Monday, April 2, 2012

Unconventional criticism

Critics of the economics profession generally argue that economics isn't a real science, that it's "value-laden", or overwhelmed by political bias, or outrageously myopic, or corrupted by corporate funding, or something like that.

I can't resist quoting a critic in the New York Times, who makes the opposite claim. Economists are too much like scientists, he says:

Economists, political scientists and sociologists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex: physics envy. They often feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the “real” sciences and self-consciously model their work on them, using language (“theory,” “experiment,” “law”) evocative of physics and chemistry.

This might seem like a worthy aspiration. Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the theoretical model holds; if the hypothesis is not confirmed, the theoretical model does not hold. If your discipline does not operate by this method — known as hypothetico-deductivism — then in the minds of many, it’s not scientific.

Such reasoning dominates the social sciences today.

Mission accomplished, I say.

[Update: As I admit in the comments, I'm playing fast and loose with this essay in order to make a point.

Phil Arena has written an extensive review of the book that the essay is based on. Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage also responds to the New York Times essay. My favorite comment comes from Andrew Gelman: "I think physicists have a bit of physics envy too."]Link


  1. Hey, Will.

    I think you may have misunderstood Clarke and Primo's argument. The claim isn't that economics (or any other social science) is "too scientific". It is that the common conception of what it means to be scientific is not viable (and does not match what is taking place in the natural sciences). Their biggest concern is the belief that theories cannot be of value if they do not generate observable implications that survive empirical testing, and that empirical analysis cannot be of value if it is does not proceed under the pretext of "theory testing."

    Admittedly, their short op-ed doesn't do justice to their argument, which is more nuanced. But if you're interested, I reviewed their book (which the op-ed is based on) here:


    1. Put differently, they are primarily reacting against a strong movement in political science to pressure game theorists into conducting "tests" of their models (though I'm not sure what that even means, since we can't test models, only hypotheses). They're not saying that economists shouldn't do experiments or develop theories. They're saying that game theoretic models can have value even if they don't produce directly testable implications (a view many economists, including Ariel Rubinstein, share).

  2. I know I'm playing fast and loose with the essay, just wanted to point out the irony.

    I wasn't aware there was a book behind this, thanks for the link.

    1. Fair enough. :) It's not the usual critique of the social sciences, that's for sure.

      I also agree with Voeten that the "physics envy" framing is not very helpful. And the Gelman quote is a good one. :)