Was I alone in being thoroughly dispirited by the boastful character of the item in the Michaelmas 2016 (29.1) edition, headed ‘Oxford's 27th prime minister’.
Of particular interest to me, as the sole biologist in my year at my college, was the overwhelming preponderance of graduates with PPE degrees in the fanfare list for the current political establishment. I well remember that, due to the dearth of subject matter colleagues in my college, I spent quite a lot of my time in serious discussion and even more serious banter with people who were taking this subject. I was particularly interested in the economics part of the degree, because if you opened a newspaper during that period (mid-sixties) the subject dominated the discourse. I came to the subject with the point of view of a scientist, so I was most interested in the question ‘to what extent could it be said that the propositions in (then) orthodox economic theory were true?’.
I have to say that it didn't take me long to conclude that at least 80% of what was ‘going down’ was on the contrary, utter garbage. An opinion which I sometimes failed to convey to my fellow students forcefully enough, being of a shy and introverted disposition. My misgivings were myriad, but I realised on later analysis that they all stemmed from the same source, which I would dub ‘soft-Popperism’. My experience of biology taught me that ‘hard-Popperism’ was the philosophical equivalent of religious extremism, but that by contrast, if a scientific hypothesis repeatedly made false predictions, it was indubitably false and if a ‘scientific’ discipline nevertheless continued to believe in such a hypothesis it was by contrast, pseudoscience. An example would be the study of parapsychology, merely fringe, rather than beyond the pale, back then.
..... Back to economics.
Did the subject trade in hypotheses? – Yes.
Could predictions be made from these hypotheses? – Yes
Were predictions routinely made on the basis of economic hypotheses by economists? – Yes
Did these predictions routinely come true? – not just No, but emphatically, repeatedly No. At every scale from questions like ‘What will happen to share price X in the next y minutes?’ to ‘Will measured economic growth be positive or negative next quarter?’ or ‘Will country X grow faster that country Y next year?’. With the notable exception of self-fulfilling prophecies – wherever on the spectrum from indubitably legal through legal but iffy to indubitably illegal – economics showed itself to be pseudoscience over and over again.
Meanwhile, what happened to the dissemination of ‘knowledge’ in the field of economics? It continued to be hewn in tablets of stone, to be assigned the status of holy writ and to dominate public discourse to an equivalent extent to religion in medieval times. Many economists seemed to suffer from the delusion that their discipline was a branch of mathematics. Not only that, but its adherents developed an even greater evangelical intolerance to contrarian views at the university level. This happened to such an extent that it took a recent open revolt by the students of Manchester University to make one of the first cracks in this academic orthodoxy. A fact which makes me ponder which student body is of higher calibre – Manchester or Oxford?
Enough of the E. What of the two Ps?
First Politics. What can I say? I don't know precisely what gets taught in an academic politics course, but if I judge by the results, I would have thought that at least 50% must be devoted to the philosophy, theory, practical application and camouflage of outright mendacity. Especially its practical application to the following:
Short-term political advantage
Long-term (lifetime constrained) personal advancement in the fields of power, prestige and money Long-term (inter-generational) structural entrenchment of in-group (largely social class) privilege in every field, but especially wealth accumulation.
Finally Philosophy. Well, I don't have much objection, except to say that from my experience, quite a lot of it seems to be ‘angels onpinheads’ stuff.
Lastly, again a memory. The students I knew in the PPP degree course learnt a lot more stuff of utility to society in general, rather than in personal aggrandisement. So what has Oxford done with that? Abolished in 2010.
Oxford should not be willy-waving about the majority of the content of the article. It should be hanging its head in shame.