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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'In Search of the Science in Economics'

In case this is something you want to discuss (if not, that's okay too -- I got tired of this debate long, long ago):

In Search of the Science in Economics, by Noah Smith: ...I’d like to discuss the idea that economics is only a social science, and should discard its mathematical pretensions and return to a more literary approach. 
First, let’s talk about the idea that when you put the word “social” in front of “science,” everything changes. The idea here is that you can’t discover hard-and-fast principles that govern human behavior, or the actions of societies, the way physicists derive laws of motion for particles or biologists identify the actions of the body’s various systems. You hear people say this all the time
But is it true? As far as I can tell, it’s just an assertion, with little to back it up. No one has discovered a law of the universe that you can’t discover patterns in human societies. Sure, it’s going to be hard -- a human being is vastly more complicated than an electron. But there is no obvious reason why the task is hopeless. 
To the contrary, there have already been a great many successes. ...
What about math? .... I do think economists would often benefit from closer observation of the real world. ... But that doesn’t mean math needs to go. Math allows quantitative measurement and prediction, which literary treatises do not. ...
So yes, social science can be science. There will always be a place in the world for people who walk around penning long, literary tomes full of vague ideas about how humans and societies function. But thanks to quantitative social science, we now have additional tools at our disposal. Those tools have already improved our world, and to throw them away would be a big mistake.

This is from a post of mine in August, 2009 on the use of mathematics in economics:

Lucas roundtable: Ask the right questions, by Mark Thoma: In his essay, Robert Lucas defends macroeconomics against the charge that it is "valueless, even harmful", and that the tools economists use are "spectacularly useless".

I agree that the analytical tools economists use are not the problem. We cannot fully understand how the economy works without employing models of some sort, and we cannot build coherent models without using analytic tools such as mathematics. Some of these tools are very complex, but there is nothing wrong with sophistication so long as sophistication itself does not become the main goal, and sophistication is not used as a barrier to entry into the theorist's club rather than an analytical device to understand the world.

But all the tools in the world are useless if we lack the imagination needed to build the right models. Models are built to answer specific questions. When a theorist builds a model, it is an attempt to highlight the features of the world the theorist believes are the most important for the question at hand. For example, a map is a model of the real world, and sometimes I want a road map to help me find my way to my destination, but other times I might need a map showing crop production, or a map showing underground pipes and electrical lines. It all depends on the question I want to answer. If we try to make one map that answers every possible question we could ever ask of maps, it would be so cluttered with detail it would be useless. So we necessarily abstract from real world detail in order to highlight the essential elements needed to answer the question we have posed. The same is true for macroeconomic models.

But we have to ask the right questions before we can build the right models.

The problem wasn't the tools that macroeconomists use, it was the questions that we asked. The major debates in macroeconomics had nothing to do with the possibility of bubbles causing a financial system meltdown. That's not to say that there weren't models here and there that touched upon these questions, but the main focus of macroeconomic research was elsewhere. ...

The interesting question to me, then, is why we failed to ask the right questions. ... Was it lack of imagination, was it the sociology within the profession, the concentration of power over what research gets highlighted, the inadequacy of the tools we brought to the problem, the fact that nobody will ever be able to predict these types of events, or something else?

It wasn't the tools, and it wasn't lack of imagination. As Brad DeLong points out, the voices were there—he points to Michael Mussa for one—but those voices were not heard. Nobody listened even though some people did see it coming. So I am more inclined to cite the sociology within the profession or the concentration of power as the main factors that caused us to dismiss these voices. ...

I don't know for sure the extent to which the ability of a small number of people in the field to control the academic discourse led to a concentration of power that stood in the way of alternative lines of investigation, or the extent to which the ideology that markets prices always tend to move toward their long-run equilibrium values and that markets will self-insure, caused us to ignore voices that foresaw the developing bubble and coming crisis. But something caused most of us to ask the wrong questions, and to dismiss the people who got it right, and I think one of our first orders of business is to understand how and why that happened.

    Posted by on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 12:13 PM in Economics, Methodology | Permalink  Comments (47)


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