Home > The Economics Profession > Discussion of the week: Patch, Knibbe and Radford on history vs. science and Krugman’s claim of originality
Discussion of the week: Patch, Knibbe and Radford on history vs. science and Krugman’s claim of originality
David Ruccio‘s post Economics: history vs. science has generated extensive, give-and-take, quality discussion. Here is a sample.
September 11, 2010 at 10:17 am This whole “history vs. science” debate is nothing else than a distraction, wasting resources (time) of critical minds. “History” enters science at two stages: First you have to get a topic to write about and an idea of what to write – that’s where actual events and experience (“history”) will play the biggest role. Then you build a model (or theory or whatever). And stage 3 is that you check if your model fits the data (“history”). For step 2, you formally don’t need history, but in fact all three stages are intertwined. One extreme fraction of economists acts as if real-world frictions and institutions did not have to be built into the models (the Chicago fraction), but even they need the data to be able to say: See, folks, we can simulate real-world data with our slim model and that’s enough, go and ask Mr. Occam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor). The biggest fraction are those economists that use all three stages and at least try to explain what happens in the world and how and why it does (of course, there are different ways to this, and that’s why there are different “schools of thought”). The third stage now seems to be those that like to use “history” as an excuse for not being able to explain general patterns in consistent theory, but for telling unspecific things that explain everything and nothing. It is not legitimate to act as if this kind of “history economics” is equivalent to heterodoxy. Or if is, then I don’t need heterodoxy.
September 11, 2010 at 10:22 am | Ah and by the way, Krugman wrote good things about that: http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/aag.pdf
September 11, 2010 at 8:29 pm First principles sometimes come second.
September 12, 2010 at 10:31 am |
Okay, so maybe I should have been more explicit about which part of the Krugman paper is concerning the debate “economics: history vs. science”. I’ll just cite it:
September 14, 2010 at 7:11 pm Patch: one of the problems I see with the obsession with math is that it has displaced the very thought process you indicate as a necessary prior activity to model building. Certain economists have become so math based that they fail to articulate the purpose and goal of the models they are constructing. They have conflated “model building” with “doing economics”. Many of the greats throughout the development of economics were sufficiently adept at math that they also saw the need to leave it to one side when articulating their theories. Edward points us to Keynes, we could cite Marshall as well. With this in mind I am always suspicious of economists who plunge straight into math. I wonder whether they have a clear vision of what the problem is that they are trying to explore.
September 15, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Thanks for your comments, Peter. I indeed believe you’re right if you point to the problem that we often see the world through some kind of filter and of course this filter can be just the methods that we have learned to handle. That fits perfectly well with what I wrote. Up to now I don’t think there is a catch-all solution to this – abandoning maths or “science” is not, but whenever building a model or doing economics in any other way and especially when doing economic policy, we should stay highly self-critical.
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