A young physicist discovers the robot

Jelmer Renema is a Ph.D. student physicist and blogger, currently still stuck in the Dutch language morass, but hopefully smart enough to discover English as the way to communicate to the world. In a recent text on robots he refers to two English sources to start with. These are rather typical sources though. Let me summarise Jelmer’s message and introduce those sources to you too.

Jelmer seems to think that economics is not a science but belongs to ideology and politics. His weblog is not on physics but on ideology and politics. In a way it is okay when a mind, that has been trained on logic and mathematics and empirics as those are used in physics, also looks at issues in ideology and politics. It becomes awkward when that mind overlooks some pieces of the puzzle that are provided by economic science. Jelmer’s articles come without the idea that author and readership would need some balance by actually studying economics. An exposition by him that seems nice can thus turn into a horror show. Perhaps this horror is the real purpose of the text. Isaac Asimov used the recipe to create science fiction, but while SF is a serious endeavour in itself, no reader of Asimov’s stories will take home the message that the next book to read should be on economics. The latter might be more a Robert “Tanstaafl” (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) Heinlein thing.

In the 1920’s Jan Tinbergen switched from physics to economics, understanding that only science could contribute something – see also my earlier text on the economic crisis. If Jelmer would not only switch to English but also to econometrics, and perhaps also change his haircut into the Tinbergen style, then we would see not only a full makeover but perhaps also have some reason for hope.

Jelmer refers to David Graeber, according to wikipedia an anthropologist and anarchist, who again refers to economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes in 1930 wrote Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, a must-read. Graeber in 2013 wrote On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, of which the title is less appealing and of which the content can be abstracted to two sentences, even though it has the advantage of 83 years of experience. A one line abstract of fact-finding: The economic possibilities that Keynes projected have materialised but work has not been reduced to 15 hours per week, and most people waste their lives in useless or counterproductive jobs. A one line of diagnosis: Something is wrong with our economic system. At this point, Graeber should read my book DRGTPE that takes up where Keynes and Tinbergen were not able to continue their analysis.

Jelmer can only refer to Graeber but cannot inform him that he should read DRGTPE since Jelmer is not interested in economics. Jelmer respects an anthropologist who refers to an economist writing 83 years ago, but does not respect a contemporary econometrician who protests against the censorship of economic science in his own country – as Jelmer likely does not think that economics is a science after all.

Jelmer’s second reference is to Gary Brecher’s long-winded rehash of Robocop and The Terminator, after Google’s buying up of robot companies. Focusing on Google’s Big Dog as a possibly scary creation, inserting more AI, swarm technology and drone control, it is easy to picture a world police state.

Now picture a million of these coming at you. Boston Dynamics "Big Dog" (Source: wikimedia commons)

Imagine a million of these coming at you. Boston Dynamics “Big Dog” (Source: wikimedia commons)

Jelmer proposes to use the topic of robots to get a better discussion “about work and the distribution of power”. He still does not conclude that one needs to study economics. Perhaps he thinks about a ballot box so that people who are scared about robots taking their jobs and shooting at them can block that police state, and create the kind of society that Keynes was musing about. According to Jelmer, you can create this kind of society when you have some proper “distribution of power”. He will not think that a rabbit foot can bring you luck but may not be far from thinking that money is the answer to all problems.

Jelmer does in fact refer to a contemporary economist, Guy Standing. An earlier text here already provided some critical comments on Standing’s cult behaviour proposal for a universal basic income. I said that economics is a science, and not that economics is without discussion and that each economist knows it all. I am still waiting for Standing’s evaluation of DRGTPE, and if Jelmer takes Standing seriously then he should also ask for such an evaluation.

The best approach is to resolve the censorship of economic science by the Dutch government, so that the analysis in DRGTPE can be checked and supported using some of the CPB econometric models and fully published and discussed by fellow economists. Till then, Jelmer Renema’s texts are noise on ideology and politics. They are counterproductive noise too, since they seem critical, but actually are severely biased. They are anti-scientific, since he does not recognise that economics is a science, and since he as a scientist does not protest against the censorship of science by the Dutch government.

I could write similar texts about other young Dutch scientists and publicists. This is a text in Dutch about some young writers. Dutch youth is disinformed and, guess what, they don’t like to be told that they are disinformed. A main worry w.r.t. Jelmer is however that he doesn’t seem to care about the problems in the education in mathematics either, see this letter to IMU / ICMI.


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