Is Economics a Science? Dogmatic Economics Vs. Reflective Economics

A thought-provoking text that is somewhat complementary to my last post on the “monolith of economic theory“.

Fixing the Economists

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The question asked in the title of this post is actually somewhat of a trick. It is a trick because it all depends upon how you define ‘science’. Often when people say that economics is a science what they are doing is defining ‘science’ in such a way that economics fits the bill. They can do this because there is no real, firm definition of ‘science’ that is widely held among philosophers of science, scientists or, most certainly, among economists (who are the most anti-intellectual of the three groups by far).

If we look at Wikipedia, for example, it gives a definition of science that is Popperian — despite the fact that Popper’s falsifiability criteria have been called into question since the 1960s.

Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the…

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The Seeming Monolith of Economic Theory As Taught at a Typical Economics Department

It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls.

Thus begins the open letter of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics. As a former student of economics, I can only subscribe to that statement. Economics as a discipline (seemingly) does not offer much diversity of approaches. But economics curricula at most universities are even worse: they do not display even this bit of diversity that does exist. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I started writing The Sceptical Economist more than four years ago. Continue reading

The Economic Value of a Statistical Life

A human life is worth $4 million to $9 million. At least according to an authoritative meta-analysis of economic studies that estimate the so-called “value of a statistical life”. This is one of the most controversial issues in modern economics, which has met with vast criticism. Particularly, it has been argued that one cannot attach a price-tag to the life of a human being. In what follows, I would like to argue that a) this criticism is largely based on a misconception of the estimates; b) economists can only blame themselves that the misconception actually arised; and c) the calculation of the value of a statistical life is not sensible, albeit for reasons different from the ethical ones that are commonly used to argue against it. Continue reading

Resource Economics’s Most Problematic Assumption

Every theory or, to use the term famously coined by Thomas Kuhn, paradigm is based on a set of assumptions. Some assumptions are more, others less important for the overall theoretical system that is built upon them. This has to do with the ease with which they can (or cannot) be relaxed if shown not valid. It is, however, a truism that every model, theory or paradigm must be based on simplifying assumptions and that “closeness to reality” is seldom a relevant criterion for their evaluation (this latter statement must be, of course, qualified, which I will do below). Resource economics, i.e., the branch of economic theory that deals with the exploration, extraction and markets for (non-renewable) resources is no exception from this rule. One of my professors at the university used to present empirical findings regarding important assumptions of economic theory (such as the interest rate parity) by stating: “This is one of the few economic assumptions that stand up to reality.” The so-called Hotelling’s rule, one of the crucial models and assumptions of resource economics, is not one of those few. Continue reading

Historical Dynamics of Growth Critique

Since the beginning of modern economic theory’s history, which set off in the second half of the 18th century, economic growth was one of the most central themes, creating controversies over and over again. The emergence of modern economics, identified oftentimes with the publication of An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, coincided with the onset of an exceptional process in human history: until the late 18th and early 19th century, economic growth had been a temporary intermezzo at best, not a general pattern of socio-economic development of human societies. Then, around the time when Smith wrote his book, a new pattern gained momentum, economic growth becoming a matter of course. However, the perception of growth and its limits has evolved over time Continue reading

About Hating Work and Minimal Income

There are many problematic assumptions in conventional economic theory. Some, especially those related to environmental issues, have already been discussed here at some length (e.g., discounting, attitudes towards temperatures or the role of natural capital in production). Of course, without some simplifying assumptions no model can be built. However, some assumptions change the outcome of the model significantly (“Garbage in, garbage out”). Another critical example from modern economic theory is that it assumes that people hate working. Continue reading

You Cannot Just Define Away the Impossibility of Infinite Growth

More and more people in the world are questioning the possibility of human economies to grow infinitely. The ongoing destruction of global as well as regional ecosystems and the overuse of Nature’s resources are signs that something is going wrong. Nevertheless, mainstream (or neo-classical) economists – especially macroeconomists – seem not to be bothered. They still are claiming that economic growth is not only possible, it even is necessary to improve our well-being (for a critique see here). In some cases this may be true – nobody sane would argue that, let’s say, Nigeria doesn’t need economic growth. But one cannot (and should not) generalize this. Confronted with such arguments, (macro)economists either ignore them, or they answer by showing that in their models infinite growth is possible. They are just defining away the contrary. Continue reading