Optimal insults

A long story leading to an interesting question: I like to keep half an eye on heterodox economics.  A lot of this work raises interesting questions about the methodology that is my bread-and-butter.  I think of this as useful intellectual discipline: those who don’t school themselves in the limitations or ethical constraints of our frameworks, are likely to mis-use them.  And that got me thinking about a particular sub-group: The Post-Autistic Economics Movement.  Reading some (but not all) of the output of these heterodox economists can be quite illuminating.

But Post-Autistic?  Really?  What kind of insult is that? 

Two answers:

  1. A pretty darn good insult.  Some of the agents in our models would in fact rightly be called autistic.  Those two words are pretty clever, and occasionally telling.
  2. A terrible insult.  Post-Autistic" is designed to shock.  It is a statement more about the insulter than the insultee.  And as the subject of the insult changes, surely it loses its force.  Based on titles alone, which critical journal would you rather read: Feminist Economics, or the Post-Autistic Economics Review?  (Aside: Feminist Economics is, in my view, an excellent and underrated journal.)

But still, it got me thinking. What does an insult communicate?  At what point does an insult switch from being an insult to a statement about the insulter?  There must be a signaling story here, but I haven’t quite figured it out.  And if signaling yields a theory of insults, what would the characteristics of the optimal insult be?

So with some trepidation, let me say, comments are open.


I'm not exactly the most sensitive person in the world, but I don't like using the word "autistic" to insult economists, since autism can be a terrible tragedy for its victims and their families, when there is a perfectly accurate traditional word for the kind of thinking so many economists fall prey to: "sophomoric."

As an economist who has an autistic son I would like to note that some autistic people, such as my son, are much better at some tasks than neurotypical people are. For example, my 2-year-old son has been tested (at Yale) as reading at a 1st or 2nd grade level. Autism is a very complicated condition and should not be used as shorthand for socially isolated.

On the one hand, I'm all in favor of people generally being semi-respectful and semi-sensitive to others. On the other hand, lordy, language and metaphors (and insults) need to be allowed to have some tang and slash and sting. So I guess I (respectfully and sensitively) vote for "autistic" being OK in this case -- they're making a point that classical economics is tone-deaf to many of life's shadings, and is perhaps even a bit of a closed system. Many autistics can't pick up the invisible signals the rest of us use to help communicate, and get obsessed by things like train schedules. So the comparison seems to me to be valid, and not at all an insult to people with autism.

(I don't mean to brag or get personal in creepy ways, but I've had cancer and it doesn't bug me one bit if and when people use cancer analogies and metaphors. Cancer can make for a great, and god knows vivid, comparison.)

"Based on titles alone, which critical journal would you rather read: Feminist Economics, or the Post-Autistic Economics Review?"

Obviously, the latter. Is that supposed to be some kind of trick question?

A better question would be: "If somebody held a gun to your head and said you'd had to read either 'Feminist Economics' or 'Freudian Economics' or he'd kill you, which would you choose to read to save your life?'"

As Jack Benny slowly replied to the armed mugger who snarled at him, "Your money or your life!" "I'm thinking ... I'm thinking."

Feminism is in its Brezhnev Era -- as the firing of Larry Summers showed, it still has the bureaucratic equivalent of the Red Army's tanks and nuclear missiles, but, really, does any man with any intellectual self-respect take feminism seriously anymore?

Most of those in the post-autistic movement seem to be French. I think it loses something in the original.

It's like the old Thurber Joke:
"I'm having my book translated into French. It loses something in the original."

[Thou art] a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch. -- "Kent" in King Lear (2.2.15-23)

What theory does PAE push anyway? From what I've read of it, it just seems to be angry French students who don't like the free-market, but not for any specific economic reasoning I know of.

"but, really, does any man with any intellectual self-respect take feminism seriously anymore?"

Thus spoke the man with waaay too much self-respect. I have quite a bit of self respect, and I take feminism seriously, as do a number of intelligent and self- (and other-) respecting young men and women I know. Quite obviously, this includes Justin Wolfers, who you seem to be following around like a lost puppy.

