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Tim Harford, columnist for the Financial Times and author a new book, Adapt, will be delivering the opening keynote address at the NZAE conference on 29 June in Wellington. The main idea (apparently – I’m waiting until the conference to buy a copy) is that we need to adapt through trial and error, rather than relying on experts to design grand solutions.

Slate had an excerpt from the book that I found thought-provoking. It addressed the issue of how to design science funding systems that permit or even encourage new ideas, which are, by definition, unconventional. I have some sympathy for the view that science funding needs flexibility.

The Financial Times liked the book:

[Harford] has assembled a powerful combination of anecdotes and data to make a serious point: companies, governments and people must recognise the limits of their wisdom and embrace the muddling of mankind.

A review of the book takes on the central thesis, however, and finds it lacking (h/t to Crooked Timber):

Tetlock divided his experts into foxes (good at many things) and hedgehogs (good at one thing) and argued that hedgehogs are over-confident because they “reduce the problem to some core theoretical scheme’… and they used that theme over and over, like a template, to stamp out predictions”. And that’s exactly what Harford does here. He sees evolution as a fox-like strategy (trying many things and selecting a few) but doesn’t notice that at the level of individual species, evolution gives us both foxes and hedgehogs, and both do perfectly fine.

So, food for thought. I’m looking forward to hearing Tim speak. Won’t you join us?


There’s been an interesting discussion on some economics blogs about the state of economics knowledge. It’s part of a larger and perennial discussion/debate about what we should research and teach.

Despairing for their professions:

Brad DeLong reacts to an answer by Larry Summers about which economists are relevant:

Asked to name where to turn to understand what was going on in 2008, Summers cited three dead men, a book written 33 years ago, and another written the century before last.

Paul Krugman has been despairing for a while:

[W]e’re living in a Dark Age of macroeconomics. Remember, what defined the Dark Ages wasn’t the fact that they were primitive — the Bronze Age was primitive, too. What made the Dark Ages dark was the fact that so much knowledge had been lost, that so much known to the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten by the barbarian kingdoms that followed.

In New Zealand, the NZAE may be able to help. We have members from throughout the profession, both producers and consumers of economics knowledge. By talking with each other, we might be able to figure out what the relevant knowledge is and how to produce and transmit it.

But that raises some questions. Is there a market failure in the production of knowledge? That is, are economists really not producing the kind and amount of knowledge that is being demanded by knowledge consumers? Furthermore, would co-ordination help the problem?

The alternative is that the right amounts and kinds of information are being produced to satisfy those with an effective demand for it.