Home > Uncategorized > When economists become as modest as the physicists

When economists become as modest as the physicists

from Lars Syll

In advanced economics the question would be: ‘What besides mathematics should be in an economics lecture?’ In physics the familiar spirit is Archimedes the experimenter. aaaaafeynBut in economics, as in mathematics itself, it is theorem-proving Euclid who paces the halls …

Economics … has become a mathematical game. The science has been drained out of economics, replaced by a Nintendo game of assumption-making …

Most thoughtful economists think that the games on the blackboard and the computer have gone too far, absurdly too far. It is time to bring economic observation, economic history, economic literature, back into the teaching of economics.

Economists would be less arrogant, and less dangerous as experts, if they had to face up to the facts of the world. Perhaps they would even become as modest as the physicists.

D. McCloskey

  1. robert locke
    November 8, 2017 at 6:37 am

    D McCloskey was once a spokesperson for neoclassical economics being incorporated into economic history, to make it a “science,” then, like any good historian who wants a science to have some relevance to the real world, she reversed her position. This means that economics is a subject not a science, it is like “love,” or “fair play” not the province of experts but of everybody.

  2. Frank Salter
    November 8, 2017 at 6:43 am

    The quote by McCloskey starts by contrasting physics with pure mathematics — extremely pertinent. It continues by asserting that economics has become assumption-making — hypothesis after hypothesis! The third paragraph, if applied literally, leads into yet another dead-end.

    The final paragraph implies there is gold at the end of the rainbow, but not how to get to it. A better conclusion would be, to achieve the qualities of a physicist APPLY the scientific method! This is how the ‘facts of the world’ are turned into cogent theories.

    It is really simple!

  3. Nick
    November 8, 2017 at 11:06 am

    But did not einstein say something along the lines of ‘show me a fact and i will show you a theory’? Facts (phlogiston for instance) exist only in a network of relations and relations being non-empirical are creatures of theory…

    • Frank Salter
      November 8, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      Phlogiston was a hypothesis to explain combustion before oxygen had been discovered. It survived for just over one hundred years until quantitative methods demonstrated that oxidation was the correct interpretation of the evidence.

      I believe that no scientist would recognise your use of the word theory, which they would consider to be mere hypothesis. Until economic thought is expressed with more precision, the present plethora of hypotheses claiming incorrectly to be theories will continue. Most of the so called mathematical analyses fail to define their terms precisely. This does not lead to clarity.

  4. Nick
    November 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    so what is the relationship between the General (thought/reason) and the Particular (reality)?
    Perhaps it is Determinism (From the General to the Particular?)
    or perhaps it is dialectics (shock horror) that the general and the particular co-determine each other!!!!

  5. November 8, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    In my experience physicists are much like other people: good talkers become conceited by getting promoted beyond their level of competence. Also they are not much interested in scientific method: they want to get on with their job and take for granted what they have been taught. Which actually dates back to Descartes and Newton, not Einstein and Soddy, never mind Shannon and Chomsky. The “social science” methods of economics date back to Locke and Hume, their arithmetical statistics being translated into Newtonian calculus by the neo-Classicals in the 1860’s. Here the phrase “scientific method” seems to be a mantra used repeatedly to inflate self-confidence. There is not even agreement on their being fundamental (Kuhn’s revolutionary) as well as applied (normal) science, hence on differences of method.

    I speak on this modestly as a master of all trades, proverbially master of none, but at least I have been trained in physics and mathematics, brought up a diverse family, led experiments in information science, and had a life-time’s interest in the history and philosophy of science, mathematics, language and literary form. Of the many books which back up my linguistic memory, I would like to mention three. One is entitled “What men know about women”;
    it consists of 144 blank pages. Another is a curious one from a period of interest in library science, which has to find a home for information about anything. This has alternate pages printed upside down, so if you have it one way up it is about logic and the other way about semantics (meaning). The third is George Spencer Brown’s classic “The Laws of Form”, which consists of commentary on four lines repeatedly printed and left out. The point of that is that language has four levels with different meanings, the clarification of which was the point of the scientific language I was trying out as a programming language. In that, logic is everything. As with adding numbers, the same four-level program can be applied to any object of the same type, enabling one to manipulate not just numbers and letters but photos or even films. One edits the form of the photo, not its meaning (i.e. the picture on it).

