Relevance is not irrelevant

23 September, 2015 at 10:40 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

What is science? One brief definition runs: “A systematic knowledge of the physical or material world.” Most definitions emphasize the two elements in this definition: (1) “systematic knowledge” about (2) the real world. Without pushing this definitional question to its metaphysical limits, I merely want to suggest that if economics is to be a science, it must not only develop analytical tools but must also apply them to a world that is now observable or that can be made observable through improved methods of observation and measurement. Or in the words of the Hungarian mathematical economist Janos Kornai, “In the real sciences, the criterion is not whether the proposition is logically true and tautologically deducible from earlier assumptions. The criterion of ‘truth’ is, whether or not the proposition corresponds to reality” …


One of our most distinguished historians of economic thought, George Stigler, has stated that: “The dominant influence upon the working range of economic theorists is the set of internal values and pressures of the discipline. The subjects of study are posed by the unfolding course of scientific developments.” He goes on to add: “This is not to say that the environment is without influence …” But, he continues, “whether a fact or development is significant depends primarily on its relevance to current economic theory.” What a curious relating of rigor to relevance! Whether the real world matters depends presumably on “its relevance to current economic theory.” Many if not most of today’s economic theorists seem to agree with this ordering of priorities …

Today, rigor competes with relevance in macroeconomic and monetary theory, and in some lines of development macro and monetary theorists, like many of their colleagues in micro theory, seem to consider relevance to be more or less irrelevant … The theoretical analysis in much of this literature rests on assumptions that also fly in the face of the facts … Another related recent development in which theory proceeds with impeccable logic from unrealistic assumptions to conclusions that contradict the historical record, is the recent work on rational expectations …

I have scolded economists for what I think are the sins that too many of them commit, and I have tried to point the way to at least partial redemption. This road to salvation will not be an easy one for those who have been seduced by the siren of mathematical elegance or those who all too often seek to test unrealistic models without much regard for the quality or relevance of the data they feed into their equations. But let us all continue to worship at the altar of science. I ask only that our credo be: “relevance with as much rigor as possible,” and not “rigor regardless of relevance.” And let us not be afraid to ask — and to try to answer the really big questions.

Robert A. Gordon


1 Comment

  1. The problem of relevance is whether others in your field think so, especially your superiors. When candidates are chosen for the PhD, when the dissertation topics are being selected, when the research is being carried out, when the defense is being prepared for and when publication rolls around, the relevance may be more a matter of conformity with departmental/university/publisher’s standards than what you think is relevant.

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