U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Is Nearly Universal Agreement within an Academic Discipline Seen as a Good Thing?

In the last several weeks, a debate has been going on among economics bloggers about the state of macroeconomics today.*  The discussion seems to have been kicked off by a December 17 post by Paul Krugman, “Something (Everything) Rotten in the State of Macro,” to which Stephen Williamson responded with severe skepticism (“This Paul Krugman post struck me as perhaps more deranged than usual on the topic of macroeconomists…”).

The underlying issues of the disagreement between those who think macro is in good shape and those who think it is in bad shape are interesting and important.  But I have little to add to the economists’ discussions of them (largely because IANAE).**

But one thing struck me as very interesting about this discussion: the attitude of the participants toward agreement within macroeconomics.  In short, both those, like Williamson, who think things are fine in macro, and those like Krugman, who think that they aren’t, seem to agree that it would be good if there were broad agreement among macroeconomists and that sharp disagreements within the field indicate trouble.

Not surprisingly, Williamson denies the existence of such sharp disagreements:

This is actually a relatively tranquil time in the field of macroeconomics. Most of us now speak the same language, and communication is good. I don’t see the kind of animosity in the profession that existed, for example, between James Tobin and Milton Friedman in the 1960s, or between the Minnesota school and everyone else in the 1970s and early 1980s. People disagree about issues and science, of course, and they spend their time in seminar rooms and at conferences getting pretty heated about economics. But I think the level of mutual respect is actually relatively high. There seem to be more serious disputes, for example, between structural and astructural labor economists than among macroeconomists.

Krugman, on the other hand, thinks that there is a sharp ideological divide between the (broadly correct) “saltwater” (or New Keynesian) economists and the (broadly incorrect) “freshwater” economists… and that the very existence of this divide is a problem. Indeed, over the weekend, he argued against a recent study suggesting that there’s broad agreement among economists working today.

Why would the very existence of sharp disagreement within the field of macroeconomics constitute a problem?  The answer seems to be related to economics’ self-understanding as a science.  Such sharp disagreements appear to call into question the scientific nature of economic knowledge.  For his part, Krugman seems to think that only his “freshwater” opponents are guided by ideology. In a perfect world, economists would all gather around an objective, unideological scientific consensus.

Two things strike me as interesting about this self-understanding (which, again, seems to be shared by those on both sides of this controversy). First, the primary measure of economics’ scientific claims appears to be agreement within the economics profession, rather than the ability of that profession to accurately predict economic events or correctly guide economic policy. About the relationship of economic science to the real world there seems to be some disagreement.  Williamson on other occasions has seemed to deny that important aspects of macro theory have any real-world implications at all.  Krugman, on the other hand, thinks that those economists not addled by ideology or seduced by politics have, more or less, gotten things right, even in the Great Recession.

Secondly, deep disagreement, especially ideologically motivated disagreement, within the economics profession is seen as potentially threatening to economics as a discipline.  Here’s Krugman from this weekend:

while the vast majority of economists may work on issues far removed from the question of what to do in a depression, an important part of our field’s prestige and the support it receives comes from the perception that economists do indeed have useful advice to offer in times of depression, and may come up with more useful advice in the future.

 And if the perception spreads, instead, that business-cycle macro is just ideological posturing, that influential economists choose their doctrines to suit their political prejudices, and that the field not only fails to progress but sometimes actually retrogresses, this will be bad for the profession as well as the world.

In this passage, Krugman is certainly concerned about real-world failure, but ideology and politics are contrasted with a presumably objective economics that, like any proper science, knows only progress.

All of this is interesting to me because, in our field, agreement among historians is not usually taken to be such an unalloyed good.  Indeed, it is often seen as a sign that alternative perspectives are being shut out.  On occasion, some historians even value work that wears its ideology openly, largely because they suspect work that doesn’t do so is merely disguising its ideology, rather than transcending it.***  But even those historians most vocally opposed to openly ideological work have expressed an interest in variety and disagreement among historians.  Thus, when the Historical Society was created in 1998 by a group of largely conservative historians objecting to what they saw as bad, ideological work in the profession, its founders were at pains to indicate that they were in favor of diversity in historical practice, and that it was their opponents who had created a “crust of dull conformity.”  The statement of principles that the Historical Society issued at its founding declared that it would be “a place in which significant historical subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect and common courtesy.”  In short, virtually no historians, left or right, tend to believe that, in a healthy historical profession, we all ought to agree about important matters.

