Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Physicists & economists, influence & responsibility

Emanuel Derman
Sep 2, 2011 17:01 UTC

I grew up in a post-WWII world where, temporarily, because of their capacity to create devices that wreak destruction, physicists had lots of influence in government. Think Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller. By the time I went to graduate school at Columbia, the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, and a new bunch of much younger physicists were active in JASON, a Government advisory group. There were many protests against JASON at Columbia in the Sixties, as a result of mild-mannered physicists writing reports with titles (I recall)  like “Interdiction of Trucks By Night,” apparently to do with bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Recently someone claimed that JASON stood for “Junior Achiever, Somewhat Older Now” which captured the hubris of scientists at the time. Influence and power is seductive.

Those days are over. The Cold War is faded, and the Superconducting Collider is dead.  No one cares too much about physicists any more, and won’t, unless the string theorists can come up with a doomsday weapon. (Actually, there’s a 2005 Herman Wouk novel about the political consequences of a Higgs boson gap between the U.S. and China.)

Physicists had only  indirect political  influence; their ability to accurately harness nature’s powers via pure science and accurate engineering based on that science gave them power over presidents, and made people think they might be smart about other things too. Biologists are the real 21st Century physicists in that sense, and, like them, in the long run have the larger influence on the future. As Feynman wrote about Maxwell, From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.” There are biologists like Darwin and Watson and Crick for whom the same is true.

Meanwhile, day to day, administrations are filled with economists of all stripes who have direct influence and the power to do good and harm in the short run.  But economics is not a pure science; it’s closely linked with philosophy and politics. As Keynes wrote:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

PPE morphs to PNE

Emanuel Derman
Aug 30, 2011 13:57 UTC

The internecine arguments by economists in the daily papers show that a good part of economics is about

    what is good; and how to achieve it,

i.e. about philosophy and politics.  In British universities a major in Economics used to be part of PPE – the triple concentration in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Puts economics with the traditional moral “sciences” of values.

The emerging paradigm in academic economics is PNE – Psychology, Neuroscience and Economics. Puts economics with the traditional value-free sciences.

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