How to make economics a realist and relevant science

13 Feb, 2014 at 11:02 | Posted in Economics | 7 Comments

As yours truly has reported repeatedly lately, university students all over Europe are increasingly beginning to question if the kind of economics they are taught — mainstream neoclassical economics — really is of any value. Some have even started to question if economics really is a science. Two Nobel laureates in economics — Robert Shiller and Paul Krugman — have responded.

This is Robert Shiller‘s view:

Critics of “economic sciences” sometimes refer to the development of a “pseudoscience” of economics, arguing that it uses the trappings of science, like dense mathematics, but only for show. For example, in his 2004 book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb said of economic sciences: “You can disguise charlatanism under the weight of equations, and nobody can catch you since there is no such thing as a controlled experiment” …

My belief is that economics is somewhat more vulnerable than the physical sciences to models whose validity will never be clear, because the necessity for approximation is much stronger than in the physical sciences, especially given that the models describe people rather than magnetic resonances or fundamental particles. People can just change their minds and behave completely differently. They even have neuroses and identity problems, complex phenomena that the field of behavioral economics is finding relevant to understanding economic outcomes.

And this is what Paul Krugman says:

So, let’s grant that economics as practiced doesn’t look like a science. But that’s not because the subject is inherently unsuited to the scientific method. Sure, it’s highly imperfect — it’s a complex area, and our understanding is in its early stages. And sure, the economy itself changes over time, so that what was true 75 years ago may not be true today …

No, the problem lies not in the inherent unsuitability of economics for scientific thinking as in the sociology of the economics profession — a profession that somehow, at least in macro, has ceased rewarding research that produces successful predictions and rewards research that fits preconceptions and uses hard math instead.

My own take on the issue is that economics — and especially mainstream neoclassical economics — has as a science lost immensely in terms of status and prestige during the last years. Not the least because of its manifest inability to foresee the latest financial and economic crisis – and its lack of constructive and sustainable policies to take us out of the crisis.

keynes-right-and-wrong

We all know that many activities, relations, processes and events are uncertain and that the data do not unequivocally single out one decision as the only “rational” one. Neither the economist, nor the deciding individual, can fully pre-specify how people will decide when facing uncertainties and ambiguities that are ontological facts of the way the world works.

Neoclassical economists, however, have wanted to use their hammer, and so decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and construct models on that assumption have only contributed to financial crises and economic havoc.

How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics as a science? Five changes are absolutely decisive.

(1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers on everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control. We haven’t! This false feeling of security was one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

(2) Stop the childish and exaggerated belief in mathematics giving answers to important economic questions. Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions. But the relevant and interesting questions we face in the economic realm are rarely of that kind. Questions like “Is 2 + 2 = 4?” are never posed in real economies. Instead of a fundamentally misplaced reliance on abstract mathematical-deductive-axiomatic models having anything of substance to contribute to our knowledge of real economies, it would be far better if we pursued “thicker” models and relevant empirical studies and observations.

(3) Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics. Economies are not like planetary systems or physics labs. The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability.

(4) Stop treating other social sciences as poor relations. Economics has long suffered from hubris. A more broad-minded and multifarious science would enrich today’s altogether too autistic economics.

(5) Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal microfounded macromodels with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality. Assuming that people are green and come from Mars is not a good – not even as a “successive approximation” – modeling strategy.

7 Comments

  1. “As yours truly has reported repeatedly lately, university students all over Europe are increasingly beginning to question if the kind of economics they are taught — mainstream neoclassical economics — really is of any value.”

    These students should go learn something more productive because they got what they asked for. It’s like a philosophy student wondering why he cannot repair electronics. They should learn a real profession that can add value to society. Economics is based on deceit, it adds no value and it is mainly a political and ideological power game. The world would greatly benefit from an abolishment of economic departments because most of the practical aspects of economics are already covered by Statistics, Operation research and Finance departments.

    http://www.digitalcosmology.com/Blog/2014/02/12/a-call-to-action-abolish-economics-departments-now/

    .

  2. Dr. Syll, what would you recommend a student or prospective student of economics don’t? Economics departments are so overwhelmingly dominated by the neo-classical school, with numerous checks to ensure one’s mind is “right”, where should they study?

    • Hi Ben, please see this list of Graduate economics programs:

      http://heterodoxnews.com/hed/graduate/

      Note that some have only masters programs, some PhD as well.

      The list of undergraduate programs are listed on the other tab.

  3. Comment should have read “economics do” rather than “economics don’t”. Spell check changed it at the last second for some reason.

  4. Reblogged this on MERCIAR BUSINESS CONSULTING.

  5. You know that the Rethinking Economics guys and girls are reading your stuff right, Lars?

    • No, I didn’t know that, but if they do, I’m more than pleased 🙂


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