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Jul 27 2010

Is the field of economics a pseudoscience?

I have exactly zero dogs in this fight, and no time to do any real research and form a proper opinion in the matter, but in the recent astrology thread, James Carey posted the following and I think it does merit some discussion, especially divested from the rest of the comments.

Having my e-mail box continuously filled with comments ranging from the snotty and condescending to the just plain rude and vulgar I did a little research on pseudo sciences on wikipedia (which is going to be my online standard) and they say that the definition of pseudo science is any scientific process that does not follow the scientific method, who’s definition, if you will forgive me, i am going to cut and paste here:

“Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new[1] knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.[2] A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.[3]

Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methodologies of knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many independently derived hypotheses together in a coherent, supportive structure. This in turn may help form new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.

Among other facets shared by the various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the process must be objective to reduce biased interpretations of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established.”

So I am pretty much in agreement with Jason that Astrology is a pseudo science. That being said, however, by this definition I am not convinced that Economics isn’t a pseudo science either…

George W followed up with this:

O.K. James, I’ll bite.
As I am sure we are both aware, Economics is a Social Science, and by it’s very definition cannot be directly compared to a Natural Science. The “science” in social science is more an allusion to it’s foundational methodology where data is collected by observation, hypotheses are postulated, more data is collected, hypotheses are tuned, more data collected, etc.
Economics weaknesses lie in the control of variables and the limitations of experiment. This is no different from Political Science or Anthropology… or Paleontology for that matter.
To make the claim that astrology can be lumped into a broad category with economics is fatuous and misleading to the point of being deceitful. Astrology does not collect data in a scientific matter, it tautologically serves to prove itself by cherry picking correlations without any proof or reasoning for causality.
By your own “online standard”, pseudo-science is a methodology, belief, or practice that is claimed to be scientific, or that is made to appear to be scientific, but which does not adhere to an appropriate scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, or otherwise lacks scientific status. (emphasis mine)
I wonder, James, why you so carelessly abbreviated that definition and concentrated on the definition of the scientific method? Why leave out the part about an “appropriate scientific method”?

Further down in the wiki article, you will note that the National Science Foundation contrasts Micheal Shermer’s definitions of science and pseudoscience.

Science-”a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation”

Pseudoscience-”claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility”

I would argue that economics fits best under the first definition and less under the latter.

So what of the rest of you folks? What’s your opinion?

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Stephanie Z

    Well, my opinion was already in the other thread, along with Kelley’s, but to sum up: Yes, there is some pseudoscience within the field of economics. That does not make economics as a whole a pseudoscience.

    The same can pretty much be said for most of the social sciences at this point. I attribute it to a combination of the age of the field (think about the period in which chemistry was separating itself from alchemy) and the fact that these fields have broad political and personal implications.

  2. 2
    Mitchell

    All I gotta say is science more often than not, requires funding, and a healthy understanding of economics can only do the scientific community much good. I think “economics as a pseudoscience” is a slippery slope. While I am sure more rigorous testing methods could help improve economics, I think lumping them in with true pseudosciences such as astrology discounts further developments in a genuine scientific field. Astrology is bunk… astronomy is not. Some pseudosciences need a few more teeth to do good work, some just need to be bitten until they bleed to death. I’ll admit a lot of bias here, I’m fascinated by social sciences and think they are incredibly important.

  3. 3
    George W.

    I don’t think that economics is even a science in the strictest definition of the term. Social Sciences in general are not science in it’s strictest sense. To hold economics or political science to the strictest scientific method is impossible and unhelpful.
    In the broader term of science, the one that Micheal Shermer uses, economics has a place as a scientifically studied discipline, as does history, anthropology, paleontology, and sociology.
    What I feel people are doing by conflating economics and astrology is to lend credit to astrology where none is due. Astrology purposely and repeatedly ignores the scientific method, where economics tries as best is possible to make use of it. Astrology is not subject to scrutiny or peer review of it’s foundational theories or mechanisms.
    Insomuch as economists cannot isolate economies from outside variables and many principles in economics overlap with sociology and psychology, it would be near impossible to apply the scientific method to the discipline in a more workable model then exists at present. I can think of about a million ways that the scientific method could be more usefully applied to astrology, homeopathy, and the other agreed pseudosciences. That is the difference to me.
    Economics is not an exact science. It may be called a science insomuch as it is studied by the best possible use of the scientific method. Pseudoscience can be thought of as those disciplines that seek to avoid any scientific research but reap all the benefit of appearing “science-y”.

