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March 2, 2010

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I see meteorology, medical science, and economics (or climatology, epidemiology, and macroeconomics more specifically) as much more akin to each other than to physics and chemistry, not only due to the complexity issue you raise, but also because the data they use is largely observational. Even medical RCTs have a lot of uncontrollable elements that have to be isolated using statistical techniques rather than experimental design. I think you could make the case that economics studies the most complex system of the three, but I see it as a difference of degree rather than kind.

I think it's a good point that the "big" questions aren't economic. By "big" questions, of course, we mean questions about the proper goals of policy. Economics provides zero meaningful guidance on what the end goal of any decision maker should be.

It provides a little bit of insight into what those goals generally are (I'm thinking of the Public Choice literature here). But mostly what economics has to offer is optimization; let us know the goal and the sort of resources we have to work with, and we'll figure out the best way to use those resources to advance the goal. But the goal has to come from somewhere more philosophical, whether it be religion, metaphysics, etc.

As for Russ Roberts, the more of him I read the less value I see in it. He brings up important topics, but he seems to have very little respect for those in other fields (such as the philosophers slight), and none at all for those who don't already see things his way. That's no way to learn about the world.

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