Axioms — things to be suspicious of

13 October, 2017 at 09:51 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

miracle_cartoon To me, the crucial difference between modelling in physics and in economics lies in how the fields treat the relative role of concepts, equations and empirical data …

An economist once told me, to my bewilderment: “These concepts are so strong that they supersede any empirical observation” …

Physicists, on the other hand, have learned to be suspicious of axioms. If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient.

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud

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  1. “If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient.”

    I’m reminded of Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science”:

    “Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

    “Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.”

    I think Feynman was being overly optimistic in the last sentence from the quotation. Physics too is subject to arbitrary social rules that are more powerful than data and observation.


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