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The sad state of economics education

from Lars Syll

c9dd533b1cb4e7a2e1d6569481907beeNowadays there is almost no place whatsoever in economics education for courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology.

This deeply worrying.

A science that doesn’t self-reflect and ask important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

How did we end up in this sad state?

Philip Mirowski gives the following answer:

After a brief flirtation in the 1960s and 1970s, the grandees of the economics profession took it upon themselves to express openly their disdain and revulsion for the types of self-reflection practiced by ‘methodologists’ and historians of economics, and to go out of their way to prevent those so inclined from occupying any tenured foothold in reputable economics departments. It was perhaps no coincidence that history and philosophy were the areas where one found the greatest concentrations of skeptics concerning the shape and substance of the post-war American economic orthodoxy. High-ranking economics journals, such as the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy, declared that they would cease publication of any articles whatsoever in the area, after a prior history of acceptance.

Once this policy was put in place, and then algorithmic journal rankings were used to deny hiring and promotion at the commanding heights of economics to those with methodological leanings. Consequently, the grey- beards summarily expelled both philosophy and history from the graduate economics curriculum; and then, they chased it out of the undergraduate curriculum as well. This latter exile was the bitterest, if only because many undergraduates often want to ask why the profession believes what it does, and hear others debate the answers, since their own allegiances are still in the process of being formed. The rationale tendered to repress this demand was that the students needed still more mathematics preparation, more statistics and more tutelage in ‘theory’, which meant in practice a boot camp regimen consisting of endless working of problem sets, problem sets and more problem sets, until the poor tyros were so dizzy they did not have the spunk left to interrogate the masses of journal articles they had struggled to absorb.

Methodology is about how we do economics, how we evaluate theories, models and arguments. To know and think about methodology is important for every economist. Without methodological awareness it’s really impossible to understand what you are doing and why you’re doing it. Dismissing methodology is dismissing a necessary and vital part of science.


  1. blocke
    March 14, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    During the 1980s I was about to apply to the National Science Foundation for research money for a project I was doing on the shortcoming of neoclassical economics as a basis for understanding economic history. I had a very long telephone conversation with a NSF bureaucrat about my application, who told me in no uncertain terms that my project would not be funded unless it was presented in a neoclassical research format. Since I was writing a historical research project I did not, on his advice, submit the research proposal. So the boycott of historical based projects extended into the research agencies funding research in economics..

  2. David Chester
    March 14, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    I think that there is too much economics (or rather politically-correct) indoctrination. Since the subject of macroeconomics has now been shown to be a true science (in my book and sometimes elsewhere here too), a good place to provide really good education and start to slake the thirst for knowledge (and not simply get passes in exams and the associated diplomas) would be on this topic.

    The students of today are asking for a broader syllabus, but it seems to me that it is because they are opposed to all of the theories and this is due to the fact that they don’t make sense not are these theories complete. I agree this also applies to the methodology. Once a better theory true scientific is being taught, the need for the associated mathematics will be stronger, and the syllabus can then be somewhat contracted and intensified.

  3. Alan
    March 15, 2016 at 3:13 am

    “A science that doesn’t self-reflect and ask important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.”

    I think I would write “a social science that doesn’t self-reflect…”. And maybe it isn’t in “dire straits” for not doing so. It just obfuscates in the name of science and truth its role in patterns of domination. And its role in legitimating those patterns means it is doing very well thank you.

    As Drefyus and Rabinow point out in their book on Foucault (pp. 161-167) there is a difference between the natural sciences and social sciences. In the natural sciences the social practices that make the sciences possible are external to the field of study and can be bracketed (for an account read Kuhn). But in the social sciences the practices are internal to the field of study and no bracketing is possible. The natural sciences can afford to be reflective about the background practices that make them possible. To quote D&R discussing a Charles Taylor text, “…objective political science with its systematic grid of socioeconomic categories, itself presupposes our Western cultural practices which have produced us as isolated individuals who enter into contractual relations with other individuals to satisfy our needs and form social collectivities.” There is no objective position from which to speak Truth. Knowledge of social relations is always implicated itself in domination and resistance.

  4. Alan
    March 15, 2016 at 3:16 am

    There’s a typo in my earlier post. I left out a “not”. It should read: “The natural sciences can afford not to be reflective about the background practices that make them possible.

  5. March 15, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Since there is no single “scientific method” how should methodology be assessed? First, by variety. The world around us is made up of many elements and actors. So the methods to study this world must vary to fit the variety of the world. Second, by dynamism. Methods must change and adapt to fit the changes in the objects under study. Third. not to fall into the trap of hegemonic and dominatory pretension. In other words, to be humble and circumspect. Fourth, to be practical. That is, to produce results that give us as accurate a view of the world around us as possible.

    As for the direction economics took after WWII it was not much different than the direction taken by sociology, political science, psychology, and even history and anthropology to an extent. They all wanted to be accepted as sciences. After all that’s where the big money, prestige, and political clout are found. Mostly this change reduced down to “using scientific method” and quantifying everything. Funny thing here. Most of the new “social sciences” operated with a simplistic view of scientific method and apart from descriptive and inferential statistics had no mathematical base. In other words sociology, psychology, and the others gave up historical and integrated study of the world for a corrupted notion of science and statistics. And economics is it seems the most devoted follower of the corruption. The other social sciences have adjusted their beliefs and direction since their initial immersion in these “false gods.” As foolish as it sounds economics has actually doubled and redoubled efforts to push out all hints of method or philosophy that in any way challenge the corrupted notions of science which took over the discipline after WWII.

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