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"Is Economics a Science?" Why I Couldn't Care Less

Mark D. White

There’s been a lot of discussion of late regarding economics’ claim to be a science; Harvard economist Raj Chetty recently answered this question in the affirmative in The New York Times in response to mutterings about Robert Schiller and Eugene Fama sharing the 2014 Nobel Prize (with Lars Peter Hansen) despite having different views on the efficiency of financial markets. Several months ago, Phil Mirowski (Notre Dame) made headlines criticizing neoclassic economics and its claims to be a science while discussing his book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown.

All of this makes me wonder: why is it so important to decide whether economics qualifies as a Science anyway? (The pretentious superfluous capitalization is intentional, by the way, representing the quasi-religious importance placed on this title.) Some thoughts follow below the fold…

1. Science is all too often presumed to be the best, if the only, path to truth. But that’s ridiculous – it’s merely one way, which is very well suited to some areas of inquiry and poorly suited to others. For example, science is the best way to investigate the inner workings of physical reality, but it can contribute little to normative questions of morality or justice, or answer questions about the meaning of life. The question of whether economics contributes to human understanding does not depend on whether we choose to classify it as a science.

2. If economists want to claim the status of Science in order to earn some badge of honor in objectivity, I’m afraid they’ll be disappointed. This is where the criticism of the Shiller/Fama Nobel is instructive: if I cared about whether economics is a science, I would take the dual nature of this award as a positive sign because it shows vibrant disagreement that science should emulate, not frown upon. (Nancy Folbre, writing today in The New York Times, disagrees.) Disagreement reflects criticism and skepticism and it spurs on further investigation. It shows that truth is never found but forever sought; we can approach it and approximate it, but we should never presume to “have” it, because when we think we’ve found truth, we stop questioning it and we grow too comfortable in our “knowledge.”

This claim to have truth becomes exponentially more dangerous when it takes over a scientific community; as in so many other areas of life, consensus is not only overrated in science but truly perilous because it threatens complacency, sloppiness, and groupthink. When I hear the phrase “scientists have reached consensus” on an empirical question, I shudder, and can only hope that some scientists are hard at work challenging this consensus. If they fail, that only confirms the majority position, but if it succeeds, the quest for truth has been furthered—and either way, we’re better off. Scientists should view skeptics like defense attorneys, who exist to keep prosecutors in check and to make sure they do their job well, and not skipping any steps, making poor arguments, or introducing irrelevant evidence. Defense attorneys don’t make prosecutors’ jobs more difficult – they help prosecutors do their job better. Scientists should welcome skeptics, not shun them.

3. At the risk of stating the obvious, economics, as a social science, will be never have the explanatory or predictive success of the best of the hard sciences. But this is not an appropriate ambition; this is where the philosophical side of economics becomes important to recognize, emphasize, and promote (as we try to do here). Economics studies human interactions, and is unavoidably wrapped up with vague and often normative terminology which require interpretation. Every one of Professor Chetty’s examples of “definitive” economic studies—which make valuable use of the methods of science—can be interpreted in several ways, each leading to its own normative implication, and none of which can be declared to be correct using the tools of science. Professor Mirowski’s invaluable contribution to the debate has been to peel away the façade of objectivity from economics – which, ironically, brings it more in line with the esteemed hard sciences, not less. (For example, the greatest threat to acceptance of climate change science is not distrust in science but in climate change scientists, the most visible of whom often behave more like politicians and medieval scholastics than seekers of truth.)

Will people listen to economists and respect their opinion more if economics is declared a Science? That’s an interesting question: at the same time that we hear about widespread “science denial,” it is hard to deny that the word still has a tremendous amount of cache. Even if this is true, though, declaring economics a Science may mislead people regarding such how “scientific” it actually is, and may lead them to put too  much faith in the pronouncements of economists.

My recommendations?

  • Don’t worry about whether economics is a science; calling it a science won’t give it any more explanatory or predictive power, and denying it scientific “status” won’t “put them in their place” or render their basic tenets false.
  • Let economists do what they do, and trust that the best ones do it with integrity, honor, and humility, never claiming more than they’ve shown and admitting the shortcomings of their work. (The hard part is identifying the ones that exemplify this behavior.)
  • Take economists’ theories, analysis, and predictions with a grain of salt, ask questions of them, and force them to defend their positions.

And then do the same with “real” scientists too, because everyone needs a critic.


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Well said, Mark!

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