Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noah Smith — Economics Isn't Science or Literature

Economics as rhetoric, and math as a rhetorical device. After all economics is about policy, strategy and tactics in an uncertain world rather than general description and experimental testing, as in natural science. Like lit, it's about story telling, but with a purpose. I'd say this is a pretty honest appraisal by an economist also trained in physics.

As someone trained in philosophy, economics strikes me as closest to philosophy. Both philosophy and and economics build their foundations on assumptions that look like general descriptions but actually function as norms and criteria in the construction of worldviews.

Philosophers attempt to defend their foundations by logical reasoning, while economists add mathematical reasoning to the mix, giving its stories about what is inherently uncertain and unknowable the appearance of greater precision. In other words, sophistry rather than science, especially when traceable to conflict of interest and special pleading, as it often is when money, power and property are involved.

Bloomberg View
Economics Isn't Science or Literature
Noah Smith


Roger Erickson said...

Ya think?

This is an astonishing conversation to people in most other professions. Why isn't the obvious obvious to economists & philosophers?

Too anthropomorphic in their axioms?

Do they also know that the sun doesn't revolve around the earth?

Tom Hickey said...

Contemporary philosophers have mostly gotten over the axiomatic, systematic approach and are much more focused on methodology these days than creating and justifying narratives. Economists not so much.

What is not obvious to most is that we all function on the basis of some worldview. There is a constant barrage of persuasion by interested parties to get us to either deepen that view or to change it. In fact, this is probably the primary purpose of information.

Brian Romanchuk said...

I think it is fair to say that there are two answers to this.

There is a "technocratic" portion of economics that it is closer to a field of applied mathematics than "science" as the field now stands. I was in control systems engineering, and the engineering applications were not "science", even if the system models are derived from physical or chemical laws.

And then there are the philosophical aspects - why should policy makers target a particular outcome? I'm not sure how that part of economics should be classified (political science? Philosophy? Theology?)

The mainstream research programme has largely dropped the second aspect from view. This is not totally a surprise, as this research is being funded by central banks (explicitly or implicitly), and those central banks want to appear politically neutral.

Ryan Harris said...

Poor Noah, he is always trying to grasp as straws. He presents economic methods as something superior and beyond what science and philosopher are capable of doing while ignoring the dismal performance of economics compared to science and literature.
He sort of alludes to a difficulty of capturing information in economics even though that too has precious little to do with orthodox failures.