So, An Economist Walks Into a Bar

It is at moments like these that academic meetings move from the merely abstract to the borderline absurd. After a while, as you can imagine, I needed a joke to keep myself (and everyone else) awake.

By Ned Hill, A One-Handed Economist, and Professor of Public Administration and City & Regional Planning at The Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs, powered by The MPI Group

Being an academic economist isn’t all research and equivocating opinions (“on the one hand … on the other …”). Sometimes — just like every other profession — it requires really bad jokes to change the flow of really long meetings.

During the meeting of a Ph.D. examination committee recently, a debate about the definition and meaning of logical positivism broke out.

I’m not kidding.

If you look up “logical positivism” on the Internet, you’ll find any number of simple, concise, 12-page, single-spaced essays on the topic. As near as anyone can tell, what logical positivism actually means is any stream of argument logically based on actual evidence.

It is at moments like these that academic meetings move from the merely abstract to the borderline absurd.

After a while, as you can imagine, I needed a joke to keep myself (and everyone else) awake.

But I had no logical positivist jokes.

I tried out some in my head. How many logical positivists does it take to change a light bulb?  A logical positivist walks into a bar? A priest, a rabbi, and a logical positivist … No luck.

Desperate, I suggested that the committee ask the following question of the two Ph.D. candidates: “Finish this sentence: A logical positivist walks into a bar ….”

No takers.

Scouring the web, I did find this: Descartes [famed for saying “I think; therefore I am.”] walks into a bar and has a drink.

The bartender asks: “René, do you want another drink?”

Descartes replies: “I think not,” and then disappears in a puff of metaphysical smoke.

Logical, but not very positive.

Fortunately, Sophia Zupanc — a junior at Wellesley and a member of my research team — took on the challenge denied the Ph.D. students. To wit: a logical positivist walks into a bar to disprove the a priori proposition that all people in a bar are happy. Noticing the number of people sitting at the bar alone, the logical positivist deduces that all those in a bar must be unhappy. Yet, as more drinks are served and the mood in the bar becomes livelier, the logical positivist realizes that empirical verification is impossible: humans are illogical, and their actions can rarely be systematically understood.

Hmmmmm.

Undeterred, I tried my own hand at it: How many logical positivists does it take to change a lightbulb? Three.

  • A professor schooled in logical positivism recognizes darkness, writes a proposal about it, and receives funding.
  • Her logical positivist doctoral student formulates a testable decision-tree listing Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive [MECE] outcomes, each accompanied by a counterfactual. Four hypotheses result.
  • The janitor, who lives logically and positively, finds the light switch.

Or this one: An economist walks into a bar and says, “Hey, does anybody here know any logical positivist jokes?”

Everybody laughs. Sort of.

See more of Ned’s work at his blog, A One-Handed Economist.

 

© 2017 A One-Handed Economist featuring Ned Hill is powered by The MPI Group

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