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

 

 

Mathematical Modelling

Mathematics and modelling in particular is very powerful, and hence can be very risky if you get it wrong, as in mainstream economics. But is modelling inappropriate – as has been claimed – or is it just that it has not been done well enough?

As a mathematician who has dabbled in modelling and economics I thought I’d try my hand at modelling economies. What harm could there be?

My first notion is that actors activity is habitual.

My second is that habits persist until there is a ‘bad’ experience, in which case they are revised. What is taken account of, what counts as ‘bad’ and how habits are replaced or revised are all subject to meta-habits (habits about habits).

In particular, mainstream economists suppose that actors seek to maximise their utilities, and they never revise this approach. But this may be too restrictive.

Myself, I would add that most actors mostly seek to copy others and also tend to discount experiences and lessons identified by previous generations.

With some such ‘axioms’ (suitably formalised) such as those above, one can predict booms and busts leading to new ‘epochs’ characterised by dominant theories and habits. For example, suppose that some actors habitually borrow as much as they can to invest in an asset (such as a house for rent) and the asset class performs well. Then they will continue in their habit, and others who have done less well will increasingly copy them, fuelling an asset price boom. But no asset class is worth an infinite amount, so the boom must end, resulting in disappointment and changes in habit, which may again be copied by those who are losing out on the asset class., giving a bust.  Thus one has an ’emergent behaviour’ that contradicts some of the implicit mainstream assumptions about rationality  (such as ‘ergodicity’), and hence the possibility of meaningful ‘expectations’ and utility functions to be maximized. This is not to say that such things cannot exist, only that if they do exist it must be due to some economic law as yet unidentified, and we need an alternative explanation for booms and busts.

What I take from this is that mathematical models seem possible and may even provide insights.I do not assume that a model that is adequate in the short-run will necessarily continue to be adequate, and my model shows how economic epochs can be self-destructing. To me, the problem in economics is not so much that it uses mathematics and in particular mathematical modelling but that it does so badly. My ‘axioms’ mimic the approach that Einstein took to physics: it replaces an absolutist model by a relativistic one, and shows that it makes a difference. In my model there are no magical ‘expectations’, rather actors may have realistic habits and expectations, based on their experience and interpretation of the media and other sources, which may be ‘correct’ (or at least not falsified) in the short-run, but which cannot provide adequate predictions for the longer run. To survive a change of epochs our actors would need to be at least following some actors who were monitoring and thinking about the overall situation more broadly and deeply than those who focus on short run utility. (Something that currently seems lacking.)

David Marsay

Uncertainty is not just probability

I have just had published my paper, based on the discussion paper referred to in a previous post. In Facebook it is described as:

An understanding of Keynesian uncertainties can be relevant to many contemporary challenges. Keynes was arguably the first person to put probability theory on a sound mathematical footing. …

So it is not just for economists. I could be tempted to discuss the wider implications.

Comments are welcome here, at the publisher’s web site or on Facebook. I’m told that it is also discussed on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn, but I couldn’t find it – maybe I’ll try again later.

Dave Marsay

Are fananciers really stupid?

The New Scientist (30 March 2013) has the following question, under the heading ‘Stupid is as stupid does’:

Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

Possible answers are: “yes”, “no” or “cannot be determined”.

You might want to think about this before scrolling down.

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It is claimed that while ‘the vast majority’ (presumably including financiers, whose thinking is being criticised) think the answer is “cannot be determined”,

careful deduction shows that the answer is “yes”.

Similar views are expressed at  a learning blog and at a Physics blog, although the ‘careful deductions’ are not given. Would you like to think again?

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Now I have a confession to make. My first impression is that the closest of the admissible answers is ‘cannot be determined’, and having thought carefully for a while, I have not changed my mind. Am I stupid? (Based on this evidence!) You might like to think about this before scrolling down.

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Some people object that the term ‘is married’ may not be well-defined, but that is not my concern. Suppose that one has a definition of marriage that is as complete and precise as possible. What is the correct answer? Does that change your thinking?

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Okay, here are some candidate answers that I would prefer, if allowed:

  1. There are cases in which the answer cannot be determined.
  2. It is not possible to prove that there are not cases in which the answer cannot be determined. (So that the answer could actually be “yes”, but we cannot know that it is “yes”.)

