Critics of “economic sciences” sometimes refer to the development of a “pseudoscience” of economics, arguing that it uses the trappings of science, like dense mathematics, but only for show.
For example, in his 2004 book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb said of economic sciences: “You can disguise charlatanism under the weight of equations, and nobody can catch you since there is no such thing as a controlled experiment.”
However, physics is not without such critics, too. In his 2004 book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Lee Smolin reproached the physics profession for being seduced by beautiful and elegant theories (notably string theory) rather than those that can be tested by experimentation.
Similarly, in his 2007 book Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law, Peter Woit accused physicists of much the same sin as mathematical economists are said to commit.
My belief is that economics is somewhat more vulnerable than the physical sciences to models whose validity will never be clear, because the necessity for approximation is much stronger than in the physical sciences, especially given that the models describe people rather than magnetic resonances or fundamental particles.
People can just change their minds and behave completely differently. They even have neuroses and identity problems, complex phenomena that the field of behavioral economics is finding relevant to understanding economic outcomes.
However, all the mathematics in economics is not, as Taleb suggests, charlatanism. Economics has an important quantitative side, which cannot be escaped.
The challenge has been to combine its mathematical insights with the kinds of adjustments that are needed to make its models fit the economy’s irreducibly human element.
The advance of behavioral economics is not fundamentally in conflict with mathematical economics, as some seem to think, though it may well be in conflict with some currently fashionable mathematical economic models. And, while economics presents its own methodological problems, the basic challenges facing researchers are not fundamentally different from those faced by researchers in other fields.
As economics develops, it will broaden its repertory of methods and sources of evidence, the science will become stronger and the charlatans will be exposed.
Robert Shiller, a 2013 Nobel laureate in economics, is a professor of economics at Yale University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate