Economics is boring, you say? Put a stake in it!

Dan Farhat

Vampires want to eat you. They want to bite your neck and suck out your blood.

We know all about those monsters; this is how they work. Just like you, they need your blood to stay alive.

But we humans can fight back. We have the technology to defend ourselves.

The question is: how much of our resources should we devote to manufacturing stakes, producing garlic and other means necessary to hold off the vampires when those resources could be used for other things that keep us alive? We need food. Shelter. Clothing. Education.

We have to make wise decisions about deploying our resources to put up a good defense.

Vampires have their own choices to make. They need to eat, but they can’t eat us all. That would cause food shortages. They also need to choose their dinner wisely. A meal that puts up a fight might end in disaster.

Decisions, decisions!

Let’s back up. Yes, we all know vampires are fictional and their characteristics vary from story to story, from Dracula to “True Blood” and “Twilight.” However, studying such scenarios, even though they are derived from books and movies, can teach us a lot about how to approach economic decision making.

That’s what Dan Farhat does. Yes, the Radford University assistant economics professor studies vampires. He uses sophisticated computer simulations to do it.

“I create hundreds, sometimes millions, of artificial people and vampires inside a virtual landscape. Each one is unique,” Farhat said. “I give them reasonable rules to follow, usually based on assumptions about how they respond to their environment.”

He then sets loose the vampires and humans to “see what happens,” he explained. “I look at the population demographics and spending patterns in the artificial economic ecosystem and see if it reflects the real economy we see around us.” This is a research method called “agent-based modeling,” and it is growing in popularity amongst social scientists.

Farhat is often asked about the real-world applications of his vampire research. There are many. His research creates avenues to study such topics as social revolution, crime and government corruption and even free-loader roommates.

“It can be used for any application or any situation where one person or group feeds off others,” Farhat said.

Those studies are beneficial, but Farhat has another purpose: inspiring more students to study economics.

“We economists are trying to help people, students included, get past the math and data normally associated with economics and to work on interesting research,” Farhat said. “I’m trying to pass on the passion of economics through what I like to call scien-tainment, or entertaining science.”

That’s where the vampires come into play.

In conducting research, an individual “should express themselves,” Farhat said. “I'm dark and twisty, so vampire research was good for me.”

And sure, Farhat knows vampires are soooo 2010, and zombies are all the rage now. So, he plans to work with interested students on economics research projects that will involve those. Or super heroes and super villains. Or werewolves. Or space aliens. Or soldiers. Or rap stars. Or dance moms.

“I want to leave it up to the students,” Farhat said. “I want to help them understand what it’s like to do actual economics research and produce an output, such as a paper in an undergraduate journal or a poster at a conference.

“I want students to know that culture, even pop culture, is important to economics,” Farhat continued. “I want students to explore their own interests and how they tie into economics; they’ll find that they have more to contribute to economic research than they might think.”

Most of all, he said, “I want students to know that, unlike vampires, economics doesn’t bite.”

Oct 6, 2016
Chad Osborne