Stigler Conviction vs. Feynman Integrity
In a previous post, I referred to Feynman Integrity as one possible guide to a life in science. An alternative is what I’ll call Stigler Conviction.
This being the Internet, I’ll start with the smallest quote that conveys what Stigler conviction means. But because it helps to read this quote in context, at the end of this post, I’ll present a longer, unedited passage that contains it:
Although … new economic theories are introduced by the technique of the huckster, I should add that they are not the work of mere hucksters. … Instead, the successful inventor is a one-sided man. He is utterly persuaded of the significance and correctness of his ideas and he subordinates all other truths because they seem to him less important than the general acceptance of his truth. He is more a warrior against ignorance than a scholar among ideas. (Stigler 1955, p. 296)
Stigler 1955, “The Nature and Role of Originality in Scientific Progress,” Economica, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 88, pp. 293-302
Paul Krugman suggests that hubris explains the change between the pioneering work that Robert Lucas did in the 1970s and the questionable work that Lucas and his supporters have been doing more recently.
Here’s how I would restate Krugman’s account. The path that led Lucas and his followers to increasingly implausible positions defended using increasingly adversarial arguments starts with Stigler conviction and a commitment to an initial conjecture that turned out to be false–that during a recession, the behavior of the aggregate economy can be characterized by a model that relies on imperfect information and a signal extraction problem that treats market clearing as a maintained auxiliary hypothesis.
To me, this gives a plausible description of how events unfolded, but it leaves the fundamental cause unexplained. Why did Lucas, who as far as I can tell was originally guided by Feynman integrity, switch to the mode of Stigler conviction? Market clearing did not have to evolve from auxiliary hypothesis to dogma that could not be questioned.
My conjecture is economists let small accidents of intellectual history matter too much. If we had behaved like scientists, things could have turned out very differently. It is worth paying attention to these accidents because doing so might let us take more control over the process of scientific inquiry that we are engaged in. At the very least, we should try to reduce the odds that that personal frictions and simple misunderstandings could once again cause us to veer off on some damaging trajectory.
I suspect that it was personal friction and a misunderstanding that encouraged a turn toward isolation (or if you prefer, epistemic closure) by Lucas and colleagues. They circled the wagons because they thought that this was the only way to keep the rational expectations revolution alive. The misunderstanding is that Lucas and his colleagues interpreted the hostile reaction they received from such economists as Robert Solow to mean that they were facing implacable, unreasoning resistance from such departments as MIT. In fact, in a remarkably short period of time, rational expectations completely conquered the PhD program at MIT.
It is an interesting coincidence that Stigler and Solow, two of the key players in this account, both relished a chance to use sarcasm and dismissive humor to get under the skin of their opponents.
The self-imposed isolation, together with Lucas’s return to the intellectual environment at the University of Chicago, may in turn have fostered the switch to Stigler conviction as the default habit of mind. Stigler, with support from such disciples as Kevin Murphy, dominated the intellectual environment at Chicago to an extent that outsiders might not appreciate. When Lucas came back from Carnegie Mellon, he pulled off a coup that displaced Friedman. But Stigler stayed. Perhaps the right way to think of what happened is that he captured Lucas.
Here is the context of the quote from Stigler, with nothing omitted. In the final paragraph that I quote, Stigler hedges his position, or perhaps I should say he covers himself. If you put this in the broader context of Stigler’s career and achievements, I think it is fair to read this as saying that to alter a science’s work, an idea has to tell the truth, but not the whole truth. I think that it is appropriate to take Stigler literally when he speaks of the techniques of persuasion, including “disproportionate emphases.”
The techniques of persuasion also in the realm of ideas are generally repetition, inflated claims, and disproportionate emphases, and they have preceded and accompanied the adoption on a large scale of almost every new idea in economic theory. Almost, but not quite, every new idea. A few men have such unusual powers that their contemporaries recognize their claims without the usual exaggerations: Smith and Marshall are the only economists who seem to me indisputably to belong in this supreme class.
The rest have employed in varying degrees the techniques of the huckster. Consider Jevons. Writing a Theory of Political Economy, he devoted the first 197 pages of a book of 267 pages to his ideas on utility! Or consider Bohm-Bawerk. Not content with writing two volumes, and dozens of articles, in presenting and defending his capital theory, he added a third volume (to the third edition of his Positive Theoriedes Kapitals) devoted exclusively to refuting, at least to his own satisfaction, every criticism that had arisen during the preceding decades.
Although the new economic theories are introduced by the technique of the huckster, I should add that they are not the work of mere hucksters. The sincerity of Jevons, for example, is printed on every page. Indeed I do not believe that any important economist has ever deliberately contrived ideas in which he did not believe in order to achieve prominence: men of the requisite intellectual power and morality can get bigger prizes elsewhere. Instead, the successful inventor is a one-sided man. He is utterly persuaded of the significance and correctness of his ideas and he subordinates all other truths because they seem to him less important than the general acceptance of his truth. He is more a warrior against ignorance than a scholar among ideas.
Nor do I argue that a strong conviction of the validity of one’s ideas and energetic dissemination are sufficient to alter significantly a science’s work. It is possible by mere skill of presentation to create a fad, but a deep and lasting impression on the science will be achieved only if the idea meets the more durable standards of the science. Among these standards is truth, but of course it is not the only one.