Either way, it cannot be proved that there is a complete and precise way of determining the answer, but for different reasons. I lean towards the first answer, but am not sure. Which it is is not a logical or mathematical question, but a question about ‘reality’, so one should ask a Physicist. My reasoning follows … .

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Suppose that Anne marries Henry who dies while out in space, with a high relative velocity and acceleration. Then to answer yes we must at least be able to determine a unique time in Anne’s time-frame in which Henry dies, or else (it seems to me) there will be a period of time in which Anne’s status is indeterminate. It is not just that we do not know what Anne’s status is; she has no ‘objective’ status.

If there is some experiment which really proves that there is no possible ‘objective’ time (and I am not sure that there is) then am I not right? Even if there is no such experiment, one cannot determine the truth of physical theories, only fail to disprove them. So either way, am I not right?

Enlightenment, please. The link to finance is that the New Scientist article says that

Employees leaving logic at the office door helped cause the financial crisis.

I agree, but it seems to me (after Keynes) that it was their use of the kind of ‘classical’ logic that is implicitly assumed in the article that is at fault. Being married is a relation, not a proposition about Anne. Anne has no state or attributes from which her marital status can be determined, any more than terms such as crash, recession, money supply, inflation, inequality, value or ‘the will of the people’ have any correspondence in real economies.  Unless you know different?

Dave Marsay

Mathematics, psychology, decisions

I attended a conference on the mathematics of finance last week. It seems that things would have gone better in 2007/8 if only policy makers had employed some mathematicians to critique the then dominant dogmas. But I am not so sure. I think one would need to understand why people went along with the dogmas. Psychology, such as behavioural economics, doesn’t seem to help much, since although it challenges some aspects of the dogmas it fails to challenge (and perhaps even promotes) other aspects, so that it is not at all clear how it could have helped.

Here I speculate on an answer.

Finance and economics are either empirical subjects or they are quasi-religious, based on dogmas. The problems seem to arise when they are the latter but we mistake them for the former. If they are empirical then they have models whose justification is based on evidence.

Naïve inductivism boils down to the view that whatever has always (never) been the case will continue always (never) to be the case. Logically it is untenable, because one often gets clashes, where two different applications of naïve induction are incompatible. But pragmatically, it is attractive.

According to naïve inductivism we might suppose that if the evidence has always fitted the models, then actions based on the supposition that they will continue to do so will be justified. (Hence, ‘it is rational to act as if the model is true’). But for something as complex as an economy the models are necessarily incomplete, so that one can only say that the evidence fitted the models within the context as it was at the time. Thus all that naïve inductivism could tell you is that ‘it is rational’ to act as if the  model is true, unless and until the context should change. But many of the papers at the mathematics of finance conference were pointing out specific cases in which the actions ‘obviously’ changed the context, so that naïve inductivism should not have been applied.

It seems to me that one could take a number of attitudes:

  1. It is always rational to act on naïve inductivism.
  2. It is always rational to act on naïve inductivism, unless there is some clear reason why not.
  3. It is always rational to act on naïve inductivism, as long as one has made a reasonable effort to rule out any contra-indications (e.g., by considering ‘the whole’).
  4. It is only reasonable to act on naïve inductivism when one has ruled out any possible changes to the context, particularly reactions to our actions, by considering an adequate experience base.

In addition, one might regard the models as conditionally valid, and hedge accordingly. (‘Unless and until there is a reaction’.) Current psychology seems to suppose (1) and hence has little to help us understand why people tend to lean too strongly on naïve inductivism. It may be that a belief in (1) is not really psychological, but simply a consequence of education (i.e., cultural).

See Also

Russell’s Human Knowledge. My media for the conference.

Dave Marsay

Haldane’s The dog and the Frisbee

Andrew Haldane The dog and the Frisbee

Haldane argues in favour of simplified regulation. I find the conclusions reasonable, but have some quibbles about the details of the argument. My own view is that much of our financial problems have been due – at least in part – to a misrepresentation of the associated mathematics, and so I am keen to ensure that we avoid similar misunderstandings in the future. I see this as a primary responsibility of ‘regulators’, viewed in the round.

The paper starts with a variation of Ashby’s ball-catching observation, involving dog and a Frisbee instead of a man and a ball: you don’t need to estimate the position of the Frisbee or be an expert in aerodynamics: a simple, natural, heuristic will do. He applies this analogy to financial regulation, but it is somewhat flawed. When catching a Frisbee one relies on the Frisbee behaving normally, but in financial regulation one is concerned with what had seemed to be abnormal, such as the crisis period of 2007/8.

