The (emerging) dismal science.

Most if not all readers of this blog have heard economics referred to as the “dismal science.” Usually we hear this from economists themselves. For some reason, which reveals some deep-seated psychological quirk which bears study by other social scientists (is it nature? Or is it nurture?), economists cloak themselves in this mantle every chance they get. They love this reputation. They go out of their way to earn it, burnish it.

I’m pretty much the slow ship in life’s convoy (a metaphor that itself may mean little to younger readers), so forgive me if some of what follows is old-hat to you! I knew the phrase, but little of the background, before starting this post.  It turns out – why am I surprised? – that Wikipedia has an article on “the dismal science”. And it’s even more interesting than their usual fare – which is really saying something.

Here are tidbits. Apparently the sobriquet dates back a ways. We have Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century historian, to thank. He in turn was inspired by a particularly melancholy member of the economists’ clan, the reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who is best known for his dreary outlook for the human race…sooner or later any increase in our numbers will be checked by some combination of famine and disease. Carlyle first noted this in incomplete form in 1839. Ten years later, as quoted by Wikipedia, he said, referring to economics:

“Not a ‘gay science,’ I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.”

[Apparently at that time, it was popular to refer to the art of writing song and verse by contrast as “gay sciences.”].

Nice turn of phrase, Mr. Carlyle!

But enough scholarship for one post.

The point is, for something like 150 years, economists have had this title to themselves. When it came to dismal, they have reigned supreme and unchallenged.

Those days are now gone. Over the past few decades, Earth scientists and social scientists looking at environmental issues have begun to give economists a run for their money. We’re still behind, but closing fast. Give us another ten years – no more – and perhaps we’ll make those economists look like a bunch of Pollyannas sporting rose-colored glasses.

Environmentalists led the charge (maybe dating back to Rachel Carson?). Since about the late 1980’s, climatologists have entered the hunt. Over this same period, researchers studying the natural and social causes of hazards and disasters have made their voices heard. And in the background, if you incline your ear, you can hear the resource managers. Picture a chorus of voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass…) harmonizing the different parts of the message: Food production, water supplies, and energy resources are nearing their limits. Loss of habitat and diversity, and environmental degradation used to be local, and then regional; now they are worldwide. Global warming and its effects grow more pronounced. The rise in disaster losses is outstripping economic growth.

I’m closest to this lattermost subculture, and this topic was a subtext of the rump sessions of the Broomfield meetings I attended this past week. The hazards researchers and the hazard-mitigation practitioners, who had been together up to that point, split off from one another. I was a bystander, privileged to be hanging out with the practitioners, along with several of the (leading, as it turns out) researchers. We had a day and a half of amazing conversation.

But in the middle of the discussion there was a sidebar that went along these lines: The term disaster reduction? Entirely too negative. Hazards mitigation? Nobody knows what it means. Disaster resilience? A bit more positive. But hard to get people animated when they’re more concerned about immediate day-to-day challenges – jobs, healthcare, education, war, and more. How did we close this subject? With the realization that disaster resilience can’t be realized in isolation; it achievable only as part and parcel of a broader community resilience. And building that broader community resilience builds immediate and lasting benefits, whether a disaster occurs or not. Any community will enjoy better social-, business-, and living conditions, when it takes step to reduce the risk to hazards.

If you’re like me, maybe at first this sounds a bit too much like marketing. Off-putting, if that’s the case. But reflect a bit more. There are two scenarios under which this would not be the case. First, at more-trivial end of the spectrum of possibilities this is a bit like that discussion the astronomers had back a couple of years ago, about whether Pluto was a planet or a rock. Partly a matter of nomenclature, but also something a little more.

At the more substantive end of the spectrum? We could choose to make this idea that disaster resiliency is only a small part of community capacity-building a fundamental element of our DNA. It might be that next to the advance of our respective disciplines themselves, this is the most important thing we could be thinking about…why our work might matter day-to-day, and improve the human condition in an ongoing, positive way – not just stave off some future day of calamity. But if we’re to take the notion to this honorable level, our community of practitioners and researchers has to own it first. If we don’t believe it, if it isn’t part of our culture, if we don’t pursue that line with integrity, if it’s just a stalking horse for doom and gloom, then we shouldn’t expect society to be fooled. Of course, to go down this road, to make this a positive, and legitimately cast off this label, we have to get skilled enough at this whole process that community outcomes are indeed positive, with or without the hazardous event. Moreover, this has to be evidence-based, not just some fond hope or aspirational goal.

[Note that you can adapt this argument to the resource managers, the environmentalists, and the climatologists as well.]

Economists, take heart! Three realities favor your continued supremacy as the prophets of dismay. First, Earth scientists and their social-scientist pals are trying to get out of the doom-saying business. Second, as one of the speakers at our meeting pointed out, poverty is a root cause of disaster. And those resource-, environmental, and climate issues are also in vexing in large part because of the way they link to economics.

And third and finally, the world of economics has been enjoying a spurt of “success.” Recall the trillions of dollars of wealth the financial-sector meltdown evaporated from the world’s economies in 2008. Then turn on your television, pick up your newspaper and join the rest of us who are watching with terrified amazement. Our elected officials are dragging us to the brink of yet another financial cliff. We’re terrified but can’t avert our eyes.

Why just wait for Malthus to be proven right when you can give his thesis a helping hand – and twice in only three years!

When it comes to dismal, economics is number one!

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3 Responses to The (emerging) dismal science.

  1. Brian H says:

    The common factor IMO between climate- and econo-doomsters is immersion in the world(s) of models. A physicist warns (Feynman): “The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.”

    And a specific confounding factor in economics is the disclosure effect, to coin a phrase. As soon as a regulation or expectation is promulgated, advantage-seekers (everyone) gets down to circumventing them and looking for a strategy that defeats the projection or controls. The consequences of this “riding off madly in all directions” are not knowable in advance. Herding cats is child’s play compared to controlling the decisions of independent economic agents.

  2. Brian H says:

    typo: “advantage-seekers … get down”

    Feynman quote link:

    • Brian H says:

      Major correction: Freeman Dyson, not Feynman. Apologies for the confusion, brought to you by the letter “F”.

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