You can exchange ‘economist’ for ‘scientist,’ in the title, and the point I’m about to make remains the same.
I saw, on Facebook, a comment relating to the apparent disinterest amongst economists for the philosophy of their science, on average. The person making the comment suggested that one should become familiar with the philosophy of the science, then the history, and then focus on “application of the discipline” (which, I assume, includes learning the discipline).
This approach should be met with suspicion, especially amongst economists. One way society becomes wealthier is through specialization, which is made possible by a growing division-of-labor. We focus on using a more specific set of skills, so that we can develop these skills and produce more. Further, by narrowing the skill set one needs to produce, you can focus on your greatest skills, and do away with those that hold you back. But, if we all continue to specialize, how does a single person still act in a way that jives with the division-of-labor in general?
To re-state the analogy in terms specific to the economics profession: if economists continue to specialize (e.g. spend more time learning and practicing labor economics, implying less time to learn and practice monetary economics), how does their work fit in with the rest of the discipline? If Joe the Labor Economist is conducting research that must fit in with the remainder of economic theory, how is he to accomplish this if increased specialization comes at the cost of general knowledge of your field?
Communication. In a division-of-labor, humans have developed — spontaneously or otherwise — methods of communicating useful knowledge, without having to actually spend a lot of time searching for it. The common example is the pricing process. Prices communicate certain pieces of information. If a steel buyer requires so much of that input for some project, but the only steel manufacturer suffers a fire in its factory, cutting the flow of output in half, prices can communicate this knowledge to the buyer. Similarly, humans use language to communicate, and use of language gradually becomes simpler and more direct — people want to economize their use of language. Norms, or rules and heuristics, serve a similar function: to allow us to operate in a socially beneficial way, without having to really be aware of the specifics of other cogs in the ‘machine,’ so to speak.
The same is true within the sciences. It is true that a loss of general knowledge comes at the cost of being cognizant of other parts of the science, which your own research has to be consistent with. However, it’s also true that the less you specialize, the less you can focus on your specific research. The more knowledge the field produces, the more we have to specialize, because — given decreasing marginal returns — we have to increase our productivity to produce something of equal value. This creates a strain, however, between specialization and the relevance of general knowledge (e.g. philosophy of science, or the science outside your narrow sub-field). Institutions have to arise to help us economize on that general knowledge.
We might lament the perceived lack of general knowledge amongst scientists. We might want to criticize an economist for not knowing much about economic history, for example. But, rather than seeing this as a weakness within the discipline, it’s better to interpret it as general progress. Economists are becoming more specialized, because improvements in the communication of general knowledge have made greater specialization possible.
One test as to whether I’m right is to think about how well the average piece of research fits into the overall puzzle of economic theory. If it’s true that the average economist does not know much about the philosophy, or history, of her science (I’m assuming it as true), and it’s true that greater specialization should lead to a loss of cohesion, then we’d expect the state of economics to worsen over time. We’d also predict that aforementioned loss of cohesion. But, that’s not what we’ve seen. Instead, economics is equally as unified as it used to be, and perhaps even more so — consider, for example, the ‘requirement’ of microfoundations. This despite the fact that modern economics can provide a much richer understanding of the real world than the discipline could 60 years ago, because specialization has continued to progress.
That the average economist might not know much about the history and/or philosophy of economics is not a problem. Instead, it’s evidence of the progress of the discipline. Methods of communicating ‘general knowledge’ have improved, allowing economists to focus on narrowing sub-fields. This, like specialization in any division-of-labor, allows for productivity increases. What this means for science is that specialization is an important cause of growth in scientific knowledge.