What is 'Dismal Science'

Dismal science is a term coined by Scottish writer, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle to describe the discipline of economics. The term dismal science was inspired by T. R. Malthus' gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

BREAKING DOWN 'Dismal Science'

Exactly what inspired the term "dismal science" has been a subject of debate. Those who doubt the story say that Carlyle was reacting not to Malthus, but to economists, such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that institutions, not race, explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus' predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was the discipline's assumption that people are basically all the same and thus entitled to liberty that led Carlyle to label the study of economics, "the dismal science". The connection was so well known throughout the 19th century, that even cartoonists would refer to it knowing that their audience would understand the reference.

Origin of 'Dismal Science'

The phrase "dismal science" first occurs in Carlyle's 1849 tract called Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he argued slavery should be restored in order to reestablish productivity to the West Indies. In the work, Carlyle says, "Not a 'gay science,' I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science."

Carlyle's phrase, "the dismal science," was so often quoted that there is a risk of thinking that the opinion behind it solely belonged to him and his followers. However, the opinion was widespread at the time, and thought to be a justifiable by many economists.

Carlyle's article started began by espousing devil's advocate point-of-view that challenged what Carlyle perceived to be a hypocritical philanthropic movement for the emancipation of West Indian slaves. Although slavery was abolished in the British colonies by 1807, and in the rest of the British Empire by 1833, Cuba and Brazil continued continued using slaves until 1838. In its original publication, Carlyle presented it as a speech "delivered by we know not whom" written down by an unreliable reporter by the name of "Phelin M'Quirk" (the fictitious "Absconded Reporter"). The manuscript was supposedly sold to the publisher by M'Quirk's landlady in lieu of unpaid rent. She reportedly found it lying in his room after he ran off.

  1. Social Sciences

    Social sciences are a group of academic disciplines that examine ...
  2. Thomas Malthus

    Thomas Malthus was an 18th-century British philosopher and economist ...
  3. Economics

    Economics is a branch of social science focused on the production, ...
  4. Actuarial Science

    Actuarial science is a discipline that assesses financial risks ...
  5. Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns

    The law of diminishing marginal returns states that there comes ...
  6. Roger B. Myerson

    Roger B. Myerson is an American economist and was awarded the ...
Related Articles
  1. CG: Carlyle Group Dividend Analysis

    The Carlyle Group as a limited partnership is in a unique position to have unlimited dividend payouts and, as a result, unparalleled CG dividend yields.
  2. Investing

    Carlyle Group Sees Trouble in Hedge Fund Divisions

    Though its equities core is thriving, Carlyle Group has seen numerous setbacks to its hedge fund efforts, the latest of which made headlines last week.
  3. Managing Wealth

    How David Rubenstein Became a Billionaire

    David Rubenstein made his fortune by collecting management fees from investors who gave him money to invest on their behalf.
  4. Insights

    McDonald's to Open 2,000 New Restaurants in China

    The world’s largest fast food chain is confident of generating big sales in China, guided by the expertise of partners CITIC and Carlyle Group.
  5. Investing

    Why Exact Sciences Will Plunge Even Further

    Exact Sciences stock is dropping like a hot potato on news of an impressive rival colorectal cancer detection test.
  6. Investing

    Biotech Exact Sciences' 13% Plunge Could Get Steeper

    The steep stock decline of 13% for Exact Sciences could signal more problems to come.
  7. Personal Finance

    How to Find the Truth in Financial Services Studies

    How do you find the real science today given an environment where there’s so much sensationalism and spin trying to present a specific answer?
  8. Investing

    Soaring Cash Makes Gilead Cheaper Than You Think (GILD)

    There are a lot of reasons investors may be considering owning shares in Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), including the fact that Gilead is the market share-leading maker of both HIV and hepatitis ...
  9. Investing

    Carlyle Group Buying Australian Wine Co. for $774M

    Carlyle Group is buying into a booming market for premium wine exports from Australia.
  10. Investing

    Gilead Sciences Stock: A Dividend Analysis (GILD)

    Discover analysis of the dividend policy of Gilead Sciences, Inc., and learn about its historical earnings growth and the future of its dividend.
  1. What are some of the limitations and drawbacks of economics as a field?

    Find out why the field of economics is full of controversy. Policy decisions, political campaigns and personal finances are ... Read Answer >>
  2. What is the difference between accounting and economics?

    Discover the difference between accounting and economics by comparing and contrasting the financial discipline of accounting ... Read Answer >>
Trading Center