It is noted of Game theory that

John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern established that optimal decision-making involved probabilistically-weighting all possible future outcomes.

In apparent contrast

Many of the dominant figures in 20th century economics – from Keynes to Hayek, from Simon to Friedman – placed imperfections in information and knowledge centre-stage. Uncertainty was for them the normal state of decision-making affairs.

“It is not what we know, but what we do not know which we must always address, to avoid major failures, catastrophes and panics.”

The Game Theory thinking is characterised as ignoring the possibility of uncertainty, which – from a mathematical point of view – seems an absurd misreading. Theories can only ever have conditional conclusions: any unconditional misinterpretation goes beyond the proper bounds. The paper – rightly – rejects the conclusions of two-player zero-sum static game theory. But its critique of such a theory is much less thorough than von Neumann and Morgenstern’s own (e.g. their 4.3.3) and fails to identify which conditions are violated by economics. More worryingly, it seems to invite the reader to accept them, as here:

The choice of optimal decision-making strategy depends importantly on the degree of uncertainty about the environment – in statistical terms, model uncertainty. A key factor determining that uncertainty is the length of the sample over which the model is estimated. Other things equal, the smaller the sample, the greater the model uncertainty and the better the performance of simple, heuristic strategies.

This seems to suggest that – contra game theory – we could ‘in principle’ establish a sound model, if only we had enough data. Yet:

Einstein wrote that: “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them”.

There seems a non-sequitur here: if new thinking is repeatedly being applied then surely the nature of the system will continually be changing? Or is it proposed that the ‘new thinking’ will yield a final solution, eliminating uncertainty? If it is the case that ‘new thinking’ is repeatedly being applied then the regularity conditions of basic game theory (e.g. at 4.6.3 and 11.1.1) are not met (as discussed at 2.2.3). It is certainly not an unconditional conclusion that the methods of game theory apply to economies beyond the short-run, and experience would seem to show that such an assumption would be false.

The paper recommends the use of heuristics, by which it presumably means what Gigernezer means: methods that ignore some of the data. Thus, for example, all formal methods are heuristics since they ignore intuition.  But a dog catching a Frisbeee only has its own experience, which it is using, and so presumably – by this definition – is not actually using a heuristic either. In 2006 most financial and economics methods were heuristics in the sense that they ignored the lessons identified by von Neumann and Morgenstern. Gigerenzer’s definition seems hardly helpful. The dictionary definition relates to learning on one’s own, ignoring others. The economic problem, it seems to me, was of paying too much atention to the wrong people, and too little to those such as von Neumann and Morgenstern – and Keynes.   

The implication of the paper and Gigerenzer is, I think, that a heuristic is a set method that is used, rather than solving a problem from first principles. This is clearly a good idea, provided that the method incorporates a check that whatever principles that it relies upon do in fact hold in the case at hand. (This is what economists have often neglecte to do.) If set methods are used as meta-heuristics to identify the appropriate heuristics for particular cases, then one has something like recognition-primed decision-making. It could be argued that the financial community had such meta-heuristics, which led to the crash: the adoption of heuristics as such seems not to be a solution. Instead one needs to appreciate what kind of heuristic are appropriate when. Game theory shows us that the probabilistic heuristics are ill-founded when there is significant innovation, as there was both prior, through and immediately after 2007/8. In so far as economics and finance are games, some events are game-changers. The problem is not the proper application of mathematical game theory, but the ‘pragmatic’ application of a simplistic version: playing the game as it appears to be unless and until it changes. An unstated possible deduction from the paper is surely that such ‘pragmatic’ approaches are inadequate. For mutable games, strategy needs to take place at a higher level than it does for fixed games: it is not just that different strategies are required, but that ‘strategy’ has a different meaning: it should at least recognize the possibility of a change to a seemingly established status quo.

