Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Art and Science

I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History the other week to enjoy the spoils of imperialism. Wandering through one of the random exhibits on something like "what do we use coal for?!" I ran across a display that featured an imagined conversation between two chemists; the gist of it was them arguing over what they should do as chemists - one was talking about how he wanted to be able to use what they had discovered in order to make things people can use; the other responded 'we just need to learn more stuff, who cares how it can be used. That's the art of chemistry, we're scientists!' Or something like that.

I think this dichotomy between 'art' and 'science' is important. Science for the sake of science is important, yes, but economically insignificant. If we're wanting to explain the Industrial Revolution we can't look at science as the spur of it; we have to look at the 'art' of the sciences. The steam engine was invented in something like the 2nd century B.C., and several times again over the next couple hundred years. It wasn't for a long time before anything like it was used productively. It's not like they didn't have coal in the ancient times. I would wager that science was much more advanced in the past than we commonly credit it, but that for some reason there was a disconnect between science and its application.

It also led me to think about the distinction between the science of Economics and the art of Economics. I feel like advising policy or action based on Economic science is tricky, since unintended consequences are more probable and have more drastic effects.

It will be something I will be thinking about the next couple days, instead of the Macro test...


  1. Did they still have the poll with the vote on the most important responsibility of the president? One of the choices was "Manager of the Economy." When I was there, that choice was in second place, and I lost a bit more of my faith in humanity.

  2. They did. I think it had dropped to fourth or something. But yes, quite depressing...