mathiness in economic growth theory

Truthiness” was coined a decade ago by television satirist Stephen Colbert. A Wikipedia article (retrieved 7 June 2015) defines it as

a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

NYU economist Paul Romer recently coined a related term, “mathiness”:

The style that I am calling mathiness lets academic politics masquerade as science. Like mathematical theory, mathiness uses a mixture of words and symbols, but instead of making tight links, it leaves ample room for slippage between statements in natural versus formal language and between statements with theoretical as opposed to empirical content.

Paul M. Romer, “Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth“, American Economic Review 105:5 (May 2015), pp. 89-93.

Professor Romer thinks that “mathiness” explains the lack of progress toward a consensus in growth theory over the past two decades. His article is brief (5 pages) and ungated. I recommend that you read the entire essay, but here are two key extracts from the beginning (p. 89) and another from the end (p. 93) of the article:

Politics does not lead to a broadly shared consensus. It has to yield a decision, whether or not a consensus prevails. As a result, political institutions create incentives for participants to exaggerate disagreements between factions. Words that are evocative and ambiguous better serve factional interests than words that are analytical and precise.

Science is a process that does lead to a broadly shared consensus. It is arguably the only social process that does. Consensus forms around theoretical and empirical statements that are true. Tight links between words from natural language and symbols from the formal language of mathematicsencourage the use of words that are analytical and precise.

[…]

[With mathiness] empirical work is science; theory is entertainment. Presenting a model is like doing a card trick. Everybody knows that there will be some sleight of hand. There is no intent to deceive because no one takes it seriously. Perhaps our norms will soon be like those in professional magic; it will be impolite, perhaps even an ethical breach, to reveal how someone’s trick works.

Paul Romer (born 1955) is a well-known proponent of endogenous growth theory, the view that investment in human capital, innovation, and knowledge play a key role in economic growth.

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One Response to “mathiness in economic growth theory”

  1. Susan ST John says:

    I sit through a lot of economic seminars that have models that are so like a card trick. Everyone is too polite