Profile of Eddie Nik-Khah

As someone who does some of his best thinking by talking things out with colleagues, Eddie Nik-Khah has been absolutely energized by the opportunities he’s had at Duke to engage in conversation on an ongoing basis with other historians of economics. “Going out to lunch, throwing a topic on the table, playing with it, talking it through: I find that really valuable,” says Eddie, a 2011–12 fellow of the Center for the History of Political Economy. “It prepares me to be receptive to new ideas in a way that sitting and reading alone do not.”

Indeed, there is a spontaneity to life as a HOPE Center fellow, Eddie says, that can result in all kinds of exciting and unexpected projects. A good example is the presentation he and Harro Maas, another fellow of the Center, recently made at one of the lunchtime workshops. He had previously read Merchants of Doubt, the 2010 book by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway that documents how certain industries such as the tobacco industry have cast doubt on well-established scientific knowledge. The book fit in nicely with one of Eddie’s current interests, “agnotology,” which is about the production of ignorance. He mentioned the book one day at lunch to his colleagues here, and as the episodes covered in the book came up again and again in conversation, Tiago Mata, another fellow, suggested he make a presentation exploring whether historians of economics have anything to learn from Oreskes and Conway.

“The fact that we even had the lunch on agnotology was itself interesting,” Eddie says. “Although we are all here to do serious work, there’s an experimental nature to the Center that can bring one into useful contact with subjects in unexpected ways.”

Eddie, an associate professor of economics at Roanoke College (Va.), has been working on two projects as a fellow of the Center. The first, which is a continuation of previous research, examines George Stigler’s ideas about the appropriate role of the expert economist in a democracy. The second deals with agnotology. Both projects are concerned with the ideas supporting the construction of new forms of scientific institutions, and both make use of archival materials to get at those ideas. By examining the views of important institution builders, along with the circumstances surrounding their efforts, Eddie hopes to understand the nature of some of the knowledge-producing institutions that shape current views. “Interestingly, economists were crucial participants in these efforts; therefore, the history of political economy can make contributions to this understanding,” he says.

The fact that the Center values research as much as teaching is another quality Eddie greatly appreciates. “I come from a liberal arts college, where we pay a lot of attention to teaching. There’s a lot of concern here about teaching as well--how to teach, what to teach--which I wouldn’t expect from a research institute. It’s been rewarding.” This fall, he has been sitting in on Roy Weintraub’s class on the development of modern economics, brushing up on his knowledge and picking up some teaching tips in the process.

Eddie, who is here with his wife Ania and their two-year-old daughter Maya, will return to Roanoke College in the summer.

--Paul Dudenhefer