For Those of you Interested in Some Positive News About Economics

Anomalous economists to convene at Santa Fe Institute


Reprinted with permission of Santa Fe Institute Update (Follow SFI online at
Last year, at Her Majesty’s Treasury in London, a global team of economists calling themselves Curriculum Openaccess Resources for Economics, or CORE, launched an ambitious, unconventional project.

This February, CORE will meet at Santa Fe Institute to discuss how to make sure their anomalous efforts have a lasting impact on how students learn economics – and the way they think about science.  “CORE is teaching economics as if the last 30 years had happened,” says SFI Professor Samuel Bowles, one of the group’s founders, referring both to the financial crisis of 2008, which took many economists by  surprise, and the growing acknowledgment among economists that not everyone is entirely selfish as traditional economic theory asserts.


CORE’s interactive ebook, The Economy, is not your usual Econ 101 fare. First, it emphasizes identifying and modeling empirical regularities rather than developing mathematical models from a set of abstract, often dubious assumptions about economic behavior. Second, it focuses on fundamental issues that are connected to economics but that other texts tend to ignore – issues like financial instability, wealth creation in capitalist societies, inequality, and environmental sustainability.


Students come to economics wanting to tackle those problems, and recent innovations in economics have a lot to say about them, wrote CORE director and University College London professor Wendy Carlin recently in the Financial Times.


As striking as the book’s content is the price. Competing textbooks sell for upwards of $200, but The Economy is free and available to anyone with an internetconnected device at


“Meeting at SFI is a natural for CORE,” says Bowles. “We are teaching first-year students to think about the economy as a complex, dynamical system and to beware of static metaphors and disciplinary parochialism.”  The question now, Bowles says, is how to ensure that CORE continues to grow and mobilize the diverse inputs from teachers, students, and other users. 

Others contributing to CORE are SFI External Professors Rajiv Sethi and Simon DeDeo. n

Bare Bones Biology 054 – Power and Success

Here on the internet I found a perfect example to illustrate the ideas of levels of organization and emergent properties, using other peoples’ words and experiences. For this illustration I’ll only focus on two levels, the economy and the universe, and I will not quote or link the authors because I haven’t asked their permission, but if you are one of them thank you, I appreciate your insights. First the economy.

(Post) “Modern economics is not a normative science. (Normative = establishing a norm.) Economists don’t say things like “business decisions SHOULD be determined by the market”; rather, they make bold assertions: “business decisions ARE determined by the market”. Firms …are either in business to make money, or they don’t stay in business. Charities put their donations to the uses the donors intend them for, or they don’t continue to get donations. In either case, the ones that survive and thrive are the ones who know how to give their patrons what they want. This is only depressing if you persist in the belief that the universe ought to be wired differently. Being “pro-market” is like being “pro-gravity”. Both exist, and both work according to their respective laws, whether you “believe in” them or not.”

Whoa, I thought when I read that. I was following this along OK until we got to the point where the ECONOMY is considered the equivalent of the UNIVERSE in terms of how it operates. The universe is MANY emergent properties more complex than the economy, and the economy is only a little tiny weenie subset of the universe, and furthermore it is man-made. Finally, I thought, finally I can understand why economists seem to me to be so illogical. But I did not respond on the internet. Happily, someone else did, and that post reads:

(post) “As for the “laws of economics”; (unlike the law of gravity) they have re-written those laws every fifty years since Adam Smith & continue to do so. So perhaps “rules” “guidelines-for-now” would be more accurate terms than “laws”.

That’s the end of that quote. Now we have another post, which I finally did get into the action, and this is roughly what I said:

“Yes! Finally someone gets it” ECONOMICS can never be more than a study of human behavior. If human behavior does not align itself with the laws of nature, then the laws of nature will simply eliminate humans. Therefore, the rules of economics do not MATTER to our human welfare on this earth. It matters how we behave relative to the requirements for our survival. The only good that economics has to offer would be if it were to help bring our human behaviors into line with the requirements of the ecosystem that we need to stay alive.”

That’s the end of that quote, and I will add that is not what economics is doing right now. But that’s my opinion as a biologist. Let’s next quote the opinion of the Dalai Lama, as reported in the 2010 report of the Mind and Life Institute.

“Classic economic theory is based on the assumption that humans are self-interested and rational actors, and casts doubt on the very existence of altruism. New research in both economics and neuroscience reveals a much richer and more complex picture of humanity where altruism and compassion are not only part of the equation, but can be encouraged and learned. Further, research is revealing that pro-social behavior is critical for the survival of humanity, while egoistic and non-altruistic behavior are antithetical to human well-being.” 2010 Annual Report, Mind & Life Institute

To the economist I say that “laws of economics” probably do exist, but I will not believe that you understand them until you can explain how they relate to the laws of the universe, of which they are a miniscule and relatively impotent subset.

Bare Bones Biology 053 – Winning
KEOS radio 89.1, Bryan, Texas
Transcript at
Audio at
Levels of Organization – BBB051-Levels of Organization
Emergent Properties – BBB052-Emergent Properties

Arguing over Something that Doesn’t Exist

Rather than argue over whether or not we should exclude science/include religion in the biology classroom, what do you think about this approach?

1.  First we should define Science, because without that definition we are indeed arguing over something that doesn’t exist.  That’s easy.  Science is a method of evaluating measurable facts using the scientific method.  The energy we spend arguing against science might be better spent learning to understand what science is before we decide whether or not to pitch it out

2.  Next if we want a useful learning experience for our young, we should define our goals for teaching science so that we can all discuss and debate with the same goals in mind.  Below is my biased list of questions for discussion:

a.  Do we want to teach the scientific method?  This is a non-question.  If we want to teach science we must teach the scientific method.  If we don’t talk about science in the classroom we are not teaching science; we are teaching something else.   What else would we want to teach in a science class?

b.  Do we want our students to graduate from our schools with the knowledge that is required to compete for jobs in science and technology?

c.  Do we want to remain competitive in the economic marketplace that depends so heavily on whether or not we can effectively use science and the scientific method?

3.  And after we have done the necessary preparation, then we should sit down together and engage all the power of our enthusiasm and love of this land and its children to figure out how best to teach the scientific method in science classes.

And teach other things in other classes.

That makes sense to me.

Arguing over something that doesn’t exist is a huge waste of the power of our time that we could be using to build a rich and fruitful community for our young.