economics as science

Physics, everyone agrees, is a science. Is economics also a science? Not everyone thinks so. Indeed, some see the label ‘economic sciences’ as evidence of ‘p-envy’. (The ‘p’ stands for physics!) Adam Smith in the late 18th century thought of economics as a branch of moral philosophy. Yale University economist Robert Shiller opines that modern economics “is rather more like engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual”. Shiller’s judgement is not limited to economics. Although he refrains from saying so, it would seem to apply also to political science and to social science in general.

Fields of endeavor that use “science” in their titles tend to be those that get masses of people emotionally involved and in which crackpots seem to have some purchase on public opinion. These fields have “science” in their names to distinguish them from their disreputable cousins.

The term political science first became popular in the late eighteenth century to distinguish it from all the partisan tracts whose purpose was to gain votes and influence rather than pursue the truth. Astronomical science was a common term in the late nineteenth century, to distinguish it from astrology and the study of ancient myths about the constellations. Hypnotic science was also used in the nineteenth century to distinguish the scientific study of hypnotism from witchcraft or religious transcendentalism.

There was a need for such terms back then, because their crackpot counterparts held much greater sway in general discourse. Scientists had to announce themselves as scientists.

In fact, even the term chemical science enjoyed some popularity in the nineteenth century – a time when the field sought to distinguish itself from alchemy and the promotion of quack nostrums. ….

[T]he terms astronomical science and hypnotic science mostly died out as the twentieth century progressed, perhaps because belief in the occult waned in respectable society. Yes, horoscopes still persist in popular newspapers, but they are there only for the severely scientifically challenged, or for entertainment ….

[Economic] 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.

Robert J. Shiller, “Is Economics a Science?“, Project Syndicate, 6 November 2013

Yale economist Robert Shiller is one of the winners of the 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Some time ago I described much of modern economics as pseudoscience in a series of blogs titled “economics as faith“. This is the precise opposite of “economics as science”.



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