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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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