Off-topic: innovation, names, duplication

Only because it’s a really cool article and I just discovered it, and not because it really has anything to do with anything, “In The Air” by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker is well worth a read. It’s about a fascinating organization called Intellectual Ventures, but there are just a bunch of fun little snippets. A couple:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern.

In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples, he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.

Surely it must be getting harder to have simultaneous discovery, in a world where research communities are global and transmission is very fast? Gladwell’s article goes on to talk about something like the standing on the shoulders of giants concept of building on the existing body of knowledge, speculating that multiples are proof of inevitability of inventions or discoveries.

What about economics? Are economic researchers building on existing research? It can sometimes seem that the questions we ask are so specific and arcane that the chance of simultaneous “discovery” is low; so much so that’s it’s tempting to wonder if we should even be using the word “discovery”. I wonder what, if anything, we could attach the word to in the history of economics? Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but it’s difficult to see what really was new or difference-making in the field, going back as long as you care. What has the discipline of economics done for us?

And what will it do, then? Gladwell’s article talks about a group of smart people who get together to try to invent stuff. What “economic” (however they choose to interpret the word) questions would such a group want to tackle, if any? Where is the innovation coming from in our field? I look at the list of Nobel prize topics, and, don’t get me wrong, I like finding things out for their own sake, but what are these things really doing, either practically, for the world, or simply for the body of knowledge we call economics? Of course we’re not supposed to be able to see where the next huge idea is coming from – that’s the whole point – but if we haven’t had a really important idea from, or even an important question for, academic economists for so long, if ever, isn’t a little pessimism forgivable?

I’m often tempted to argue, not entirely facetiously, that the methodology of economics and its status as a grounds for “discovery” was pretty much done 70, 80 years ago, and the rest is just application, gravy and statistical analysis. Even if that were true, would it be such a bad thing?

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