  4. 4
    Rich Wilson

    At least economics has numbers. The truth may be lying (sic) in a web of statistics, but they’re backing it up with something concrete.

    Take the famous car seat one from Freakonomics. Forget about how safe car seats look and feel, do they significantly reduce injuries in children? The numbers don’t say ‘no’.

  5. 5
    DuWayne

    My apologies for the rather incoherent nature of this comment – my mind is stretched across way too much shit right now

    Ok, this is another of my pet peeves. While the social sciences are excruciatingly complicated to study as natural science, it is not impossible. You can, in point of fact, come up with falsifiable hypothesis, design experiments, come up with your operational definitions, conduct your experiment, publish your results and replicate. While this is more complicated when it comes to economics, it is still not impossible.

    And there is an incredible amount of overlap in the social sciences, overlap that is underrecognized to the detriment of all the social sciences. There are a lot of studies that, rather than requiring the researcher become solidly versed in multiple disciplines, should be conducted across disciplines (which sometimes actually happens – evo-psych, the non-nutty sort does just that). There is a lot of ground to cover, if we want to use science as a tool for understanding and improving social, political and economic dynamics.

    But that complexity does not equal a different sort of science – it just makes it an exceedingly diverse and complicated problem to study, using the tools of science.

    To make a comparison that I think is useful here, consider the study of genetics. Mapping the human genome, while a remarkable and important achievement, merely underscored just how much there is that we are completely fucking clueless about. Getting to the point where we can truly understand genetics is very probably a more complicated problem than the goals I mention above. And it will require just as much, if not more, cross discipline cooperation.

    That doesn’t make the goal of really understanding genetics any less of a natural science – it just makes it an exceedingly diverse and complicated problem to study, using the tools of science.

    There are nearly infinite comparisons that can be made here. Science is fucking complicated and most everything gets broken down into very small, very specific problems to be solved and added to the bigger picture.

    The fact that there are currently limitations on what we are capable of breaking down into a study – usually for lack of the proper tools, doesn’t make those studies any less science. Cosmology is a science that is inherently limited by the lack of certain tools – it has been for thousands of years. Yet every so often new tools are discovered and we can learn things that we had no way to comprehend.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Z

    +1 to everything DuWayne just said. He saved me a rant.

  7. 7
    George W.

    Dwayne said what I thought I was trying to say.
    He just said it betterer.
    Damn you Dwayne, and your superior brain.

  8. 8
    khan

    My opinion: economics can be a science insofar as observation and history. It steps off the curb in proscriptions (i.e. Austrian School…)

  9. 9
    Rich Wilson

    Rich Wilson: At least economics has numbers.The truth may be lying (sic) in a web of statistics, but they’re backing it up with something concrete.Take the famous car seat one from Freakonomics.Forget about how safe car seats look and feel, do they significantly reduce injuries in children?The numbers don’t say ‘no’.

    Sigh. I really should stop today. My mind is also stretched, but evidently it’s affecting me a lot more than DuWayne. “The numbers say ‘no’”

  10. 10
    PP

    No, it’s all about quality standards.

    There are two problems with social sciences:
    1. Good experiments are difficult to design, difficult to perform and difficult to interpret.
    2. Low quality standards.

    Unfortunately point 1 is being used to justify point 2, but that is not acceptable. Yes, experiments are difficult but that doesn’t mean that sloppy results can or should pass off as science.

    Example 1: Every scientists should know that correlation is not causation yet all too many studies in social sciences ignore this obvious point and interpret results as if there is a direct causal link between correlated variables completely ignoring other possible explanations.

    Example 2: Small and biased samples. Yes, it takes a lot of resources to test a large number of humans but that doesn’t mean that one can extrapolate from 30 students to general population. If you want to study general population you need to form a large enough collaboration so that a meaningful and representative sample can be tested. It’s better to have one such study then 20 small ones which cannot reliably show anything. A good example is physicists where thousands are working on a single experiment like LHC precisely because it requires so much resources to produce a meaningful result.

