Friday, December 21, 2012

Krugman Confused About His Profession, Preferences

Paul Krugman has explained on several occasions that he was inspired to become an economist by Isaac Asimov's Foundation triology. The collapse of a galaxy-wide civilization into an interim dark age, before the revival of a second galactic empire, provides the background setting of the novels. The organizing conceit is that Hari Seldon, the expert founder of the discipline of psychohistory, has figured out how to set up initial conditions such that the intervening and unpleasant dark ages will last for only a millennium, instead of 30 millennia. In Asimov's telling, psychohistory is an explicitly mathematical discipline.

It turns out that Asimov was not the only science fiction author in that era writing about mathematical psychology:

"So? The greatest mathematical psychologist of our time, a man who always wrote his own ticket even to retiring when it suited him..." -- Robert A. Heinlein (1958).

Heinlein's character has written a book titled, On the Statistical Interpretation of Imperfect Data, and his colleagues are at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey.

When people referred to "Mathematical psychology" during the 1950s, what were they talking about? I suggest that they had in mind cybernetics, as invented by Norbert Wiener, and later developments. For example, consider the 1960 book, Developments in Mathematical Psychology, with contributions from R. Duncan Luce, Robert R. Bush, and J. C. R. Licklider.

Many have built on this work over the last half-century, in a variety of disciplinary settings. A few years ago, one could find the label Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I) used to refer to much of this work. Departments and ministries of defense provided quite a bit of funding for research in these areas. And if you want to find current research on these topics, you could do worse than read such journals as IEEE Transactions on Communications, IEEE Transactions on Control Systems Technology, and IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing. These journals are all put out by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Thus, Paul Krugman wanted to be a electrical engineer, although he does not know it.

  • Isaac Asimov (1953). Second Foundation. [I happen to have this book in the trilogy handy.]
  • Robert R. Bush (1960). "A Survey of Mathematical Learning Theory", in (ed. by R. D. Luce), The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois.
  • Robert A. Heinlein (1958). Have Space Suit-Will Travel.
  • J. C. R. Licklider (1960). "Quasi-Linear Operator Models in the Study of Manual Tracking", in (ed. by R. D. Luce), The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois.
  • R. Duncan Luce (1960). "The Theory of Selective Information and Some of Its Behavioral Applications, in (ed. by R. D. Luce), The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois.
  • Norbert Wiener (1948). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and The Machine.


Matias Vernengo said...

That would explain a lot!

Anonymous said...

There are no Nobel Memorial prizes for electronic engineers. Ambitious mathematically-able people choose instead to be economists.

Macrobius said...

'Mathematical Learning Theory' sounds to me like the term 'Statistical Learning Theory' (SLT), which is the formal, theoretical, and statistical view underlying 'Machine Learning'. Clearly, these are adjacent fields to what you are talking about -- the mathematical limits of training neural nets, say.

Philip Pilkington said...

No, no, no... Psychohistory is a macro discipline:

"Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events."

So, no surprise that Krugman doesn't care much for microfoundations. Also no surprise that Krugman is a neoclassical with no taste for historical time and fundamental uncertainty. Krugman actually BELIEVES in the models and that, to my mind, makes him a fantasists still trapped in the Asimov novels.