Of course this very different attitude toward intradisciplinary disagreement is connected to the near total absence of scientism in today’s historical profession.  Very, very few of us would claim that history is, should be, or even could be, a science.  Thus our measures of disciplinary health are very different from those of fields like economics that maintain scientific aspirations.

*  For those not already playing along at home, a good starting point (though one actually in mid-debate) is a post by John Quiggin of Crooked Timber entitled “The (failed) state of macroeconomics.” It’s the first in an interesting series of posts in which Quiggin surveys the big issues in the field, and it also contains links to some of the highlights of the ongoing debate about the state of the discipline that preceded it.

** Those interested might, again, start off with the Quiggin on unemployment, the fiscal multiplier, and the history of things going wrong in macro (he believes that it started going bad with the discovery of the Phillips curve in 1958).

***  Guest blogger William Hogeland does this a bit in his post from earlier today, seeming to prefer Forrest McDonald’s frankly ideological objections to Charles Beard’s view of the Founding to Douglass Adair’s less openly ideological critique of Beard. Though Hogeland has no truck with McDonald’s politics, he suggests that at least McDonald was open about where he stood.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. To add another twist: according to Michele Lamont’s _How Professors Think_, historians (as opposed to literature scholars, anthropologists, philosophers and other humanities/social science professors) have the highest degree of consensus, not about specific arguments, but about what constitutes good work in the discipline. So, while historians agree to disagree about, say, the principle features of Progressivism, their disagreement in no way affects their common disciplinary understanding of what is good work–they seem to separate substantive disagreement, of which there is much–from agreement over what constitutes “good” history. If I recall Lamont correctly on this, philosophers are the most divided in making these kinds of judgments.

    • Adding to Dan’s point: Methodologically we historians have a strong social scientific, empiricist strain: we examine primary documents which all can access, we cite those documents in our studies, and we rigorously note schools of thought (i.e. when they exist—secondary sources) that affect our interpretation of the documents. So while we do not strive for scientific explanation (i.e. 95 percent or better reproduction in explanation), we do strive for a some degree of scientific methodology in terms of reproducing research. Some among us even cite historical “theory,” rather than the more traditional notion of a philosophy of history, to further add to the veneer of empiricism and social science that permeate our field.

      How does this relate to Ben’s discussion of economics? I’m not 100 percent sure. But there are some prominent ideological/theoretical assumptions that permeate the profession: diversity is good, democracy is good, we privilege group/social change over individual change (i.e. the great man theory is very much out, history is now about groups rather than individuals, who are covered in biography), etc.

      So it appears we have high methodological consensus (re: empiricism) and some degree of theoretical consensus. – TL

  2. I don’t want to detract from anything John Quiggin has said. His series of posts over at Crooked Timber is one of the best accounts I’ve read of what went wrong in economics. Also, I am sympathetic to Quiggin’s idea of what economics should be, which can be found in this old quote from Keynes:

    “But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”

    That would be nice, but too few of today’s economists have such a modest conception of their discipline. Hence, I suspect, the profound concern about internal disagreement.

    It seems to me that the bitterness of these disputes is not due to disagreement _per se_. When most economists disagree about particular facts or specific applications of theory, I doubt their disagreements are much more intense than those in other disciplines. If the disagreement can be attributed to poor data or insufficient rigor, it is not necessarily a threat to their identity as scientists. The real threat, at least for those who imagine their work is something akin to physics, comes from any serious challenge to their methods.

    Too many economists have fetishized their current methods. That is not to say prevailing methods are entirely worthless, but this obsession thwarts any attempt to reassess and revise them. As economist Alan Kirman said:

    “Paul Seabright hit the nail on the head; economists tend to inaccurately portray their work as a steady and relentless improvement of their models whereas, actually, economists tend to chase an empirical reality that is changing just as fast as their modelling. I would go further; rather than making steady progress towards explaining economic phenomena professional economists have been locked into a narrow vision of the economy. We constantly make more and more sophisticated models within that vision until, as Bob Solow put it, ‘the uninitiated peasant is left wondering what planet he or she is on’ (Solow 2006).”


