Kaiser, David. 2013. “Déjà vu all over again? A response to Philip Mirowski.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (2): 1-7.
It is a great honor to have this opportunity to comment on Philip Mirowski’s stimulating paper, “The Modern Commercialization of Science is a Passel of Ponzi Schemes,” first delivered as the Nicholas Mullins Lecture at Virginia Tech (Mirowski 2012). Most of what I know about the history of economics I have learned from Mirowski’s books, several of which have long been mainstays on the syllabi for my graduate seminars and reading lists for my students’ general examinations.
I find myself largely in agreement with Mirowski’s recent essay as well. I share his skepticism of the hype surrounding the explosion of biotechnology start-up firms, and I, too, look quizzically at the kudzu-like spread of “technology transfer offices” across research universities in the United States, with their stark mismatch between promise and pay-off. I found his detailed critique of new instruments like the “material transfer agreement” in Science-Mart (Mirowski 2011) to be similarly arresting, and convincing.
It is therefore with some surprise that I find Mirowski introducing his recent essay with an extended critique of my own work (Mirowski 2012, 290-293). I am at a disadvantage in responding to Mirowski’s piece for at least two reasons. First, I have never taken a course in economics. Second, Mirowski has taken aim in his essay at a book I have not yet written. It’s one thing to nod knowingly at the French theorists’ dictum that “the author is dead,” granting, with shrewd smile, that no author can control how others will read a given work; quite another to find one’s authorial self killed off before the book could even be committed to print. Nonetheless, as Mirowski notes, several articles related to my book project have appeared over the years, and it is to Mirowski’s curious reading of those articles that I shall attend.
But first I will summarize what I take to be the points of contention. In his essay, Mirowski draws a contrast between what he calls a “Déjà vu” account among science-studies scholars — exemplified, in his reading, by my work — and a “Fictitious Capital” narrative to whose banner he pledges allegiance. As I understand it, according to the “Déjà vu” perspective the violent swings in funding, enrollments, and employment opportunities in the sciences over the past several decades are glossed as nothing more than the undulations of a “conventional business cycle,” unfolding with predictable, inevitable repetitiveness. On Mirowski’s reading, “the Déjà Vu account posits the science studies equivalent of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis.” To adherents of such a view, any misfire of the market for scientific research (and researchers) can be blamed on inappropriate meddling by government officials (Mirowski 2012, 292).
In contrast, Mirowski introduces a “Fictitious Capital” account, which detects an inherent sickness or frailty in the recent organization of science, a ticking time-bomb at the core of today’s institutional infrastructure such that “it is difficult to discern how an impending crash of American science can be avoided” (Mirowski 2012, 293).
Imagine my surprise to see my work cast as flagbearer of the “Déjà vu” camp, described (by Mirowski) as the structural, perhaps ideological, cousin to stark Hayek-style neoliberalism. Though I do not know any actual economics, I have learned from Mirowski that at least some economists some of the time have labored under a severe case of “physics envy” (Mirowski 1989). So I will play to my strengths and attend to some of the physics-derived metaphors that Mirowski has deployed in drawing his distinctions, such as “simple harmonic motion” and “phase transitions” (Mirowski 2012, 292). Continue Reading…