So with some trepidation, let me say, comments are open.

And seeing the accumulated Google detritus on that Dutch insult thread, I'd say your trepidation is justified.

I can only interpret 'autistic' science as a compliment. As Simon Baron-Cohen has demonstrated, autism is more common in families with scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Autism is therefore associated with quantitative skills and "systemizing" behavior (constructing mental models of "how things work").

Furthermore the 'social brain' deficiencies of autism are also associated with more objective science: autistic people are less likely to lie, and less likely to censor themselves. Larry Summers' so-called "gaff" comes to mind. (can't integrate inconvenient facts like IQ differences in "post-autistic" science)

In this respect and others, mainstream economists probably do share some of their biological etiology with autistic people.

The first impression I got wasn't that the autistics in question were the actors in the models, the autistics were the economists using the models.

The second impression is that the movement basically consists of "we can't handle difficult maths, so we'll ignore it."

I'm going to play sentence completion with Steve Sailer here:

"I'm not exactly the most sensitive person in the world, but I don't like using the word "autistic" to insult economists..."

...because autistics are people and this "insult" depends wholly on the notion that they are somehow less than people, hence that being identified as autistic is automatically denigrating.

What it tells me about the insulter is they don't know whom they're insulting. Or they don't care.

Wow! Worst then insult is prejudice and ignorance, all rolled into one!

I am a French PhD candidate in Economics; officially, I'm good at calculus -- well, at least I graduated from the school that was the bull's eye of these attacks (as you can tell from my e-mail address) the year the PAE movement started; in the mean time I was interested by the theories behind the claims, took a Masters in heterodox economics -- and I now do something which is oddly both very mathematical, and trying to bridge ideas from several sides. Let me come back to many of the points made here.

1. Autism is a condition, and some of the leaders of the movement have close relatives who suffer from it; they had the symptoms in mind (emotionally deaf, keen on weird, complicated, useless task) and their key point was precisely that someone who could choose to be autistic would certainly not.

2. Some are serious thinkers, but a majority of the militants are the usual anti-market, lefty, black-clad, anti-GMO, pro-Palestinian, anti-Police protester/youngster. You should however tell the dominant caricature from the Heterodox movements, who work on generally interesting, scientific arguments.

3. There are not two sides: heterodox are many in shape and size, even when you try to weed out the loony, odd ones. Try to attend any scientific congress trying to merge two theories: you'll be surprised by the animosity, and the depth of the arguments. The best specialists of methodology, history of science and radical concerns are often closer to heterodox for that reason.
Because of what was described (not by me, but by a leading very Neo-Classical economist) as a witch-hunt, many economist hide their sympathy; many fascinating papers that would have lead the way twenty years ago are condemned to hardly known journals -- and the only one sorry are the mainstream economists who deprive themselves from the honour to stand on those shoulders too. I'm being a little bit formal there, but I'm just trying to convince my-self that the lack of finance won't impair important programs (on the economics of GMOs, cybrids, etc.)

4. However often politically charge, the actual claims are very sensible: I'm quite sensitive to market failure or information-based arguments, generally using extensively people as mainstream as Brian Arthur, Ronald Coase or George Akerlof. Another way to broadly encompass them is by saying that they think economics are a social science, not a hard science: Douglas North or Behavioural economists are close to many heterodox schools; political science is another story.
It might be over-simplifying, but natural sciences observe regularities, so do economists: however, those findings when know by the agents, influence them and, most likely, change the outcomes. Such a loop is much more typical of a social science. In my area (Internet economics) this is even easier to see, as many data & scientist are linked to companies; start-up are made from fresh scientific ideas.
My personal point of view is that the proper approach depends on what you look at: when considering a bank's investments, the decision was made by teams of experts who know what they do: classical reasoning does apply. You could of course explain Christmas gift-giving out of interest: personal ties are more valuable, etc. You might find reasons for economic student to behave differently in the Ultimatum game -- but, to some people, Orkam's razor leads you into thinking classical theory is just slightly off on how close is personal interest to decision-making. Of course looking at Darwinian approaches is interesting -- but sometimes it just feels like you are trying to eat with you right arm around your neck, feeding you left ear, just because you pretend you are left-handed. And believe me, some models feel like you are doing far worst then going around your neck twice: I know, I wrote some of them.
Economics cannot have a reasonable, unified theory yet -- at least, I can't imagine before Physics do.

