Economics and Science Envy

Science envy, or what Hayek called scientism, has deeply hurt economics as an academic discipline. In the post-Samuelson era, economics as a way of thinking has been displaced by regression analysis, Markov chains, and the like. These tools can be quite useful when used properly, but the discipline has reached the point where the leading journals are publishing papers in applied mathematics, as opposed to economic analysis. Deirdre McCloskey, on page 25 of her book The Vices of Economists–the Virtues of the Bourgeouisie, points out that economics is simply not capable of aping the hard sciences the way many of today’s economists would like it to:

But economists can’t go into a laboratory and work out the quantitative balance. In this respect they are like astronomers rather than chemists. They have to rely on the experiments of history. Still no tragedy. Economics is mainly an observational science like astronomy or evolutionary biology or history itself. That’s no scandal. In fact, it was the occasion for one of the great programs in modern economics.

Vernon Smith actually did find a way to perform economic experiments in a lab setting, and he won a Nobel for it. But he would largely agree with Deirdre about the wisdom of treating economics as a hard science along the lines of chemistry or physics. His experiments are intended to reveal how people, wittingly or not, apply the economic way of thinking in their decision-making, or to shed some light on how markets work under different sets of rules. They are absolutely not intended to impress his peers with mathematical prowess, or to be scientifically conclusive.

In some ways, studying people is far more difficult than studying galaxies or atoms. That’s half the fun, even if the way people act sometimes defies the application of statistical significance.


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