Is Bill Easterly losing it?

I can’t answer that. It could be just that the whole discipline of economics suffers from what could be called “hypothesitis” — a pathological tendency to propose half-baked ideas.

Easterly is a well-known NYU economist who is often worth reading as a useful counterpoint to some of the soft-headed chatter on matters of international development.

But, I had to laugh when I read a post on Easterly’s blog in which he suggests that Africa’s technological state of affairs today was predetermined by where it was technologically in 1,000 BC.

It’s Jared (“Guns, Germs and Steel”) Diamond’s argument on crank! Forget about the impact of colonialism and slavery on Africa; the problems of many African countries today derive from not fully capitalizing on the Iron Age, Easterly says.

You can read his argument and decide for yourself. I have several problems with the idea, even though as a nerd I would like to believe human progress could be so easily determined several millennia in advance.

One is that “technology” is actually not a very well-defined word, and so it is not that easy to measure it. You could argue, for example, that so-called “low-tech” farming practices actually represent a more advanced technological strategy for humanity — in terms of sustainability — than the “modern” approach of depending upon massive soil disruption, chemical additives and so on.

But the biggest problem for Easterly’s theory is that China, for one example, was certainly more technologically advanced than Europe in 1000 BC — yet its track record doesn’t fit his hypothesis.

Easterly simply dismisses this as an aberration. It’s a pretty big aberration.

I guess in economics you never have to let a fact get in the way of a good theory.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.