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the Complete Review
the complete review - economics

The Secret Sins of Economics

Deirdre McCloskey

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To purchase The Secret Sins of Economics

Title: The Secret Sins of Economics
Author: Deirdre McCloskey
Genre: Economics
Written: 2002
Length: 58 pages
Availability: The Secret Sins of Economics - US
The Secret Sins of Economics - UK
The Secret Sins of Economics - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : fine little pamphlet

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Deirdre McCloskey's pamphlet is a mix of defence and critique of economics (in the sense of: what economists do). She argues that some of the virtues of economics are misidentified as sins, and that some of the sins of economics are either forgivable or not peculiar to that field -- but also that there are, indeed, two real (and "secret") sins "almost peculiar to economics".
       Quantification, mathematics, and a devotion to free markets are all virtues to her, and she explains, convincingly enough, why this is so.
       Among the sins not peculiar to economics she includes institutional and historical ignorance and philosophical naïveté. The points are well-taken -- though occasionally she argues too loosely, as when she maintains:

People call themselves economists who have never read a page of Adam Smith or Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes. it would be like being an anthropologist who had never heard of Malinkowski or an evolutionary biologist who had never heard of Darwin.
       Note the different standards: economists not having read Smith, Marx, and Keynes is equated with anthropologists and evolutionary biologists not having even heard of Malinkowski and Darwin. In fact, the reverse could as easily be claimed: every economist surely has at least heard of Smith, Marx, and Keynes -- while Darwin, for example, is apparently not very widely read by evolutionary (or other) biologists (though they too have, of course, all heard of him). (It is still outrageous if economists have not read the works of these men, but not that unusual in many specialty fields -- most physicists don't read much Einstein either.)
       After defending economics (and emphasizing that it is, after all, "about important matters"), McCloskey does get to where she thinks the big problem lies -- "the double-formed and secret sin" of economics. Economics, she finds, is almost entirely focussed on theoretical inquiry -- rather than an actual "inquiry of the world". This failure leads to catastrophic results: "You can't believe anything that comes out of the Two Sins".
       Statistical significance, in particular, is a misunderstood term as used in economics: "Mattering is a human matter", she insists, and economists who look solely at the numbers -- i.e. who ignore that -- don't get it right. And it's a widespread weakness: she cites a study of empirical articles in the American Economic Review in the 1980s which found "fully 96 % of them confused statistical and substantive significance".
       The taint of the two sins has far-reaching consequences, in her opinion, making much of contemporary economic study about as pointless as "hard chess problems" -- and "worthless as science". At the end, however, one is left curious as to what the economics-mainstream counter-arguments are (as well as wishing for a more detailed elaboration of her theses and arguments). But it's a fun little gauntlet (with great big implications) that she throws down here.

       McCloskey makes some good points, and presents them in rapid-fire but fairly clear fashion. A bit more depth and expansive explanation might be preferable (and, to be fair, she does point interested readers towards more detailed considerations of the arguments), but The Secret Sins of Economics sums things up quite well. The short sections, paragraphs, and sentences and the fairly clear examples work quite well -- though the forward style is a bit too forced at times: any work that uses the word (?) "Natch" (as a substitute for "Naturally", one assumes) will, even over just 50-some-odd pages, grate after a while.
       Still, a worthwhile little book.

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The Secret Sins of Economics: Deirdre McCloskey: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Deirdre McCloskey was born in 1942 (as Donald McCloskey). She teaches at the University of Chicago, Illinois.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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