How can economics be a science?

This note is prompted by Thaler’s Nobel prize, the reaction to it, and attempts by mathematicians to explain both what they do do and what they could do. Briefly, mathematicians are increasingly employed to assist practitioners (such as financiers) to sharpen their tools and improve their results, in some pre-defined sense (such as making more profit). They are less used to sharpen core ideas, much less to challenge assumptions. This is unfortunate when tools are misused and mathematicians blamed. It is no good saying that mathematicians should not go along with such misuse, since the misuse is often not obvious without some (expensive) investigations, and in any case whistleblowers are likely to get shown the door (even if only for being inefficient).

Mainstream economics aspires to be a science in the sense of being able to make predictions, at least probabilistically. Some (mostly before 2007/8) claimed that it achieved this, because its methods were scientific. But are they? Keynes coined the term ‘pseudo-mathematical’ for the then mainstream practices, whereby mathematics was applied without due regard for the soundness of the application. Then, as now, the mathematics in itself is as much beyond doubt as anything can be. The problem is a ‘halo effect’ whereby the application is regarded as ‘true’ just because the mathematics is. It is like physics before Einstein, whereby some (such as Locke) thought that classical geometry must be ‘true’ as physics, largely because it was so true as mathematics and they couldn’t envisage an alternative.

From a logical perspective, all that the use of scientific methods can do is to make probabilistic predictions that are contingent on there being no fundamental change. In some domains (such as particle physics, cosmology) there have never been any fundamental changes (at least since soon after the big bang) and we may not expect any. But economics, as life more generally, seems full of changes.

Popper famously noted that proper science is in principle falsifiable. Many practitioners in science and science-like fields regard the aim of their domain as to produce ‘scientific’ predictions. They have had to change their theories in the past, and may have to do so again. But many still suppose that there is some ultimate ‘true’ theory, to which their theories are tending. But according to Popper this is not a ‘proper’ scientific belief. Following Keynes we may call it an example of ‘pseudo-science’: something that masquerades as a science but goes beyond it bounds.

One approach to mainstream economics, then, is to disregard the pseudo-scientific ideology and just take its scientific content. Thus we may regard its predictions as mere extrapolations, and look out for circumstances in which they may not be valid. (As Eddington did for cosmology.)

Mainstream economics depends heavily on two notions:

  1. That there is some pre-ordained state space.
  2. That transitions evolve according to fixed conditional probabilities.

For most of us, most of the time, fortunately, these seem credible locally and in the short term, but not globally in space-time. (At the time of writing it seems hard to believe that just after the big bang there were in any meaningful sense state spaces and conditional probabilities that are now being realised.) We might adjust the usual assumptions:

The ‘real’ state of nature is unknowable, but one can make reasonable observations and extrapolations that will be ‘good enough’ most of the time for most routine purposes.

This is true for hard and soft sciences, and for economics. What varies is the balance between the routine and the exceptional.

Keynes observed that some economic structures work because people expect them to. For example, gold tends to rise in price because people think of it as being relatively sound. Thus anything that has a huge effect on expectations can undermine any prior extrapolations. This might be a new product or service, an independence movement, a conflict or a cyber failing. These all have a structural impact on economies that can cascade. But will the effect dissipate as it spreads, or may it result in a noticable shift? A mainstream economist would argue that all such impacts are probabilistic, and hence all that was happening was that we were observing new parts of the existing state space and new transitions. If we suppose for a moment that it is true, it is not a scientific belief, and hardly seems a useful way of thinking about potential and actual crises.

Mainstream economists suppose that people are ‘rational’, by which they mean that they act as if they are maximizing some utility, which is something to do with value and probability. But, even if the world is probabilistic, being rational is not necessarily scientific. For example, when a levee is built  to withstand a ‘100 year storm’, this is scientific if it is clear that the claim is based on past storm data. But it is unscientific if there is an implicit claim that the climate can not change. When building a levee it may be ‘rational’ to build it to withstand all but very improbable storms, but it is more sensible to add a margin and make contingency arrangements (as engineers normally do). In much of life it is common experience that the ‘scientific’ results aren’t entirely reliable, so it is ‘unscientific’ (or at least unreasonable) to totally rely on them.

Much of this is bread-and-butter in disciplines other than economics, and I am not sure that what economists mostly need is to improve their mathematics: they need to improve their sciencey-ness, and then use mathematics better. But I do think that they need somehow to come to a better appreciation of the mathematics of uncertainty, beyond basic probability  theory and its ramifications.

Dave Marsay