    Only when studies suffering from such obvious defects are no longer accepted will social sciences truly become worthy of the science label.

  11. 11
    DuWayne

    No PP, the problem here is that the media (gee, science media fucking up) likes to tout every fucking study that comes out as if it were gold. What actually happens is that study (a) gets finished with a sample size of about fifty. The results are promising, so the study is then replicated by several more investigators.

    As for your brilliant point in example one, bullshit. I mean sure, it happens, but the social sciences aren’t the only sciences sometimes guilty of this. More often than not, it isn’t the scientists who are equating correlation with causation. You might consider that like any other science, social sciences are fucked about by shitty science journalism.

    One of the big problems with the social sciences, is that there is constant action required. We aren’t allowed to actually wait until we have everything just right, because the studies we do have immediate applications to real world problems. With economics, there are policy makers everywhere who are constantly harping at economists for their best guess, which will then directly effect policy. With sociology, there is a constant, driving need to make decisions that will effect the poor, the underemployed, people who are mentally ill, students, the middle class and even the wealthy – again, policy makers looking for that best guess and inevitably letting politics fuck it up anyways. With psychology, we have sick people who need help now. People who are anorexic aren’t going to survive long enough for us to get it perfect, so we do the best with the best we have and constantly strive to make that better.

    Or to put this more succinctly, fuck off and find out what the fuck you’re talking about, before you go fucking bashing the social sciences.

  12. 12
    George W.

    PP talks as if economics students aren’t required to take courses in statistics. I can assure you that this is about as far from the truth as possible. One of my professors was obsessed with statistics and sample sizes. He once made us poll students in the business department, philosophy department, and fine arts departments to show how bad sampling can return disastrous results.
    Economics is not fraught with bad methodology any more than any other field in the sciences. Where economics gets attacked always seems to be on the policy front, where confirmation bias reigns supreme. No right wing government is going to expand social programs or increase business taxes no matter how many studies show us those are prudent policy. Governments pick and choose those economic policies that suit their preconceived bias toward more or less government.

    As to the point about correlation mistook for causation, I think PP is full of shit. People being educated in the social sciences are if anything more aware of the problems with jumping to conclusions. Economics in particular is hard to test in a bubble, economists are aware that to some degree, even your constants are variables; they are trained quite well to sniff out the difference between correlary and causal relationships.
    This whole discussion is an attack on the biased implementation and interpretation of economics and not on the discipline itself.
    Kind of like how I have nothing against God, it’s his fan club I can’t stand.

  13. 13
    Dan J

    Personally, I don’t think of economics as a pseudoscience in the way that I think of something like astrology.

    Making predictions based on economic data is, however, fraught with difficulties. I liken it to predicting the weather. With so many variables involved, and those variables being connected in so many different ways (ways which we might not even notice, as of yet), I take anything predicted more than four hours in advance with a large grain of salt. I wonder sometimes if the number and scope of the variables are outpacing our current ability to recognize and interpret them, and if we will ever catch up.

  14. 14
    sinned34

    Well, everything that I thought I had to add to the conversation here has been said at least twice so far, and conveyed at least four times as well as I could have said it, so I’ll just add this comment:

    Economics is as much a science as computer science is a science. Of course, that’s based on me taking economics 101 and 151 in college fifteen years ago, and I certainly haven’t kept up learning about it. Add to that my disdain for economists (they’re slightly better than lawyers, but at least lawyers can sometimes offer actual assistance) based mostly on the politicization of the field, which I suppose makes my opinion semi-hostile towards that field of study. However, I fully admit that my opinion on economics is about as valuable as a Jehovah’s Witnesses opinion on evolution. (My father-in-law recently tossed a couple of anti-evolution tracts by the Witnesses at me in the hopes it’ll make me think twice about the science. Groan…)

  15. 15
    PP

    Oh dear, a bit incoherent aren’t we?

