Skip to main content

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum theory - but this isn't something physicists should turn their nose up at, because physics uses analogy all the time. When James Clerk Maxwell came up with the equations of electromagnetism, he first used a mechanical model. This was later translated into a mathematical model - but a model in the scientific sense is just a quantitative analogy. When we describe light, for example, as particles or waves or disturbances in quantum field these are all models. Light is light. These are the models we can work with that work effectively - and this is the approach Orrell takes with quantum economics.

I mentioned money. Orrell makes it clear that conventional economics really doesn't deal properly with money - in fact it largely ignores it, other than as a measure. But as he shows, money is far more than they allow for, having a dual nature that Orrell uses to draw a parallel with entanglement in quantum physics. It might seem baffling that economists aren't worried about money, but apparently they see it only as a stand-in for barter: Orrell makes it clear how much more it is. The head-in-the-sand approach of the economics profession results in their pretty much ignoring the financial sector, a bizarre oversight that makes their total shock at the 2008 crash not at all surprising.

We also see how the models that economists use are based on a false picture of the economy based on the idea of stability where actions are taken by independent agents, always getting their decisions perfectly right. It's so far from real life, it's laughable. And, as Orrell shows, although over the last couple of decades there have been attempts to tweak conventional economics to incorporate some behavioural issues, it is still based on a false foundation that means it can never be truly effective, which combined with economists rarely revealing their vested interests means that any advice from economists should arguably be totally ignored.

Although Orrell doesn't claim to have all the answers, or the mechanisms to rework economic theory and practice, he shows how using parallels with quantum theory (sometimes verging on actual quantum behaviour) could be used to give economics a better chance of reflecting reality. Economists would still not be able to predict that a crash would happen at a certain date, but would be able to have better flags that suggested we were heading that way - and could provide better advice for decision makers. At the moment, though, the senior economists, like the high priests of old, have no intention of giving up their positions of power based on an outmoded way of thinking.

This book is remarkable, but has a couple of significant issues. The introductory section giving background on quantum theory is probably necessary, but I can imagine many who aren't scientists, or don't read popular science, not getting past it. And Orrell does regularly labour his points in a way that manages to be both too academic and too fuzzy for a title like this (there's quantum superposition for you). I lost count how many times the main points were made, and how often I felt I could not really see what argument Orrell was presenting. Quantum Economics doesn't have the scapel-like precision of Economyths.

However, this shouldn't get in the way of the fact that where with Economyths Orrell concentrated on showing what was wrong with contemporary economics, here he offers a radically different way to approach it. As with its predecessor, most economists won't get it - there's an element of turkeys voting for Christmas if they do - but for the rest of us, from the rare opportunity to get into the guts of economics (I hadn't even realised the importance of governments being in debt, or economists' strange aversion to thinking about money) to a remarkably fresh view for the future of economics if attention were given to it, this is a landmark book.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…