2 econ Nobel prizes, 1 error

This came up before on the blog but it’s always worth remembering. From Larry White, quoted by Don Boudreaux:

As late as the 1989 edition [of his textbook, Paul Samuelson] and coauthor William Nordhaus wrote: “The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”

Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus won Nobel prizes in economics. We’ve talked about this example before; I learned about it from a post by Alex Tabarrok recounting some research by David Levy and Sandra Peart.

There are lots of cases of academics, Nobel-prize-winning and otherwise, falling for fringe theories as they get older. Google Josephson or Shockley, for example. And even the most distinguished scholars have been known to make technical errors and then be too stubborn to correct them.

But the above-quoted example is different: Samuelson and Nordhaus are economists. They’re writing about their area of expertise—or, I should say, purported expertise. They should know better, or at least know that they don’t know enough to claim to know, right?

My point is not that Samuelson and Nordhaus are fools. I’ve not met or read much by either them. They might both be brilliant (although it’s hard to tell because sometimes it seems that economists like to say how brilliant other economists are) and I assume they’ve both done excellent, important work. The above quote from their book . . . make of it what you will.

I guess the problem is that social science is so damn political. Not just politics politics, also academic politics. Last year we talked about the echo chamber within the subfield of climate economics. So much of the academic world seems to be about people promoting each others’ careers.

P.S. I complain a lot about academic economics and psychology. I’m sure lots of other fields have problems that are just as big. Economics and psychology are just easy to talk about because they are relatively non-technical topics. If we want to argue about whether a particular drug works the way it’s claimed, we might need to know a lot of biology. But you don’t need any particular technical knowledge to recognize that the Soviet economy was not thriving and that the claims in those pizzagate papers were not coherent.