    On scientific method, then, what makes applied science possible is basic science creating measures or discovering patterns. The measure is not the science, but without a satisfactory measure and something to measure there is no way of forming and classifying the widely applicable formal knowledge we call science. Prior to Descartes science was limited to the use of numbers and geometrical forms; with Cartesian coordinates and telescopes revolutionising the measurement of distance, Newton was able to account for force fields and continuous motion. Development of probability theory in terms of numerical combinations and permutations enabled Adam Smith’s mentor Hume to interpret Newton’s point-by-point observations in terms of experts agreeing on statistical correlations and propose this as the basis of social science. Einstein discovered the curvature (hence expansion) of space and Shannon the measure of information capacity.

    The neo-Classicals retained the dubious idea of money as the measure of value, but left out Smith’s systematic distinction between the four different types of value – biophysical resources, labour, commodity exchange and know-how – to profit further from loss of the logical requirement that the measure be constant and independent of that which is measured. What is actually constant is not the value of money but a price paid, which is in the field of information science rather than physics.

    • Frank Salter
      November 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      You make a number of nice points.

      All physical scientists share that they are human, with all its frailties. Application of the scientific method requiring theories to be non-falsifiable and accepted as such by their peers leads to the overcoming of many errors. The ability to re-evaluate theories and not claim absolute truth provides the ability to move forward and not be shackled with outdated concepts. The persistence of neoclassical analysis, despite its failure to meet the empirical facts, proves that economics has not yet taken the lessons of the scientific method to heart.
      Correlation is still being interpreted as causation.

      In mentioning programming and distinguishing between an object and the view of an object demonstrates the necessity to carefully defining terms. That money appears to correlate with value allows interpolation to be carried out. Again correlation is being interpreted as causation. But as I have demonstrated (RWER81 p. 162) ‘The neoclassical production function and the labour theory of value are tautologies’ asserting the continuing significance of classical analysis.

  6. November 10, 2017 at 10:57 am

    First things first. Some physicists are modest, some are not. Some physicists consistently follow “a” methodology, others do not. Some physicists begin every discussion with equations, some do not. In his physics lectures from the 1960’s Richard Feynman describes the “scientific method.” The video is here, https://youtu.be/OL6-x0modwY. Stated directly, Feynman was wrong. Many “scientists” (physicists, chemists, biologists, etc.) have chosen to study the work they and others do. The Scientific Method is traditionally presented in the first chapter of science textbooks as a simple recipe for performing scientific investigations. Though many useful points are embodied in this method, it can easily be misinterpreted as linear and “cookbook:” pull a problem off the shelf, throw in an observation, mix in a few questions, sprinkle on a hypothesis, put the whole mixture into a 350° experiment — and voila, 50 minutes later you’ll be pulling a conclusion out of the oven! That might work if science were like Hamburger Helper, but science is complex and cannot be reduced to a single, prepackaged arrangement. The linear, stepwise representation of the process of science is vastly over simplified, but it does get at least one thing right. It captures the core logic of science: testing ideas with evidence. However, this version of the scientific method is so simplified and rigid that it fails to accurately portray how real science works. It more accurately describes how science is summarized after the fact — in textbooks and journal articles — than how science is really done. More science fiction than science.

    Science is not a method, or even a group of methods. It is a way of life, a culture. And like other cultures the goals, values, and approaches of science and scientists are tacit, informal, and implicit. In the laboratory some processes are explicitly spelled out, often in writing. But laboratory work is also something learned by practice, by interaction with one’s peers, or through informal clues presented by experienced workers to inexperienced ones. The anthropologist learns about and how to practice ethnography mostly “on the job” rather in textbooks or lectures. Physicists learn how “to do physics” mostly in their exchanges with other physicists. All of this makes it difficult to assign credit or specifically say who did what in large-scale science projects. And as a culture science is an historical project. It exists in time, changes with time, and explains itself through history. But two cultural values form the basis of science. In science, all ideas (especially the important ones!) must stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The culture of science does not value dogma. Scrutinizing, questioning, and investigating important ideas helps ensure that only ideas supported by evidence and based on sound reasoning are accepted by the community. Scientists are expected to carry out such work with honesty, integrity, and objectivity. Objectivity refers to the use of every method and perspective possible in scrutinizing the world. Second, the conclusions scientists reach are always revisable if warranted by the evidence. Scientific investigations are often ongoing, raising new questions even as old ones are answered. This isn’t a complete picture of science. For that we’d need to discuss agency, closure, linking theoretical constructs and experience, and the relations between science, philosophy, and mathematics.

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