Post on Being Human: Disciplinary Reflection by Sarah Zhang

On October 8th, I attended the lecture titled “Being Human: Disciplinary Reflections” presented by Dr. Gouri Suresh in the economics department. Throughout the whole lecture, I was constantly haunted by how my knowledge from the Humanities classes could be applied to the economics as well.

First, the lecturer distinguished between Homo Economics and Homo Sapiens, stressing on the irrational nature of human being. The fact that people are irrational and independent makes it extremely hard to come up with a single model that concludes all human behavior. But, just as the professor mentioned, when the economists were building a model, they assume that all human beings are the same. And this reminds me of what Prof. Quillen talked in unit 1 about the danger of prescribing a generalized universal truth that easily exclude and eliminate diversity. What is the danger of using a single model to conclude all human’s behavior? One thing that the Dr. Gouri Suresh pointed out is that when we actually apply the model for a practical purpose, people are very likely to change their behavior. And now the model cannot be used to explain behavior, but this again doesn’t prove the model wrong, because there are other possible factors, for example psychological ones, responsible for change in behavior. This is in fact, a form of secondary elaboration because you are using a conclusion based on observation to explain observation, and you can easily find an excuse for the failure of the conclusion to predict by saying that the premise of such prediction simply doesn’t match observation. This circular thinking makes it impossible to prove something wrong nor prove it right.

Another concept mentioned is the “As-if” economics, which reminds me of pragmaticism in that it doesn’t focus on how “realistic” the model is, as long as the model can provide good predictions. A consequence of this, mentioned by Dr. Gouri Suresh, is that economists then ignore the assumptions and the flaws but focus on empirical results, and publish these results anyway (if flaws exists, the function of the result would be to prove the flaws). Moreover, the “As-if” statement, being circular and unmeasurable is also a form of secondary elaboration in that it adds new parameters to fit the outcome of the research instead of offering explanation. What is the consequence if the science industry, or all disciplines, adopts pragmaticism? If the transition from classical economics, that answer the big questions, to behavior economics, that focus on smaller individual questions, is also a form of paradigm shift, why are we still running in circle? How are we trapped in our secondary elaborations?

An interesting statement Dr. Gouri Suresh gave is that we should give everyone in the public sphere quantitative training to be able to see the flaws and what can be best applied. One thing that I mentioned in sections is that, we are increasingly looking at the world from a quantitative view, concretizing everything into numbers, interpreting everything in a way that minimizes the influence of subjective opinion. Is this really helping? The idea of “what can be best applied” is just the same as what pragmatists describe as “useful”, but can a quantitated world actually best serve us? Are numbers bringing us closer to the truth?

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