Review: The Soulful Science, Diane Coyle

22nd January, 2007

Those who were not paying attention could be forgiven for thinking that popular economics writing began in 2005 with the publication of the wildly successful Freakonomics. At one stage last year, Freakonomics and my own offering were exchanging first and second place on the ratings. Nobody, I think, was more surprised than I and the “freakonomists” Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Diane Coyle did not think much of Freakonomics, which she attacked for its sensationalism, and The Soulful Science is not interested in making economics sexy. Dr Coyle has a very different ambition: she wants to make economics likeable.

Dr Coyle’s previous book, Sex, Drugs and Economics, was excellent on the economics but the title was misleading: this reader never got the sense that her heart was in the sex and drugs. In The Soulful Science, she is on more comfortable territory. Duly liberated from the need to hype up a subject that she feels needs no hyperbole, she has produced a better, more confident book.

The simple aim of The Soulful Science is to describe what economists do, how the field has changed in the past 10 years or so, and why you should care. It succeeds admirably.

The book is split into three parts: the first on economic growth, the second on human behaviour, and the third an attempt to bring the two together. The chapters are peppered with vignettes of economists – “passionate nerds”, she affectionately calls them – but at its core, each chapter is a review of the economic literature. Each chapter explains simply what the key questions are, shows the relevance of apparently esoteric debates, puts all the ideas into context and sums up neatly.

The opening chapters on growth and development are essential reading if you want to understand much of what is going on in the newspapers. If you want to understand whether there was a “new economy” in the 1990s, you need to understand how growth is measured and how previous technological innovations affected the economy. And if you want to understand the claims and counter-claims in an impassioned debate about the effectiveness of foreign aid, you should read the chapter on “How to Make Poverty History”.

We then move on to the hot topics of behavioural economics – that is, the study of how and why we do not act the way economists think we should – and the economics of happiness. Behavioural economics is a fascinating subject that could easily fill a book in its own right. Happiness economics is also intriguing, although far thinner: so far, it consists mostly of statistical correlations, asking whether people are more likely to say they are happy if they are rich, married or if the sun is shining.

Dr Coyle covers all this sympathetically but with an appropriate scepticism. Yes, happiness guru Lord Layard was happy growing up in a house with icicles on the inside of the windows, and Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz finds it agonising to choose between all the jeans on offer at Gap. But Dr Coyle likes designer shoes and dislikes icicles and would rather make her own choices than have Profs Layard and Schwartz decide for her.

Dr Coyle usually chooses her subjects well, picking research areas that are frequently over-embellished by others and giving them the fresh, unbiased treatment they are crying out for. But her final chapter, “Why Economics has Soul”, is less satisfying. What begins as a defence of economics turns into a laundry list of cool things that economists do. It is interesting enough but not a particularly satisfying way to conclude the book. Since the final chapter is supposed to defend the subject, perhaps it is unfair to complain that it sounds defensive. The rest of the book is defence enough.

Even if economists have been claiming that economics can be fun for many years, publishers have recently begun to pay much closer attention. The Soulful Science will not be the only popular economics book of 2007. One notable attraction is Steven Landsburg, an American economics professor who wrote the now-canonical The Armchair Economist. He will be back in April with More Sex is Safer Sex. Having seen a copy, I can confirm that Prof Landsburg seems keener to write about sex than Dr Coyle is.

The contrast in styles is striking. Dr Coyle is the “passionate nerd”, an enthusiastic teacher, convinced that a brightly presented review of contemporary economics should be accepted on its own merits. Prof Landsburg is more of a subversive figure, tempting readers to the dark side with an eagerness to contradict conventional wisdom at every step. He is keen to shock: at one point, he asks us to compare coma victim Terri Schiavo to a toaster to better comprehend his argument. Still, the devilish fun of it all is undeniable.

Dr Coyle is keen to make friends for economics and Prof Landsburg, it seems, is happy to make enemies. How encouraging that popular economics writing has matured to the point where we have the choice between these contrasting approaches. My advice would be to read both.

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