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4 THE RHETORIC OF SCIENTISM HOW JOHN MUTH PERSUADES Muth's Article Was Ill-Written but Important Consider another example in detail, less charming than Solow's but as important. In 1961 John Muth published a paper in Econometrica (the leading journal of statistical and mathematical economics , and the very embodiment of modernism in economics) entitled "Rational Expectations and the Theory of Price Movements." For years economists ignored it. Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent, who were chiefly responsible for its later fame, wrote in 1981 (p. xi) that the paper had "a remarkably quiet first decade," which is no rash assessment. Although early accorded, like Solow's paper, the honor of inclusion in Arnold Zellner's Readings in Economic Statistics and Econometrics (1968), it was for a long time little read. The pattern of citations to the paper is unusual in a field that models itself so self-consciously on the urgent bustle of physics (Table 2). Seventy-four citations in 1982: even such an important paper as Solow's reached, at most, thirty in a year. There was a tiny flash, and long afterwards a boom. Table 2. Annual Citations, 1966-1982, of Muth's 1961 Article 1966 5 1975 20 1967 3 1976 33 1968 2 1977 41 1969 2 1978 47 1970 4 1979 44 1971 2 1980 71 1972 9 1981 56 1973 10 1982 74 1974 10 Source: Social Science Citation Index. The index begins in 1966. The paper took a long time to be recognized as important because it was badly written. It is a good bet that most of the citers of the article have never laid eyes on it, and would not understand it if they did. The 52 53 The Rhetoric of Scientism case illustrates, by an argument from contraries, the importance of good writing in successful science. Galileo was a master of Italian prose; Poincare, Einstein, and Keynes influenced science and society almost as much with their pens as with their mathematics. Even by the undemanding standards of American academic life Muth's prose was not masterful or influential. It was badly organized, with ill-motivated digressions and leaps from large claims to lame examples . Little distinction was made between minor points of form and major revisions of economic thinking. Though no reader of Econometrica would have stumbled over the inelegant mathematics involved, she probably did wonder what exactly it was supposed to prove. The paper bore some of the marks of professional excellence, such as an easy familiarity with mathematical statistics at a time when not many economists could claim it, and a wide-ranging bibliography. But even a serious reader of the journal could easily have dismissed it as mere muttering. Apparently most did. While richer in invention even than it seemed, it was too obviously clumsy in arrangement to warrant much investment by its readers. Yet Muth was making an important argument. The trouble with the prevailing explanation of hog cycles or inventory accumulation and other dynamics was that it implied that economic actors are less perceptive than economics professors. The actors were supposed to be slow to change, but the professors were said to know the actors' slowness, and to be able to trace their slow adjustment. The audience claimed to know the lines better than the players. Before Muth's theory the prevailing explanation was that people get a more or less correct idea of what the future will bring and then gradually adjust to it. Muth's notion was that the professors , even if correct in their model of man, could do no better in predicting than could the hog farmer or steelmaker or insurance company. The notion is one of intellectual modesty. The professors declare themselves willing to attribute to economic actors at least as much common sense as is embodied in professional theories. The common sense is "rationality ": therefore Muth called the argument "rational expectations." What made Muth's version of the argument especially important was its application, at first by Stephen Turnovsky and Robert Lucas and later by many others, to the matter of macroeconomics. Muth's paper became the holy writ for one of the sects that sweep macroeconomics every five years. In the Keynesian or monetarist models of the 1960s and before the economic actor was perpetually astonished, the perfect rube: [Seizes newspaper.] "My word! The government has just reduced taxes in depression!" [Eyes bug out.] "Holy cow! The government has 54 The Rhetoric of Scientism trimmed the growth...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780299158132
Related ISBN
9780299158149
MARC Record
OCLC
608692467
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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