Monday, April 23, 2007

Adam Smith was an Accomplished Mathematician

Phil Birnbaum makes a good case against the snobbery among some academics for discrediting, more commonly, ignoring, work not published in top-line peer-refereed journals. A sentiment I share, but probably for slightly different reasons. One’s peers in science may just a easily be blinkered in what they consider ‘correct’ science and may refuse to look at any idea than does not conform to whatever passes for the current ‘consensus’ or paradigm. You get a taste of this in observing today the hostility among some scientists against anybody who is ‘guilty’ of ‘climate change denial’, which I regard as a most unscientific stance.

However, in Phil Birnbaum’s post on his Blog, Sabermetric Research (‘links to and reviews sabermetric studies and sports research’, he illustrates against his excellent approach, why ‘peer review’ has a useful role to play in that he refers to Adam Smith, somewhat ambiguously, in what could be taken as an inappropriate example of the point he wishes to make (his use of the example of Shakepeare in this context is spot on!).

He writes:

“… Calling Bill James an "intelligent layman" because he doesn't have a Ph.D. is like calling Adam Smith a layman because he never took an econometrics course.”

It may not be appreciated by numerate readers of Wealth Of Nations today, but Adam Smith was an accomplished mathematician by 18th-century standards. He took a great deal of scholarly interest in mathematics as a student and later as an academic at Glasgow University.

Professor Robert Simson (1687-1768), a leading mathematician at Glasgow, and a specialist in geometry, encouraged Smith’s extra curricula studies and his fellow student, Matthew Stewart (1718-1787), later professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University (1747-85), remarked to Professor Dugald Stewart (his mathematical son and Smith’s first biographer) about Smith’s mathematical abilities in solving a ‘geometrical problem of considerable difficulty’ set as an exercise by Dr Simson (Stewart, D. 1793, Account of the Life and writings of Adam Smith, LL.D). Smith was also a friend and an ‘intimate’ correspondent with Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-83), (John Rae, Life of Adam Smith, 1895, pp 10-11), known for the ‘d'Alembert principle’ of motion, among many others.
Though Smith did not take courses in econometrics (and none of his contemporaries did either), he was not innumerate by any standards. And he held a LL.D too. I think another comparison is warranted.

That is where a peer-review of an article provides a useful service – it might save us embarrassment before the profession reads a ‘slip’ we might leave in error and thereby destroy the credibility of the good points we wish to make. In my experience, hostile critics pick on the most inconsequential of slips to discredit that which they cannot abide, or people they don't like.


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