Friday, February 14, 2014

Rhetoric and Economics

Economics, as an academic discipline, remains a philosophical pursuit. This causes a "crises of identity" when students confront the notion that economics might be as much philosophy as anything else.

How might I justify this claim, when contemporary econ programs in the United States have a deeply ingrained "quantitative" and "computational" identity? How can I claim there is any crisis in a field that deeply, emotionally, attaches itself to math and "scientific" methodologies?

As readers know, I am an ambivalent believer in quantitative research and computational modeling. We need models, and they serve many purposes, but they are not "science" in the way most of the population now understands the label.

In sciences such as quantum physics, cosmology, neuropsychology, and even climatology, disagreements are common, but there are core areas of agreement. Most sciences have a certain "Duh?" set of assumptions that support current research.

Yet, economics retains its roots in philosophy, history, and political theory. Many economic debates are indisputably ideological, even debates concerning the "faith" placed in models.

As an instructor in an undergraduate economics program, I remind my students that I am not an economist, but rather a rhetorician with an interest in economics and policy debates. From my perspective, economics is a rhetorical discipline: economists seek to persuade other scholars, policy makers, and the public that their theories correctly explain interactions, transactions, and allocations. Economics is, even with scientific methodologies, inherently philosophical.

All sciences, according rhetoricians, are persuasive fields. But, economics relies more on the power of persuasion and public debates to declare "winners" and "losers" in the field than other disciplines. Economists and thinkers interested in economics use mass media, not peer-review journals, to affect policy choices.

Consider the most influential economists are media figures. Paul Krugman, Peter Morici, Mark Zandi, and others use cable television, major newspapers, and websites to promote their ideals. They are as much public intellectuals as scholars. These individuals promote political agendas, which necessarily raises questions about the nature of economics.

My students need rhetorical training. They need to understand logical fallacies and the (often sad) state of public policy debates. They need to appreciate that while most economists, like any other workers, toil in obscurity, the shapers of opinion and future research agendas are masters of rhetorical analysis and rhetorical devices.

I am working on a guide to communicating for economists. I am also reading every economics textbook I can secure. I'm reading everything from the philosophical classics to current mathematically-dense econometrics texts. I need to understand what my students know of the methods used by economists to help them better communicate with wider audiences.

Teaching my students that economics is as much philosophy as math, I am also trying to teach them that the choices of what to analyze with math are philosophical. What questions you ask are not driven solely by dispassionate math: you ask questions to which you want answers. That's an emotional process, a philosophical process.

Rhetoric and economics belong together, since the most influential economists are skilled communicators — or they have skilled public proponents.