Econometrics and the difficult art of making it count
from Lars Syll
Modern econometrics is fundamentally based on assuming – usually without any explicit justification – that we can gain causal knowledge by considering independent variables that may have an impact on the variation of a dependent variable. This is however, far from self-evident. Often the fundamental causes are constant forces that are not amenable to the kind of analysis econometrics supplies us with. As Stanley Lieberson has it in his modern classic Making It Count:
One can always say whether, in a given empirical context, a given variable or theory accounts for more variation than another. But it is almost certain that the variation observed is not universal over time and place. Hence the use of such a criterion first requires a conclusion about the variation over time and place in the dependent variable. If such an analysis is not forthcoming, the theoretical conclusion is undermined by the absence of information …
Moreover, it is questionable whether one can draw much of a conclusion about causal forces from simple analysis of the observed variation … To wit, it is vital that one have an understanding, or at least a working hypothesis, about what is causing the event per se; variation in the magnitude of the event will not provide the answer to that question.
Causality in social sciences – and economics – can never solely be a question of statistical inference. Causality entails more than predictability, and to really in depth explain social phenomena requires theory. Analysis of variation – the foundation of all econometrics – can never in itself reveal how these variations are brought about. First when we are able to tie actions, processes or structures to the statistical relations detected, can we say that we are getting at relevant explanations of causation. Too much in love with axiomatic-deductive modeling, neoclassical economists especially tend to forget that accounting for causation – how causes bring about their effects – demands deep subject-matter knowledge and acquaintance with the intricate fabrics and contexts. As already Keynes argued in his A Treatise on Probability, statistics and econometrics should not primarily be seen as means of inferring causality from observational data, but rather as description of patterns of associations and correlations that we may use as suggestions of possible causal realations.