Taking up the point that Steve Kates made about economics being captured by ideas that lack credibility and have catastrophic practical consequences. It is helpful here to use a distinction put about by Pete Boettke of the Austrian school. The distinction is between the mainstream and the mainline. On this account Adam Smith, the classicals and the Austrian/Australians represent the mainline. The mainstream is where most of the economists live and it has been captured by various fads and fashions which earn Nobel Prizes but miss the point of economics. Paul Samuelson is the best example.
One of the symptoms of the problem is the way the most important philosopher of science in the 20th century has been marginalized in the profession. The visible sign of that development is the climate scam, profound corruption in the heart of the scientific enterprise which is supposed to be the glory of the 20th century, standing in contrast to the mountains of corpses piled up as a result of defective ideas about economics and politics.
First a plug for the most important commentator on this state of affairs, and then a little more on the ways of the serious student.
This is an overview of the life and work of Jacques Barzun (1907- ). For the last few years I had an obituary in draft but each year it turned into a Happy Birthday post in November. Maybe that will happen again this year. Two years ago he was up to spending an hour taking questions at a seminar on his work. Well an hour turned up on video anyway, and he was very good after a slow start due to some silly questions that he had to try to answer first up. More on Barzun for people who are interested.
A few thoughts on the way serious students should approach their studies, especially people who want to good research, bearing in mind that learning is a lifelong vocation.
Be interested in a lot of things and especially the problematic aspects of those things where more work needs to be done.
Get a good working understanding of all the rival schools of thought in the discipline, not just the one where you were trained. It might not be the most robust and helpful school of thought and if you don’t check out the others (properly) you will never find that out.
Try to have personal contacts in those schools of thought, if possible people who are alert and interested enough to be in touch with developments before they are published (which can take years).
Similarly have contacts in the different branches of your own field. This will only work if you can explain your interests in a way that makes contact with their interests. You should also be able to explain your interests in a way that makes sense to your non-professional friends and your family and especially your mother in law (either Richard Hamming or a Nobel in economics said that about the mother in law). While you are doing that you will remember some important things that you had forgotten and you will find out that there are some things that don’t know and they are important as well.
Make personal contacts in other disciplines where your problems and interests lead. If you can’t find any work in other disciplines that is relevant to yours, you are not trying hard enough (mathematics does not count).
Arthur Koestler’s book The Act of Creation drew a very long bow about the springs on creativity through what he called the “bissociation of matrices”. He applied this to the Ah moment of mystical enlightenment, the Ah Ha moment of scientific creativity and the Ha Ha moment of making a joke. The creative bissociation occurs when a line of thought in one matrix (context) makes the right kind of contact with a line of thought in another matrix (context or discipline). Peter Medwar cast a very jaundiced eye over this book and triggered an exchange of letters with Koestler when he wrote a stinging review. Whatever the merits of the theory, it encouraged me to persist with a kind of “all over the place” approach, reading widely inside my (then) field of agriculture (specializing in soil science) and outside in literature, psychology, comparative religion, history, education etc. That way you get to find out things that your teachers did not tell you!