Economics as Science

October 29, 2013

The recent Nobel Prize [1] in economics has prompted a fair bit of commentary/discussion along the lines of ‘is economics a science’? I thought I’d add to that commentary. The extremes of the commonly articulated positions are roughly:

“Of course it is – and a stronger, more manful, more mathematical science than your [puny / relativistic / fraudulent / etc.] [psychology / sociology / history / etc.]“

“Of course it isn’t – it’s a series of barely coherent apologies for the interests of the powerful, detached from any reference to or understanding of the suffering inflicted upon billions by the policies it advocates and sophistically excuses”

With of course a range of other positions too.

The former of the two positions above is articulated principally by economists; the latter principally by left critics of economics. I’m in many respects on the left [2] – but I’m also in training to become an economist. Where does that place me? [Well - not to build up suspense: I think economics is indeed a science (that's why I think it's worth doing economics). But the longer version follows.]

Prior question: what does it mean for something to be a science? As a first pass, I take a disciplinary research-space to be a science if:

1) The object it studies is a real phenomenon that can actually be empirically studied.[3] [4] (So astrology doesn’t count – because the relationships between celestial objects and human personality is not a real phenomenon; but astronomy does count, because celestial objects are real things.) (What’s actually real is of course itself a scientific question – but so it goes; there’s no paradox there – just the usual Neurath’s Boat principle of there being no discursive ‘outside’.)

2) There exists a set of established norms and research practices for testing claims about these objects against empirical evidence – for an endeavour to be scientific, claims must be vulnerable to rejection in the light of empirical findings.

3) There’s a discursive space, for researchers, within which those norms for testing claims against evidence can themselves be debated, contested and transformed.

Science is therefore a communal endeavour – it can’t exist outside of a community of research. Science relies on the collection of evidence; the positing of claims on the basis of and for testing by evidence; and the collective ongoing assessment of the evidence, the claims, the methodological connections between the two, and the norms governing the whole endeavour, within a community of researchers.

This definition of science does not require the following things:

- That practitioners of scientific inquiry be particularly rational. All else being equal it’s better for practitioners to be reasonable and informed than not, but the ‘rationality’ of the system resides principally in the possibilities made available by the overall institutions of the system, rather than in the virtues of individual researchers. (It is necessary, though, for a sufficiently large number of members of the community to be committed to reproducing those broad institutional practices enumerated above, that the practices are indeed reproduced.)

- That scientific claims be correct. The whole point of the scientific endeavour is that claims (including both empirical claims and the methodological claims that inform empirical claims) are open to revision.

- That members of a research community be capable of predicting the future behaviour of the phenomena studied. Some phenomena are amenable to this, in the current state of knowledge; others are not. It is not a requirement of science that predictions of future events be created, only that evidence (including evidence generated by future events) be capable of modifying our claims.

- Relatedly, that ‘general laws’ be discovered. Science can study unique specificity just as scientifically as it can study general principles; one is not more sciencey than the other.

- That there be broad consensus on most major topics within the research community. One hopes that warranted consensus can be established, but an important part of the mechanism from which it might emerge is disagreement.

None of those things just listed need apply for a community to count as a group of scientific researchers.

In these terms, is economics a science?

I think the answer is: clearly yes, economics is a science. There is a real object of study (the economy, however that’s understood). There are established principles for collecting evidence and testing claims against evidence. There are ongoing (quite sophisticated) debates about the methodological principles involved in these tasks. So I think economics is pretty unambiguously a science, and I’m happy to be a member of and participate in that research community of scientific practitioners.[5]

What about the second objection, though? The objection that economics is just serving the interests of the powerful, etc.?

Well – just because a community of research meets all the criteria for science, doesn’t mean that it isn’t full of bullshit – nor does it mean that the kinds of bullshit dominant in a field are in any way accidental. Here, as often, it’s important to distinguish between best practice and actual practice. Best practice is not something that exists independently of actual practice – it is generated in and emerges out of actual practice. But it is also something that actual practice can be judged against – and often judged severely. Like any discursive space, the discursive space of economics is variegated – it contains many voices in dispute. In participating in that discursive space, we add our own voices and evaluate those voices already in contention. The norms of evaluation – and, therefore, the conclusions – that we take away from engagement in that space may be minority views relative to the space overall.

So it’s important to distinguish between the claim that economics is a science, and the claim that economics in general has things right, or is even on the right path. It’s important to have an account of the many things wrong with economics too – which I’ll start to talk about in a future post.

[1] The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

[2] This post articulates my politics I think reasonably well – although I’m losing patience with left positions and figures sufficiently rapidly that, while I don’t think I’m on the classic ‘Trot to neocon’ ideological trajectory here [not least because I was never a Trot, but you know what I mean], it’s hard not to see why some such view would look reasonable, from the outside.

[3] “What about mathematics?” Well, mathematical objects (whatever their status – as it happens, I have a conventionalist line on the status of mathematical objects, but nothing here relies on that) can’t be empirically studied, so mathematics isn’t a science in this sense. What gives mathematics its objective character (on my account at least) is the degree of consensus that can be (and has been) attained around mathematical norms – math is pretty much unique in this respect. This is what distinguishes mathematics from, say, theology, which also has an object of study of ambiguous status (real? fictional? social? supernatural?) but where the degree of consensus is far lower, even within specific religious communities, let alone between religions.

[4] “What about the SCIENCE OF BEING that myself and three other graduate students in this Heidegger course are developing?” Sorry – that’s not a science.

[5] Note, though, that economics is not a more manful or vigorous science than any other social science, even if it involves a lot of math.

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2 Responses to “Economics as Science”

  1. As an econ undergrad I agree on economics being considered a science given your explanation. However, economics as science is frequently misperceived as a science in the sense physics is (which you’ve likely heard psychoanalytic theories as to how economists secretly or unconsciously wish themselves to be like physics). In the end I think it does not matter whether one calls economics a science or not, because usually both parties mean the same; it is their interpretation of science which differentiates their determinations, not their perception of economics itself. I personally go for the looser (and I believe more accurate) definition on scientific discourse.

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks, yes – I think it’s true that there’s often more agreement than shifting definitions would suggest.

    At the same time, I do think definitions of science (and therefore of econ) matter – because they tend to be associated with differing valuations of analytic approaches approaches. People who see economics as aspiring to the model of physics as archetypal science, for example, will tend to value some kinds of econ (e.g. mathematical modelling with purportedly very general application) more highly than others (e.g. more qualitative or historical approaches). And this of course can in turn have an impact on the research programs pursued and the conclusions drawn within large sections of the discipline. So yes, these arguments can be as much definitional as anything – but they can also have consequences for the discipline’s self-conception and direction.

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