Make economics great again

There has been a thread on the History of Economics discussion forum under the heading “Progress and Death” which revolves around the origins of the aphorism that science advances funeral by funeral. It turns out that this was an observation by Max Planck which more fully reads:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

I do find it interesting that even in the natural sciences that a reluctance to embrace new directions among the older generation slows the shift, since I would have thought that in the natural sciences experiment and evidence-based reasoning would overwhelm such resistance. In the social sciences, of course, experiment and evidence seem to count for little. I therefore put up the following post of my own:

I am always somewhat reluctant to buy into these issues, but right from the heading – “Progress and Death” – there is an implicit assumption that the latest is better than the superseded, which I find completely unfounded. As someone who believes that Keynesian economics has been almost the paradigm example of regression in any of the sciences, I can agree with the notion that the mainstream in some body of scientific thought will bend towards the latest fashion that is accelerated by the deaths of its older generation. But the belief that this always entails progress is, in my view, deeply mistaken. You do not have to agree with me about Keynes to recognise that the deaths of the likes of Frank Knight, J.R. Commons and Allyn Young took from the economics profession some very articulate, interesting and established views that are very different from the ones we see before us in our economic texts today. I am more likely to accept this aphorism as relatively accurate for the natural sciences, that science advances funeral by funeral, but for the social sciences I think it is completely false. That is why I argue that economists need to study the history of economic thought to keep themselves in contact with these older ideas. Their authors may have gone from the world, but their ideas – even ones we end up not agreeing with – remain as alive and worthy of study as they were on the day they were first written down.

It’s been a day since this went up and so far no one has decided to enter into these issues, which are much more intense than merely to ask where a quote originated. If anything does show up, I will let you know.

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