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Laplace’s Hammer: The End of Economics

Laplace’s Hammer: The End of Economics

Courtesy of Tim at The Psy-Fi Blog 

Clever Man, Stupid Idea

Simon-Pierre LaplaceSimon-Pierre Laplace was a Very Clever Man who did many Very Clever Things. Unfortunately, like many clever men, having got hold of a Brilliant Idea he was rather inclined to go off and use it on everything in sight, which led to a number of Very Odd Conclusions. In fact as far as science goes, he may well have been the original man with a hammer; taking aim at every problem as though it was a nail.

As is the way of these things economists got hold of Laplace’s ideas, converted them to their own and started developing delicate and intricate webs of theories and practices. Unfortunately, over the succeeding three hundred years they’ve failed to keep up with advances in physics and biology, rather leaving economists as the only believers in an approach that suggests we have no free will, a position from which they’re having to be dug out and defused, one unexploded theorist at a time.

Newton’s Error

When Isaac Newton published his theory of gravity he knew it contained a serious flaw; his equations didn’t exactly match what was observed. He reckoned, correctly, that the differences between his theory and the observations were down to the gravitational effect on the planets of other planets – so called perturbations, which he didn’t know how to mathematically model. He said:

“But to consider simultaneously all these causes of motion and to define these motions by exact laws admitting of easy calculation exceeds, if I am not mistaken, the force of any human mind.”

And, of course, he was mistaken. The force of Laplace’s mind successfully solved the problem. Having achieved this, though, Laplace went a stage further. Because he could exactly calculate the position of any planet he could compare this with the results of observations from astronomers. What he discovered changed human history.

Observer Bias

It turned out that observers made errors, but they made them in a particular way – their observations fell about the actual position of the planet in a very distinctive pattern. This pattern, of course, was the ultra-familiar Bell curve or normal distribution. Laplace realised that human error was statistically quantifiable and, therefore, could be effectively eliminated from the data. This was a brilliant insight which encapsulated the concept of observer bias and made the observer a quantifiable part of scientific experiments.

However, having found his hammer, Laplace went looking for nails. Extrapolating from the heavens to humanity, he argued that it should be possible to predict everything, including the behaviour of people. Thus was born so-called “scientific determinism”.

Determinism in Biology and Economics

This idea infused the scientific culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, leading to the ideas of biological determinism espoused by Francis Galton (but rejected by Charles Darwin) and, of course, ideas of economic determinism through David Hume and John Stuart Mill. Most of the twentieth century was one long line of economists determinedly holding to the underlying concepts of determinism with perhaps only Frank Knight and John Maynard Keynes as conspicuous objectors. Drakopoulis and Torrance provide an overview of these developments and the way behavioral finance has started to address them in Causality and Determinism in Economics.

Yet even while economists were busily building physics-type models based on the assumptions of causality and the quantification of error the physicists were beginning to have a few minor, local difficulties with heat. When they tugged on the loose thread of thermodynamics, to their horror, the whole of the causality of physics unravelled before their eyes.


The problem was that Laplace was wrong. He can be forgiven for this because he’d happened upon one of the rare areas of the physical sciences in which determinism is pretty much absolute – planetary motion. Essentially the planets sweep around the Sun in a majestically predictable fashion. Unfortunately most physics is a lot messier than this.

Perhaps this is most easily encapsulated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states, more or less, that everything’s descending into chaos. The order of the universe is an illusion and so determinism fails. In short order developments in quantum mechanics suggested that there are absolute limits on what we can know.

Physicist Stephen Hawking Lectures At UC Berkeley

Finally Stephen Hawking showed that in the vicinity of black holes – an idea that Laplace had suggested – even the limited amount of information implied by quantum theory disappears. Which, as he also pointed out, wouldn’t matter so much if quantum mechanics didn’t suggest that everything is in the vicinity of black holes.

Gene Expression

Meanwhile biologists assumed, to the extent that they were aware of these issues at all, that quantum indeterminism didn’t really apply to them. After all, they deal in assemblages of genetic material far removed from elementary particles. However, the geneticist Motoo Kimura, one of the last century’s most important evolutionary theorists then showed that DNA changes far too much to be explicable by standard Darwinian theories. In his view the driving factor behind this engine of mutation is the buzz of noise we call chaos that is the all encompassing background to the universe – gene expression too is subject to indeterminism.

Although lots of people disagreed with Kimura – and still do, often very noisily and rudely – the evidence for his ideas are growing. In 2002 a group of researchers published a paper (abstract only, I’m afraid) in which they described how they had demonstrated the effect of this background noise on gene expression. They introduced the same firefly DNA for different colours into a bunch of bacteria: if background noise plays no effect in how this DNA is expressed then all of the bacteria should look the same. Only they didn’t – the bacteria showed up with a weird and wonderful collection of different colourations, the result of random variations in the way the underlying genes were expressed: chaos in colour.

Behavioural Finance

Yet although determinism is being broken down by the slow but relentless progress of the scientific method, those pseudo-scientific subjects that have taken on the mantel of science are slow to modify their approaches. High amongst these is economics, of course. In part this is doubtless because many of the practitioners have no feeling for the history of the topic and fail to recognise the flimsy foundations of theory it’s constructed upon. But probably it’s because economists don’t understand physics.

Meanwhile the attrition of traditional economics by the closest thing it has to a scientific approach, behavioural finance, is only slowly gaining traction. Peer under the covers at any of our great financial institutions and you’re likely to find people using methods and models ultimately based on Laplacian determinism and ultimately destined for the same unfortunate end after they’ve caused a few more market crashes.

No One Knows Anything

The problem with Laplace’s hammer was that extrapolating from one situation – the regularity of planetary motion – to another – the regularity of human behaviour – is only possible through a delicate chain of assumptions and analogies. Other subjects that rely on such approaches, such as economics assuming that efficient market hypotheses which work during normal times will always apply, need to tread carefully lest they lose their way.

So here’s a paradox: although no one can know anything absolutely we can absolutely know that we can’t predict the markets and that all the people telling us that they know what’s going to happen next aren’t just know-it-alls, they’re actually know-nothings. Listen to no one who predicts anything, they’re all just victims of Laplace’s hammer. 

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