    What is peculiar about the economic profession in the wake of the financial crisis has been what Kirman called, “the economist’s instinct is to attempt to modify reality in order to fit a model that has been built on longstanding theory.” John Kay noted the same vice, which he described as mistaking the map for the territory:


    In other words, too many economists act less like practical dentists than like gnostic priests who believe they possess a special way of seeing the hidden order of the universe.

  3. An interesting post and comments – thank you.

    Another aspect to this is what I would regard as the fallacious notion that economics actually represents something distinct from wider life, something that would lead us to see certain things as belonging to the category of economics, whilst other things/aspects/areas of life belong to a category of not-economics. If such divisions are created and sustained, it is often done so in the interests of those who seek to perpetuate a certain understanding that enables some kind of form of dominance, whether this be in overt power contexts, or in terms of disciplinary uniformity/unity and hegemony. Those economists who take a broader view – and I would definitely include Paul Krugman in this group – recognise the wider interconnectedness of what might be categorised as economics with everything else (the stuff that others might regard as not-economics), and in such contexts the issue of models etc. developed in some of the comments here, do not work so well, and often not at all.

    In disciplinary terms, I would see myself in broad terms as a historian, concerned with the development of such categories, amongst other things. A lot of this kind of thinking about categories (which began with the religion/not-religion category as elucidated in detail by my colleague Timothy Fitzgerald under the term Critical Religion) can be found on a website I’m involved in: http://www.criticalreligion.org.

  4. Perhaps people on different sides of the debates in economics believe in agreement as a desiderative, not as a description of the current condition of the field. They may all agree with Krugman’s observation — probably correct — that disagreements perceived to be fundamental threaten the public reputation and influence of the field. But until one group achieves either the reality or appearance of hegemony, all are condemned to live with difference and conflict. In that case, they have an interest in defending the right to disagree, and may actually believe in it.

    Similarly with historians, whom you suggest are somewhat suspicious of agreement, fearful that it entails the exclusion of some ideas, or because they associated it with a “dull conformity,” in the words of the Historical Society founders.

    So it seems that much depends on how we approach two sorts of questions — 1st, what is agreement, and what questions are in play? and 2nd , according to whom? I’ll address only the 1st here.

    Agreement is a multi-faceted notion — perhaps not even a single concept — and clearly people can agree on some things and disagree on others, and, crucially, agree and disagree on how they understand the way in which different kinds or levels of agreement implicate one another.

    On the last point: I read recently an essay by Stanley Fish, “Truth but No Consequences: Why Philosophy Doesn’t Matter,” in Critical Inquiry, Spring 2003. If I get him right, Fish criticizes the view of some, including Thomas Haskell and James Kloppenberg, that agreements on “deep” metaphysical and epistemological issues are entailed in and required for the ordinary practices of disciplines and, indeed, of everyday life. That doesn’t mean they are continually engaged in either philosophical debates or declarations of faith in the ordinary course of following their craft, and when they are, says Fish, it’s but “another stage in the unfolding of a pragmatic context.” [403] For him “there is no relationship between general metaphysical accounts of human practices and the performance of human practices.” Agreement on deep philosophical issues is not required either to launch or organize inquiry, since it’s constitutively structured in the local practices practitioners have come to accept. [410, 410n.16]

    The obvious point is that “agreement” isn’t a simple, one-dimensional notion — and the distinction Daniel Wickberg makes is a familiar one. Maybe we can learn a lot about the operative agreements in a discipline by looking at the problems, issues and topics that are routinely excluded, for principled or habitual reasons; and how they are sometimes reframed to become acceptable, translated into the familiar terms of disciplinary practice.

    Isn’t this what historians do? not science, but the history of science, for instance. Along these lines, David Hollinger’s “T.S. Kuhn’s Theory of Science and Its Implications for History,” AHR 1973, is a masterful wrestling with these boundary issues, these problems of where and how agreements of of different sorts gear into one another vis-à-vis the disciplinary community.

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