Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Harvey Mansfield on game theory

My Harvard colleague Harvey Mansfield writing in the WSJ about "Sociology and Other 'Meathead' Majors"  has this to say about economics and game theory:

"Others try to imitate the sciences and call themselves "social scientists." The best imitators of scientists are the economists. Among social scientists they rank highest in rigor, which means in mathematics. They also rank highest in boastful pretension, and you can lose more money listening to them than by trying to read books in sociology. Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle. (Game theorists, I'm talking about you.)"

In a weak moment, I sent him the following email:

Dear Professor Mansfield: I read with interest your recent WSJ article.  It looks like it was fun to write.

I noticed that you particularly called out game theorists (of which I am one).
Since you take a long view, I couldn’t help but wonder if your appreciation of game theory was in any way influenced by the most recent developments, of the past two decades, in which game theory has become (as the sociologists would say) “performative,” through market design.

In case they might be of interest, below are two links, the first to a non-technical paper written for economists, and the second to an easier to read Boston Globe article covering some of the same ground.  (My view is that we game theorists are better grounded than we used to be, or than might have been apparent even twenty years ago…)

Here’s the survey article:
Roth, Alvin E. "What have we learned from market design?" Hahn Lecture, Economic Journal, 118 (March), 2008, 285-310.

And here’s the Globe story, from April 3, 2011:


Al Roth
this led to the following reply (and permission to publish it here)

Dear Professor Roth,

Thank you for introducing yourself.  

One sign of being a science is having to write non-scientific communications of it.  My forays in the WSJ etc are merely shorter than the longer stuff.

I suppose game theory from the first, and perhaps like all science these days, has practice implied in the theoretical statement.  But the goal is ambiguous in game theory.  Is it for the purpose of conflict resolution, as with T. Schelling, or is it to teach people to be more strategic, less moralistic, in their daily living?  Perhaps both, the latter as means to the former. But then you have the goal of a peacenik or a Buddhist and the manners of a calculator or a crook.

I hope we meet sometime,

Yours,  Harvey Mansfield
I replied that one goal of market design is to produce institutions that make it easier for people to achieve their goals straightforwardly...

1 comment:

dWj said...

Indeed, the goal of market design is to accommodate the fact that there will be "calculator[s] and crook[s]", and that others should not be disadvantaged by them. I had the impression Prof Mansfield generally agreed with the statement that man is ultimately imperfectible and that this needed to be taken into account by social institutions.

I have a Masters degree in physics and am now in graduate school in economics; the physics I did was far enough removed from experiment that it would better be called math, and while the economics I'm headed toward isn't especially empirical in focus, it may be more scientific in some sense than what I did in physics. Insofar as it's not science, though, it's mathematics -- in some sense, perhaps "too rigorous" to properly be a science.