    “As for your brilliant point in example one, bullshit. I mean sure, it happens,…”

    and

    “We aren’t allowed to actually wait until we have everything just right, because the studies we do have immediate applications to real world problems…”

    Now that is a real gem! Since so much depends on our studies we don’t have the luxury to do the research right and get reliable results!

    And a classic closure:
    “fuck off and find out what the fuck you’re talking about, before you go fucking bashing the social sciences.”

    Nice, I know very well what I am talking about, and the fact that you are unable to provide a coherent refutation of even a single point is the best evidence for that.

    Get well soon

  16. 16
    PP

    In case you didn’t realize I am talking about the low quality of published social science studies not about student education which is irrelevant. It’s results that matter.

    Way too often low quality studies suffering from obvious faults (of which I described two common examples) pass peer review and end up being published in professional literature.
    Way too often such low quality studies are then sold to general public which doesn’t have the tools to independently assess their reliability.
    The end result is propagation of nonsense and half-truths which is typical of pseudoscience and definitely not acceptable for any discipline aspiring to be scientific.

  17. 17
    DuWayne

    Now that is a real gem! Since so much depends on our studies we don’t have the luxury to do the research right and get reliable results!

    If that is what you read, all you have shown is that you have the reading comprehension of a fucking carrot.

    Nice, I know very well what I am talking about…

    No, obviously you do not.

    …and the fact that you are unable to provide a coherent refutation of even a single point is the best evidence for that.

    Find an adult and ask them to read have them read, then explain my comment to you.

  18. 18
    Stephanie Z

    Seconded on improving your reading skills, PP, and on learning something about how science works. Knowledge in any field is always provisional. Physics wasn’t a pseudoscience because Newton didn’t know everything there was to know about motion. It isn’t a pseudoscience now because it hasn’t explained dark matter or how gravity interacts with other forces.

    We always know that our understanding is simply the best provisional knowledge we have–in any field. Economics and the other social sciences are no exception. The point about not waiting is that we can’t afford to not use that knowledge just because it’s provisional. It’s still better than no knowledge at all.

    You’re simply looking at a very young science and dismissing it as not being science at all. And as though it weren’t enough to be wrong about that, you’re being snotty while you do it.

  19. 19
    DuWayne

    Way too often low quality studies suffering from obvious faults (of which I described two common examples) pass peer review and end up being published in professional literature.

    Which happens in all science.

    Way too often such low quality studies are then sold to general public which doesn’t have the tools to independently assess their reliability.

    Which is a result of shitty science journalism, something that scientists in every discipline complain about, because it happens to everyone. Preliminary studies in the social sciences get picked up constantly, usually over the objections of the researchers involved. This is not the fault of the scientists, most certainly not the fault of the field.

    If you had reading comp abilities above that of a carrot, you would have noted in my comment above that preliminary social science studies are generally quite small and if the results are promising, then get replicated. They get published initially, because that is how you find several investigators who would be willing to replicate the study. Science journalists read these journals and see said promising study, then publish a fucking article. Same shit that happens to everyone else in science – at least everyone who is doing science that journalists believe the public would be interested in.

    The end result is propagation of nonsense and half-truths which is typical of pseudoscience and definitely not acceptable for any discipline aspiring to be scientific.

    You mean like the study of evo-devo? I mean after we strip away creationist nonsense, there is all sorts of nonsensical bullshit, half-truths and more than a century outdated notions that are assumed to be gospel. Or how about neurobiology, where we now have people believing – not based on the actual studies, but on the reporting of some studies, that animals, including humans, can “sense” things that they can’t see, using parts of that ninety percent of the brain we previously believed was useless? Of course there’s the near constant deluge of bio-med studies that get snapped up by science journalists and blown way the fuck out of any semblance of reason.

    So I suppose you’re going to be consistent and call all those pseudoscience? I mean come on, if you can’t control what some reporter throws into an article, obviously you’re engaging in pseudoscience, right? And if not everyone in your discipline who claims to be a scientist actually does proper science, then the whole fucking field must be nonsense that shouldn’t be taken seriously…

    Is that what you’re saying here, or am I missing something?

  20. 20
    DuWayne

    On the assumption, PP, that you will not find someone who can actually read to explain this;
    Now that is a real gem! Since so much depends on our studies we don’t have the luxury to do the research right and get reliable results!

