The Specter of Ignorance in Economic Theory and Practice: An Introduction to the Issues | E-Axes

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The Specter of Ignorance in Economic Theory and Practice: An Introduction to the Issues

date Date: January 1, 2017
date Author(s): George DeMartino
date Affiliation: University of Denver
Economists typically apply themselves to the expansion of the terrain of economic knowledge, mapping those domains that they believe to be amenable to scientific analysis via the application of economic concepts and methods. This vision of economics is essentially optimistic: it presumes that economic science progresses over time as economic knowledge pushes against the frontier separating the known from the unknown. But this model of economic science is illusory, and it is potentially dangerous when it is drawn upon (as it often is) to secure authority for the profession. The model obscures the fact that economics treats material that entails not just the unknown, but the unknowable; and that recognition of ignorance ought to be central to theoretical and applied economics. What do we not know now in economics, what might we never know, what might be unknowable in principle—and how should these epistemic limitations bear on economists’ practice? Alternative strategies for managing authority in the context of ignorance include (among others) Nassim Taleb’s skin-in-the-game ethic; Wendell Berry “way of ignorance;” and David Colander’s “muddling through.”

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