, the very group that the new

    economics is trying to help. She acknowledges that economics is an

    extraordinary male-dominated subject which skews the choice of research

    carried out by economists, (p. 250) yet sprinkles the word macho through-

    out her writing: the macho mathematics of complexity theory (p. 201); the

    math underlying rational expectations during the 1980s appealed to the

    macho element (p. 230); and the vast and ever-growing critique of

    economics, much of which Ive masochistically read and filed away (p. 234).

    Coyle cedes little ground to the plethora of critics of mainstream

    economics both within and outside the profession since they attack a

    caricature of economics, for reasons related to their personal ideological

    beliefs. [In addition] many are unaware of the content of economic research

    during the past twenty years (p. 232). At the same time, Coyle does injustice

    to the general reader by failing to acknowledge the underlying ideology of

    mainstream economics and to understand the crux of the heterodox criticism,

    which attacks the very core concepts cherished by mainstream along with its

    anti-pluralist efforts to proselytize rather than educate.

    BOOK REVIEWS

    397

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  • I do not recommend this book to the non-economist since it gives a

    distorted and incomplete picture of what economists do. Nevertheless,

    mainstream economists should read this book, at the very least to learn the

    palpable disconnect between their research and ossified pedagogy.

    Alfred Marshall (1946) wrote in the preface to his Principles of Economics,

    Economic conditions are constantly changing, and each generation looks at

    its own problems in its own way. Indeed, solving global warming and other

    environmental problems of our generation will tax our ingenuity, requiring

    the creation of institutions not seen before that match the problems we

    face (Vatn 2005: 434). Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but any efficacious

    solution will require outreach among all disciplines of economics and across

    the social sciences, rather than contemptuous dismissal of any discipline that

    does not meet an ideological litmus test. And perhaps this is wishful thinking,

    but a book explaining to the public what all economists do and how all

    economists and social scientists with different research methodologies can

    solve our generations problems, needs to be written.

    Jack Reardon

    Hamline University, St. Pauls, MN

    2009 Jack Reardon

    REFERENCES

    Marshall, A. (1946) Principles of Economics, London: Macmillan.

    Vatn, A. (2005) Institutions and the Environment, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Empirical Post Keynesian Economics: Looking at the Real World. Edited by

    Richard P.F. Holt and Steven Pressman, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007,

    352 pp., ISBN-10: 0-7656-1328-X, ISBN-13: 978-0-7656-1329-5, $32.95

    (paper); $89.95 (hardcover).

    The post-Keynesian research project provides an alternative to the

    neoclassical synthesis. The driving force for post-Keynesians has been to

    question the tacit ideas within mainstream economics and strive to

    honestly view the real world. This motivation provides an appealing

    inception. A solid post-Keynesian paradigm, however, requires justification

    and verification. For the economics profession, this means empirical analysis;

    this book is such an attempt. From the introduction to the volume:

    Empirical analysis is important because it is only through empirical work

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