Economics as theology, as viewed by Chinese astrologers



Chinese armillary sphere, Ming Dynasty, from Wikimedia Commons

Readers who recall Joseph Stiglitz’s quip that “economics is really a religion” will not be surprised to find a scholar of Chinese religion drawing parallels between the dismal science’s contemporary prestige and that of imperial Chinese astrology, on the basis of the common dependence of the two disciplinary practices on sophisticated mathematical models.  Not that imperial China had a monopoly on astrological economics:

…take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. … when Adams was arrested in 1914 for violating a New York law against astrology, it was mathematics that eventually exonerated her. During the trial, her lawyer Clark L Jordan emphasised mathematics in order to distinguish his client’s practice from superstition, calling astrology ‘a mathematical or exact science’. Adams herself demonstrated this ‘scientific’ method by reading the astrological chart of the judge’s son. The judge was impressed: the plaintiff, he observed, went through a ‘mathematical process to get at her conclusions… I am satisfied that the element of fraud… is absent here.’

I’m quoting from an article by Alan Jay Levinovitz on the website (one of whose senior editors owes me a letter, if I’m not mistaken).   The common origins of mathematics and astrology are addressed at some length in Chapter 8 of MWA, but not to make a point about superstition.  The deference granted economics on the grounds of its sophisticated mathematical models, in spite of its “unearned empirical authority,” deserves sustained analysis as well as critique.   I refer you to the references in Levinovitz’s article.  Here are a few choice quotations:

The historian Caley Horan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described to me how computing technology made financial astrology explode in the 1970s and ’80s. ‘Within the world of finance, there’s always a superstitious, quasi-spiritual trend to find meaning in markets,’ said Horan. ‘Technical analysts at big banks, they’re trying to find patterns in past market behaviour, so it’s not a leap for them to go to astrology.’ In 2000, USA Today quoted Robin Griffiths, the chief technical analyst at HSBC, the world’s third largest bank, saying that ‘most astrology stuff doesn’t check out, but some of it does’.

Modern governments, universities and businesses underwrite the production of economic theory with huge amounts of capital. The same was true for li production in ancient China. The emperor – the ‘Son of Heaven’ – spent astronomical sums refining mathematical models of the stars. Take the armillary sphere, such as the two-metre cage of graduated bronze rings in Nanjing, made to represent the celestial sphere and used to visualise data in three-dimensions. As Morgan emphasises, the sphere was literally made of money. Bronze being the basis of the currency, governments were smelting cash by the metric ton to pour it into li. A divine, mathematical world-engine, built of cash, sanctifying the powers that be.

‘I’ve come to the position that there should be a stronger bias against the use of math,’ [NYU economist] Romer explained to me. ‘If somebody came and said: “Look, I have this Earth-changing insight about economics, but the only way I can express it is by making use of the quirks of the Latin language”, we’d say go to hell, unless they could convince us it was really essential. The burden of proof is on them.’

and a reminder that Stiglitz’s joke was already the title of a book long before the 2008 crash:

Romer is not the first to elaborate the mathiness critique. In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics (1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’



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