Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Department of Spurious Statistics and Silly Diagrams

Patrick James (no affiliation shown) reports on an “animated infographic” HERE 
It purports to show the “spread of Capitalism” as “influenced by the writings of Adam Smith” devised by some “smart folks at Harvard’s metalab”.  Readers are invited to “Watch a Planet slowly grasped by the invisible hand.”
 This animated infographic shows where, when, and in what language Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations has been published around the world. Watch a planet slowly grasped by the invisible hand.
You could spend a lifetime debating the qualitative merits and influence of Adam Smith’s capitalism-creating tome, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But a look at the book’s quantitative history would be a more, well, economical use of your time.
The always-inspired folks at Harvard’s metaLAB have created a map-based visualization of when, where, and in what language Smith’s seminal book has been published. On the Y-axis you’ll see time, beginning with the initial publication in 1776 and moving up through 2001, alongside the total number of editions published prior to that year. Each time the book is published, a red halo emerges on the map near the city of the publishing house. Blue halos tell us when it’s a first edition being published in that city.
Below the map, you can see the distribution of different languages the book has appeared in. What really shines is how all the pieces of information interact with and relate to each other--there’s a harmony to this visual matrix, so no statistic is presented absent its connection to other data.
It’s an elegant way to depict the diffusion of an idea over time, though, because the graphic stops in 2000, it’s certainly worth asking how the last decade or so would alter the map. And of course the spatial distribution of editions inevitably inspires questions of why the book has so little penetration in Africa: Is that a function of lack of publishers, or a lack of excitement for Smith’s ideas. But, as the creator notes: "This map is only a cryptic narrative about the dissemination of ideas, and as such, I hope it will inspire economic historians towards new and interesting projects surrounding Smith and his legacy."
The infographic is spurious on two main counts.
First, Adam Smith (1723-90) did not ‘invent’ or proselytise or have anything to do with the claimed dependency of the spread of “capitalism” – a word not invented in English until 1854 (Oxford English Dictionary); he wrote about “commercial society”, what he called the “fourth age of man”, which had existed with interruptions since the first towns were founded in association with the “Age of Farming”,  that is several millennia earlier.
Secondly, human societies and their economic nature emerged and evolved independent of any philosophers or book authors.  Those of an Hayekian mindset refer to this process as “spontaneous”, a word I am not too satisfied with because it raises questions of why an event spontaneously appears in some part of the Earth but not in others and in a time span not identical elsewhere to those elsewhere. It could be someone stumbles on some new arrangements that have unforeseen consequences only evident years, centuries or millennia later, and then slowly spread. 
Capitalism and the markets that preceded its various forms were certainly not “invented” nor were they “designed” by anybody; its form was influenced by past events certainly, as those past events were influenced by even earlier events.  
Even humans did not appear “spontaneously”; the species that became them, after the speciation from from the common ancestor of Chimpanzee Apes and proto-prehumans about 6 million years ago, which survive today, appeared via various histories of pre-human species, some of which entered separate evolutionary chains and over several millions of years declined and disappeared.  The modern human species is about 200,000 years old.  In the early decades the human species could have been wiped out by a disease, a natural event, or a wrong "stumble".
Hence, the notion that Adam Smith “caused” capitalism in as absurd as it is ridiculous; its like saying that Isaac Newton “invented” gravity. It follows that Wealth Of Nations did not, never did, and for all time never will be responsible in any way for the forms that what we call capitalism has taken or takes in future.  The “infograph” is spurious. 
If Adam Smith had never lived – he was a “sickly child”, nursed and indulged by his loving mother - commercial society would have evolved much as it did after he died.   Smith’s influence was profound in an intellectual sense – he helped explain how commerce evolved, and how governments evolved too from absolutist tyranny towards imperfect liberty. (democracy was not yet agenda; an attempt to force is progress ended in Napoleonic tyranny)   On some levels his ideas were accepted and influenced attitudes and, occasionally, public policy, though much of what he wrote about was ignored.   Worse, much of what he did not write about, but which is falsely credited to him (laissez-faire, invisible hands, selectively limited government) became influential among folk misusing his name – that dreaded trivia of Western “celebrity” science – and misguides public policy and the personal beliefs of people who ought to know better, as Lost Legacy tries to point out.
Smith was a pragmatist not an ideologue.  As a moral philosopher, he did not do anything, but observed everything.  He was a scientist, not an evangelist.  He analysed his society as he saw it and as he had learned about its history.  We can learn from his Works and better understand what is happening, but whether more people will listen is another matter.


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