On Jean Tirole’s letter to the French Higher Education Minister
By Peter Swann
The Debate about Professor Jean Tirole’s Letter to the French Higher Education Minister
Over the last year, there has been an online debate about a letter written by Professor Jean Tirole, the Nobel Laureate of 2014, to the French Minister for Higher Education. Some readers will be well aware of this already, but some may not, as most of the debate has been in French.
The magazine Marianne first published the letter, in French, here. The Association Française d’Economie Politique published a translation, in English, here. In his letter, Tirole makes some critical and uncompromising remarks about heterodox economists and their work. This following passage captures the essence of his argument:
“Breaking up the community of French economists by creating a refuge for a disparate group, in trouble with the assessment standards that are internationally acknowledged, is a very bad answer to the failure of this group in its effort to have its works validated by the great scientific journals, that prevail in our discipline.”
Tirole seems to be saying that heterodox economists are unworthy of membership of the economics discipline, but at the same time, they should not be allowed to apply for refuge elsewhere. To put it as mildly as possible, that is a pretty uncompromising position.
Turning to the debate in English, the Association Française d’Economie Politique published an open letter to Jean Tirole, here. As a specialist in innovation, I strongly agree with their argument that some of the most important innovations originate from the margins of a discipline, or the margins of an industry, and not from the core. The following, inter alia, have also made responses: Jones, Vass and Pocklington, Vernengo, and Tinel. For the most part, these authors do not support Tirole’s views.
One prominent author, however, does support some of Tirole’s views, at least. In an article for the Financial Times, here, John Kay writes:
“… no one would cross a bridge built by a heterodox engineer.”
Personally, I would be just as anxious about crossing a bridge built by entirely orthodox engineers, if I knew that they were reluctant to review their theory of bridge design in the light of recent (and historic) examples of bridge collapse. However, I am informed that a module on, ‘learning from disasters’, is a routine part of degree courses in civil engineering.
Unfortunately, however, it is still not routine for degree courses in economics to include a module in ‘learning from disasters’. A common reason for that is that many orthodox economists are, frankly, reluctant to review – and still less to modify or abandon – their cherished economic theories in the light of contradictory evidence from economic disasters.
Readers of the WEA Newsletter will surely have valuable contributions to make to this debate.
From: p.6 of World Economics Association Newsletter 6(1), February 2016