Monday, November 16, 2009

The Downside of Specialization

As some have already pointed out, not all of the reactions to Elinor Ostrom getting the Nobel Prize were positive. The most productive comments in the link that Dr. Boettke provides read something like: "I never had to read anything by her in my PhD program, she must not be worthwhile." You don't need much imagination to guess some of the less productive comments (Hint: the commenters are as emotionally mature as 15 year old boys with a headset playing Halo).

The former of these brings to mind a question - if Orstom's work is important enough to merit a Nobel, WHY have people in PhD Econ programs not read her? I think the answer lies in too much academic specialization. Specialization, as any basic micro class will teach you, is extremely important to the functioning of the economy. The same is true in academics, God forbid if to graduate with a PhD one need master not only their subject but many others. Now, Ostrom's PhD is in Political Science, not Economics. Therefore, it would seem to follow, the benefit from reading her work would be low for an Economist. Clearly, this is false. The reason is that all social scientists are trying to answer the same fundamental questions: how to people act, and how do people interact, given different environments? This is true for Economists, Historians, Sociologists, Political Scientists...

This means that overspecializing and only reading things by people who got their PhD in Economics means neglecting valuable resources.

I want to link to a great essay, titled The American Scholar, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here's a link. Emerson's prose is spectacular and his message pertinent. Being in a PhD program means becoming a Scholar first, seeking Truth wherever it is, and whatever you specialize in second. Otherwise, "the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man." (or woman)

(I got the essay recommendation and topic idea from McCloskey's "How to Be Human* *Though an Economist" I promise to post something and not mention McCloskey sometime soon...)

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