5. It is always difficult to understand why France led the movement; many theories are possible:

- French schools are very keen on maths: this help to get Field's Medals; but students that are not skilled in calculus feel left-out quite early, and the resentment can lead to offended, and offensive, thinkers. Recent evolutions at the few teaching institutions didn't help: many students studied Black & Scholes finance, and made tons of money in the City of London (where maths geeks were hardly locally grown) and left theory to those not interested by the smell of easy money. The few left then went to the USA or Toulouse (in France, but not Paris, and that's a big deal) once they had a PhD subject, because there is so much more money there. A few vocal and gifted individuals (Piketti, Aglietta, etc.) stirred up the ante.

- Language is another issue: research was done in French until recently, and some of the elder heterodoxes still remember that time; to many, is still is a barrier, per se and because social sciences rely on the subtleties of language. Read Russian writers, or Amartya Sen: you can feel the English lack of Optative is restraining them. This explains why soocial science, and to a lesser extend phisolophy, have national schools of though.
I remember a good economist trying to translate to English an essay, and complaining there was no subjunctive in English (Note: there is, his English was just not good enough for him to notice it.) I've tried translating one of the many great recent heterodox papers into English, and it was so hard that I had to drop it; you need a great deal of vocabulary to come across: check Oliver E. Williamson to see what I mean.
I know some of you believe economics is about being simple, because of Ockam; to them, it has to be accurate, because of Ockam -- and mathematical modelling generally doesn't help them as much as it helps you.

Once again: it appeared to my you knew little of that movement so I came through, but I'm no expert: just the occasional student. I won't blindfoldedly support the views of anyone in this list --- except R. H. Coase, but he's a genius, so that's different ;^)
Seriously, I read great stuff from anywhere, but generally unexpected places. E.g.: Stanford has the best heterodox theory; people in Chicago proved that race is important in the USA, not a very rational behaviour at first sight; the best applications of non-mainstream are made by the economically liberal UK government; Harrison White has kick-ass maths, etc. -- are irrational agents the privilege of non-mainstream, econometrics prohibited from pro-Union papers? I found prejudice in all journals.

The only opinion I would strongly defend is that there is not two sides, but a many-dimensional continuum of insights, methodology and results, and that the whole thing is needed to understand values and decisions.
If you prefer MR, simple models, and market that hum smoothly to the work of the invisible hand: that's fine to me, I and the most hard core heterodox can give you dozens of interesting questions that you will both love -- but just don't refuse to someone the title of "economist" because he reads Keynes or assumes agents do not behave rationally, as some have done to me recently.

Regarding "post-Asperger's," well, some time ago Tyler Cowen had a posting that
linked to a TV interview with Vernon Smith who openly discussed his own Asperger's.

Regarding prejudice in journals, I can name one or two that are not too prejudiced,
but then I am biased in my judgments of this matter...

Finally, there is the old syndrome that indeed what was once an insult can turn into
a respected label. "Impressionism" was used initially by a critic of Monet's painting
as an insult. Try and buy an original Monet for less than $10 million today (with, I
think, the minimum probably well above that). Likewise, "les fauves," referring to a
later (and now respected and expensive school of painting), literally means "wild beasts,"
and was initially used by a critic not in a favorable way at all. And in economics and
science more generally, John Horgan (of _The End of Science_, 1997) dismissed some people
as "chaoplexologists," viewing this as at least somewhat derogatory. However, I know more
than one person who considers the label to be at least ironically favorable today.

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