    No. What I said is that we don’t have the luxury of not doing anything, until we have perfected our understanding of something. For psychology (which I chose because that is my field), I used the example of anorexia. We don’t know how best to treat anorexia yet. We merely manage to have clinically significantly higher rates of success than spontaneous remission. So while we continue to use our imperfect tools to treat anorexia, we also continue to run studies that will improve the tools we have to work with.

    This is much the way that medicine works. It isn’t perfect, because people who are sick right now can’t afford to wait for it to be perfect. Doctors do the best with what they have to work with, while researchers constantly strive to come up with better tools.

  21. 21
    Jason Thibeault

    I think I’ve pretty much formed my opinion here, thanks to you, PP. Soon as you try to turn one of the media’s failings in reporting science against science itself, you lose me. We’re well aware that the media loves to take preliminary studies that show promise, and go all WHARGARBL ZOMG CURE FOR CANCER, then when it turns out to be something other than their hyped-up supercure, the huge let-down that the public feels is redirected toward science, not the media for blowing shit out of proportion.

    With economics, there are a number of political policy-making groups (conservatives, Republicans, libertarians) who seem to believe first in some kind of all-knowing all-seeing deity of the markets called the Invisible Hand, while simultaneously holding increased profits and selfishness as the greatest good. They employ economics in a manner that even George HW Bush called “voodoo economics”, letting their dogmatic belief in the invisible hand guide their economic policies, doing things counter-indicated by even the most basic reading of the situation by proper economists. And since there are enough such alchemists in this chemistry field right now, it looks like the whole field of economics is made up of pseudoscientists.

    News flash — science is the objective study of reality, and economics is one aspect of reality that can be studied objectively. There are just a hell of a lot of people involved in it right now that care less about reality than they do about finding ways to color their results so that their preferred policies are supported. It’s yet another case of cherry-picking favorable results and demanding that policy be set by those results, while ignoring any evidence against their preferred policies.

    We should purge these phrenologists from the psychologists in the field. We should point them out, and we should show, using good proper data and sound methodology, why they are full of shit and need to have their voices shunned in the public arena. It’s at least partly why I side with reality against anti-reality “vested interests” like you see in the libertarian movement.

  22. 22
    George W.

    PP,
    My point is far from irrelevant. You are making a claim that the problems with economics are ingrained and systemic. I am telling you that this is not the case.

    If bloodletting was taught in medical school we should rightly be worried at the state of medicine. If some ridiculous homeopath does it, that is not an indictment of medicine.
    Your comparing media reactions and political spin to the actual practice of being an economist. It’s unfair and betrays your ignorance of the topic.
    For someone who was so obsessed with correlation being mistook for causation, you seem a little too hasty to look at the tree and miss the forest.

  23. 23
    andy765gtr

    economics could potentially act in a intellectually legitimate manner, but sadly, as it is conducted by most economists, is little more than a business school circle jerk; an excersise in reality denying psuedo intellectualism to justify the ridiculous premise of infinite growth on a finite planet, to endless demagogues who would capitalize on such a premise for short term gain.

    we will pay dearly for basing policy on individuals with intensely circular reasoning, in a anthropocentic field with no predictive ability of its own ideas let alone the effects of its ideas the wider world, who catered for legitimizing what we wanted to hear, rather than those legitimate subjects (the earth sciences like ecology)

    economics (as practiced), is not scientific. it operates in a dangerous fantasy world of its own, and willfully insulates itself from massive amounts of conflicting real world knowledge. it only survives because it is legitimized by the worlds of politics and media that in turn, use it to legitimize their own policies and behaviour

  24. 24
    George W.

    When do we get to comments about actual economics as opposed to the dogmatic political hijacking of economic theories?

    Has anyone ever spoken to a real economist, or do we just extrapolate what they must all be collectively thinking by assuming that their work and insight drive global corporations?

  25. 25
    Jason Thibeault

    Never, George. The answer is, of course, never.

    I’d argue that the dogmatic political hijacking of economic theories is directly responsible for people thinking economics is a pseudoscience, though.

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