Not a new messi­ness

Business Day - - OPINION -

SIR — John Kay cites Paul Romer’s coinage of “math­i­ness” and rightly laments sci­en­tific ve­neer on ide­o­log­i­cal ax­ioms (“Econ­o­mists should keep to the facts, not feel­ings”, Oc­to­ber 8). I don’t wish to de­tract from the cen­tral point made, but I am sur­prised at what was omit­ted, given the sub­ject mat­ter.

Mr Romer’s cool new term may re­flect the mod­ern zeit­geist, but the un­der­ly­ing phe­nom­e­non is much older, and it has not es­caped crit­i­cism. As far back as 1974, a No­bel Me­mo­rial Prize lau­re­ate de­liv­ered his ac­cep­tance speech. In fairly un­com­pli­men­tary terms (“we have made a mess of things”), it dealt with the eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion’s un­healthy de­ploy­ment of math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion on the in­tractably un­quan­tifi­able, and the dis­as­trous re­sults of the poli­cies it so con­fi­dently in­formed. He used a dif­fer­ent term (“sci­en­tis­tic” as dis­tinct from “sci­en­tific”), but the sub­ject was math­i­ness just the same. That speaker was Friedrich Hayek, and the speech, “The Pre­tence of Knowl­edge”, is as co­gent and rel­e­vant to to­day’s world as it was then. It is freely avail­able online. David Chap­lin Fish Hoek

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