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Economics and the Promotion of Ignorance-Squared Herb Thompson For the past fifty years, there have been two developing trends at the core of the textbook neoclassical economic theory that is passed on to students. The first is that economists have become increasingly engaged in the formation of compelling, mathematically elegant hypotheses with little interest in their policy implications. The second is the reluctance of mainstream economists and their students to engage in conversations with alternative paradigmatic schools of thought (e.g., feminists, Marxists , or proponents of alternative economic models such as institutionalists or post-Keynesians). Because of this, economics (the mainstream theory taught in both secondary schools and universities) has become anti-intellectual and the promoter of an insidious form of ignorance, which I label ignorance-squared. Ignorance-squared, in this context, is meant to suggest a purposeful lack of concern regarding the awareness of what it is that one doesn’t know. In January 1996, a group of “heterodox economists” made a presentation to the Publishing Committee of the American Economics Association responsible for the American Economic Review, the Journal of Economic Literature, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives (with little effect thereafter, I might add!). Anne Mayhew, the editor of the Journal of Economic Issues, speaking before the committee, cogently pointed out that a small group of economists had “captured” the most prestigious journals of the discipline and, subsequently, promoted mathematical complexity at the expense of social, political, and economic issues incorporating “history, institutions and power.” Further, the prestige of the association and the journals was unashamedly used 274 Herb Thompson “to narrow the discipline, to reward the excessive technical training of the prestigious graduate schools, and to stifle the advance of heterodox approaches to economics” (Mayhew 1996, 1–2). What follows is a discussion of some of the content, causes, and effects of Mayhew’s articulated frustration with the discipline’s promotion of, and its consequent limiting of, economic knowledge. knowledge, ignorance, and ignorance-squared Methodologically, economists are primarily concerned about the question , “How can one tell whether a particular bit of economics is good science?” (Hausman 1989, 115). Herein, I pursue a different, sociological question, not how we come to know what it is that economists don’t know, but why it is the case that mainstream economists don’t want to be aware of what it is that they don’t know. One of the streams of awareness being tracked in this collection of essays is that “the greatest achievement of science . . . is the discovery that we are profoundly ignorant; we know very little about nature and understand even less” (Kerwin 1993, 174). However, the beneficial aspects of this type of ignorance are lost in the much more insidious cultivation of, and purposeful production of, ignorance in the classroom. This is done through narrow pedagogy, the confining of research parameters , and constraining the production and presentation of non-neoclassical economic knowledge. Training in textbook economics and economic research systematically fosters ignorance-squared in that students and researchers are shielded from any acquaintance with problems outside the domain of successful puzzle solving. The situation that occurs in classrooms is characterized as “purposeful ignorance” by Paul Heltne (in this volume ). According to Heltne, it is the time “when you are made to feel that it would be foolish to ask questions about derived conclusions or about basic assumptions.” Economics students are regularly confronted with this state of affairs. The curriculum is always crowded with the positive heuristic of neoclassical economics, as if there is always too much to teach. There is never time for reflection, for perspective, for the cultivation of awareness, and, most important, for the presentation of other contentious viewpoints, much less for the knowledge produced outside the disciplinary boundaries. When neoclassical economists restrict their discourse as well as their students’ ability to engage with Economics and the Promotion of Ignorance-Squared 275 others of the same or related specialties, then ignorance-squared, in the manner put forward by Ravetz (1993), is enhanced. We are all ignorant in a variety of ways, to various degrees, with respect to specific issues, problems, and questions. In fact, it is the increasing awareness of our ignorance of what there remains to know that is most special about the learning process and that is the focal point of this volume. A taxonomy of ignorance by Smithson (Smithson 1989, 9; and Smithson 1993, 135), outlined below, remains most helpful in suggesting the variety of forms (the reader should also...


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