If we take an analogy with a dog and a Frisbee, and consider Frisbee catching to be a statistically regular problem, then the conditions of simple game theory may be met, and it is also possible to establish statistically that a heuristic (method) is adequate. But if there is innovation in the situation then we cannot rely on any simplistic theory or on any learnt methods. Instead we need a more principled approach, such as that of Keynes or Ashby,  considering the conditionality and looking out for potential game-changers. The key is not just simpler regulation, but regulation that is less reliant on conditions that we expect to hold but for which, on maturer reflection, are not totally reliable. In practice this may necessitate a mature on-going debate to adjust the regime to potential game-changers as they emerge.

See Also

Ariel Rubinstein opines that:

classical game theory deals with situations where people are fully rational.

Yet von Neumann and Morgenstern (4.1.2) note that:

the rules of rational behaviour must provide definitely for the possibility of irrational conduct on the part of others.

Indeed, in a paradigmatic zero-sum two person game, if the other person players rationally (according to game theory) then your expected return is the same irrespective of how you play. Thus it is of the essence that you consider potential non-rational plays. I take it, then, that game theory as reflected in economics is a very simplified – indeed an over-simplified – version. It is presumably this distorted version that Haldane’s criticism’s properly apply to.

Dave Marsay

Haldane’s Tails of the Unexpected

A. Haldane, B. Nelson Tails of the unexpected,  The Credit Crisis Five Years On: Unpacking the Crisis conference, University of Edinburgh Business School, 8-9 June 2012

The credit crisis is blamed on a simplistic belief in ‘the Normal Distribution’ and its ‘thin tails’, understating risk. Complexity and chaos theories point to greater risks, as does the work of Taleb.

Modern weather forecasting is pointed to as good relevant practice, where one can spot trouble brewing. Robust and resilient regulatory mechanisms need to be employed. It is no good relying on statistics like VaR (Value at Risk) that assume a normal distribution. The Bank of England is developing an approach based on these ideas.

Comment

Risk arises when the statistical distribution of the future can be calculated or is known. Uncertainty arises when this distribution is incalculable, perhaps unknown.

While the paper acknowledges Keynes’ economics and Knightian uncertainty, it overlooks Keynes’ Treatise on Probability, which underpins his economics.

Much of modern econometric theory is … underpinned by the assumption of randomness in variables and estimated error terms.

Keynes was critical of this assumption, and of this model:

Economics … shift[ed] from models of Classical determinism to statistical laws. … Evgeny Slutsky (1927) and Ragnar Frisch (1933) … divided the dynamics of the economy into two elements: an irregular random element or impulse and a regular systematic element or propagation mechanism. This impulse/propagation paradigm remains the centrepiece of macro-economics to this day.

Keynes pointed out that such assumptions could only be validated empirically and (as the current paper also does) in the Treatise he cited Lexis’s falsification.

The paper cites a game of paper/scissors/stone which Sotheby’s thought was a simple game of chance but which Christie’s saw  as an opportunity for strategizing – and won millions of dollars. Apparently Christie’s consulted some 11 year old girls, but they might equally well have been familiar with Shannon‘s machine for defeating strategy-impaired humans. With this in mind, it is not clear why the paper characterises uncertainty a merly being about unknown probability distributions, as distinct from Keynes’ more radical position, that there is no such distribution. 

The paper is critical of nerds, who apparently ‘like to show off’.  But to me the problem is not the show-offs, but those who don’t know as much as they think they know. They pay too little attention to the theory, not too much. The girls and Shannon seem okay to me: it is those nerds who see everything as the product of randomness or a game of chance who are the problem.

If we compare the Slutsky Frisch model with Kuhn’s description of the development of science, then economics is assumed to develop in much the same way as normal science, but without ever undergoing anything like a (systemic) paradigm shift. Thus, while the model may be correct most of the time,  violations, such as in 2007/8, matter.

Attempts to fine-tune risk control may add to the probability of fat-tailed catastrophes. Constraining small bumps in the road may make a system, in particular a social system, more prone to systemic collapse. Why? Because if instead of being released in small bursts pressures are constrained and accumulate beneath the surface, they risk an eventual volcanic eruption.

 One can understand this reasoning by analogy with science: the more dominant a school which protects its core myths, the greater the reaction and impact when the myths are exposed. But in finance it may not be just ‘risk control’ that causes a problem. Any optimisation that is blind to the possibility of systemic change may tend to increase the chance of change (for good or ill) [E.g. Bohr Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge. Ox Bow Press 1958].

See Also

Previous posts on articles by or about Haldane, along similar lines:

My notes on:

Dave Marsay