The day I realized that economics is not a science

With the recession still fresh on the minds of everyone and debates about the deficit and the minimum wage plastered all over the news, I thought I would take some time to elaborate on something that’s been slowly dawning on me: economics is not a science.

Economists would certainly like you to think that it is. And that’s certainly the way that it’s presented, both in the media and in schools. I remember taking economics in college and being bombarded with a lot of very familiar scientific language–terms like “law” and “theory” and numerous equations. Sounds pretty scientific, right?

Well, only on the surface. I’ve always been a scientist at heart. I’ve always been very interested in biology, physics, and astronomy. I’ve always considered myself to have very high scientific literacy. And the more I learned about economics, the more I found that it wasn’t really science at all, but philosophy.

Perhaps the biggest red flag in the economics-as-science idea is that there are liberal and conservative economic theories. Liberalism and conservatism are philosophical ideologies, not scientific ones; there’s no such thing as liberal chemistry or neocon geology. It doesn’t make sense to describe science in political terms. There is no ideology that has the monopoly on facts and reality, period.

It seems, to me at least, that when it comes to economics people start with their philosophy and then create graphs and equations to “prove” it correct. That, as any scientist worth his or her salt will tell you, is the antithesis of science. Sure, on the whole, things like the law of supply and demand hold true–but that’s just logic and math, not science. That’s like claiming that solving 2+2 = x is doing science. It’s not. Science is a process, a methodology–a way of objectively thinking in order to discern the truth about the world around you. Economics fails at this.

Because if economics really were a science, why didn’t someone step in and save the economy is 2008? Or during any other recession for that matter? If economics is a science, and it really does follow a rigid set of principles and theories, then why didn’t someone simply step up to a whiteboard, draw out the equations and the graph, and present the solution? If economics truly were a science, it should be pretty simple, right? If the economy operates under X laws, then if we manipulate them in Y way we get Z outcome.

But it doesn’t work that way, because economics is not a science, anymore than “political science” is a real science. At best, economics is a biased ideology that attempts to predict the behavior of irrational agents–human beings. Sounds familiar, right? It should, because that’s exactly what philosophy attempts to do.

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3 thoughts on “The day I realized that economics is not a science

  1. If it is a science, it is more of a social science. I think you can investigate how economies work using the scientific method, the problem is you always get variable results because society is always changing. As move forward different materials have different values because of changing technologies. There was a time in which oil had little value, and obviously now it does. Economics is difficult to study because there is simply no control group to compare to. Economies not only change in what is valuable, but demographics change, the scale of economies change from being local to more global. It is the ultimate dynamic system and for every instant in time you study, the next instant in time it will be different. Economist can pretend that there is some universal model that applies to any situation to any point in time, but it’s simply not true. Anybody who tries to make an argument of about one type of economy better than the other is fooling themselves because they really have no actual working model to compare their system to. So one has to ask, on what criteria do you base this awesome economic model on, and is that really the relevant criteria to our daily lives?

    The other problem is that economics is essentially based on a fiction. Money has no value if we are not around. Economic theory is built around the movement of these dollar bills and coins when in reality dollar bills and coins do very little to guarantee our survival, happiness, or well being. The pursuit of money itself has no value and for many turns out to be an endless pursuit too which there is not end. Because you can always obtain more money if you just worked a little harder. If however you spend your life in the pursuit of happiness, money simply becomes a tool, but only one of many tools that can lead to happiness. It seems more sensible to look at it from that perspective because then you are not dependent on any one thing to feel successful, happy, and fulfilled. In my travels I often found that poor people were happier and more generous than those with money. Perhaps this is because those people were forced to look elsewhere to find happiness, which to me makes it clear that happiness and money are only weakly correlated.

    I would best describe economics at best a type of math. Math is also a tool. Math can be thought of as a logical framework so many things about economics can seem logically derived. But massive logical frameworks can be built on faulty premises, and perhaps economics is of this type of framework.

    1. You said this way better than I did, sir! I especially like the idea that economics is based upon a fiction–perfect words. I like the idea of economics as a type of math–I think that’s a much better way to frame it than as a science. Thank you for the comment!

  2. Well, you can probably assume that I will disagree a great deal with you on this.
    Is it a social “science?” Of course. Does it focus on what people do, say and buy or sell? Absolutely!
    Physics, biology and astronomy is only is represented by what can be measured in terms of numbers (which there are tons of variables for these). The distance from the earth to the sun was not measured by a string but by using very complex forms of math, differentiating between light wavelengths and the speed of light, using objects to measure the distances and multiplying or something? I think I forgot. I knew took a great deal of math….and some more math….and some more math. A simply rocket ship with a string attached to it would simply burn up before we could measure the distance. Instead, we measure how fast light travels, etc; This took many years to figure out. I remember reading about a famous scientists measuring the speed of light with a lot of mirrors in the beginning. Apparently, he wasn’t off by that much.
    Or measuring the distance of the moon from the earth, as it’s slowly getting farther away from us in orbit, was measured with a laser, was it not?
    These are hard feats to accomplish.
    There really is no other way to figure out these riddles if it weren’t for math, would it?
    What about climatology? It is impossible to speculate the future climate (without their computers) without properly representing all the data available from the past. It’s the best they can do!
    When it comes to the study of people, it’s hard to measure it perfectly. This is because it is impossible to measure human decisions in absolute terms (or near it anyways).
    Math is different, however. Math is a form of measurement, representing something. So, it is no wonder why math is used for various topics. It must be used! It can never be ignored!
    Math cannot simply measure someone’s choices, as an individual. Unless you have someone tracking them, their receipts, who they meet, what they buy, where they drive, etc.
    You can, however, measure a lot of people’s trends over time. We can measure what happens when less money is circling in the private sector: it usually is caused by other factors that later have to be sought out via policy researchers and it’s effects on how people make choices. Hard to do. But it eventually gets done.
    Economists have figured out that allowing the freedom of choice to purchase or sell items contributes to a innovating, high-technology, high-wealth society. Just as a long as there are resources and some form of democracy available (not Venezuela style but more like ours) and a proper education.
    Comparing countries that have a government-ran (mostly) economy, even with a decent democratic political culture, tends to fair less than others. This is measured.
    Economics does use math. The economists must evaluate choices, policy, tax rates, political climate, booms and busts…..and all of the root causes of these and their effects otherwise, they wouldn’t have a job.
    For example, if you read Paul Krugman, you’ll know he’s very biased. If you are to pick on any economist, he would probably be the prime example. Why? He will only pick on one side and blame them for every problem. Even if they didn’t vote for it, he would still find a way to blame them.
    His blog doesn’t represent math. He uses basic, snapshot data (not like others), to represent an argument with being objective.
    Anyways, I would rather trust someone who has studied economics, math, history, policy, law, etc; than someone with a simple major in economics. Just because it requires a great deal of knowledge in other subjects and how to interpret the data. This does include some theoretical ideas as well. Of course. If you think about it, how many times was theory used to explain astronomy, math or physics? They got it wrong at one point but eventually had the means to measure the outcomes. So, it eventually became laws of physics (that are still questioned) but these should never be compared to economics.
    Comparing physics and economics is like comparing an apple that may or not be eaten by a person you don’t is hungry or not and later measuring the amount of people who had actually done this versus…. timing the apple as it falls from the tree to bounce off of some poor Englishman’s head.
    One is far more complex because it involves choices that nobody can know until after it has happened. What can happen however is that if the same issue presents itself later on, it can be speculated, with some generalizing, that the same consequences may happen again. Like tax rates influencing the economy is something they can do.

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