Monday, September 1, 2008

Great Scientists but Dismal Economists

In a previous post I talked about an excellent episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos series called "The Harmony of the Worlds." Unfortunately I cannot say the same about another episode called "Heaven and Hell." It starts very well with interesting discussions on Tunguska, comets and planetary science, but descends into full preaching mode when discussing environmental issues during the last segment. The suddenly negative view of humanity contrasts deeply with the rest of the series. The preaching tone is of zealotry, millenarianism and blind faith, a tone that is ironically not different from the anti-scientific discourse that he strongly denounces throughout most of the series.

The segment is irritating. It treats the viewer like a spoiled brat that needs to be disciplined. To make things worse, there's not much science in what he preaches. There's a profound disregard for good environmental economics, such as a total lack of cost-benefit considerations.

I have noticed throughout the years that, despite having been a polymath, Carl Sagan would frequently show a disturbing lack of economic knowledge and intuition. I'm sure that, if he would have seriously studied economics for six months, he would have become capable of writing on the subject with great competence. For reasons that escape me however many scientists never get it.

Don't take me wrong, I don't want to single out Carl Sagan. I've always deeply respected him for his contributions to the cause of science. This is a sin for which he was in very good company. Einstein for example was a genius, but his economic statements, to put it gently, bordered the naive, as in this painfully bad example of pseudo-scientific writing.

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