Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"Shut up and compute"

The phrase "shut up and compute" is in/famous in physics circles as a put-down to people who complain about the epistemological sense of quantum physics (as in: it makes remarkably accurate predictions that no other theory does; so shut up and compute).

I wrote here previously about my career: I would not have been admitted to graduate school, given academic positions, awarded tenure, etc. were it not for my abilities in mathematics and computing. There is a sense in which it may have been dishonest to focus on the type of work that gave me those opportunities, and then not to continue doing the same. I prefer to think about it in another sense: This is how I paid my dues to the profession, in order to get these opportunities, and I am perfectly happy to forego whatever success I may be able to achieve going forward by continuing along the same trajectory. In this latter sense, I was not at all dishonest, and those who have known me at any level will have known my cynicism about my profession of academic economics. They may have had expectations that my desire to succeed would keep me wedded to "computing," but they cannot blame me for gaming the system or pretending to value what I was doing any more than I did.

But now there is another ethical dilemma that I must face -- in teaching. I have undeniably strong opinions about a variety of topics, and I recognize that my opinions are more likely to be wrong than right. However, as a teacher, the professor-student relationship endows the former with power (of rhetoric and persuasion, grading authority, body of accumulated facts, etc.) that may make it unethical to color students' views in ways that may alter their career plans and other choices. In the meantime, it is unethical to pretend like the material we teach is not pregnant with ethical judgments (obviously, this is a problem for all social sciences). We try our best to tell students about our biases ahead of time, and warn them to adjust their own views accordingly, but this does not eliminate all problems.

So, I am asking my department chair if I can just exclusively teach mathematical and computational material, where there are correct answers and useful skills transferred in all circumstances.


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