Economic “Science” Brings Zombies Back from the Dead

Amusing to compare the following set of three n-grams. The first shows the relative frequency of the word “phlogiston” in the google database starting from 1790 when it was still conventional scientific wisdom and then subsequently, when it became recognized that the work of Lavoisier had definitively refuted it. As would be expected, it falls off a cliff.

The second shows a comparison of the frequency of appearance of the names Darwin and Lamarck starting in 1859, the year of the publication of The Origin of the Species. As the theory of evolution is gradually recognized, the relative frequency of the two names increased from a factor of roughly four (Darwin is, of course, a more common name than Lamarck) leveling off to a factor of 100 where it remains.

Now compare these results to the ngram for the name Hayek. As Nathan Cedric Tankus pointed out (on Facebook), the critiques of Sraffa and Keynes in the late 1940s did indeed deliver what might seem to be a devastating blow to Hayek’s reputation. Citations drop by approximately 50% over a ten year period. But, as will be noticed, the longer trajectory reveals an unexpected trend: Hayek’s reputation revives in the mid 1970s (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974) with mentions of his work quadrupling over two decades.

What does this tell us? At minimum, at least one thing: what might seem like “devastating” rebuttals may work very well at convincing a few like minded souls in academic seminar rooms. But in the wider world, where political ideologies, prejudice and more importantly, naked economic self-interest plays a decisive role, these conclusions will conveniently be forgotten with policy inevitably not dictated by “the best minds” or theories rigorously derived from empirical data, but those whose conclusions serve the interests of entrenched capital. Seems pretty unambiguous from these graphs.

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