Economists as Scientists


This is the third entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. The first entry is here and the second entry is here. (Related posts by me are noted parenthetically throughout this one.)

Science is something that some people “do” some of the time. There are full-time human beings and part-time scientists. And the part-timers are truly scientists only when they think and act in accordance with the scientific method.*

Acting in accordance with the scientific method is a matter of attitude and application. The proper attitude is one of indifference about the correctness of a hypothesis or theory. The proper application rejects a hypothesis if it can’t be tested, and rejects a theory if it’s refuted (falsified) by relevant and reliable observations.

Regarding attitude, I turn to the most famous person who was sometimes a scientist: Albert Einstein. This is from the Wikipedia article about the Bohr-Einstein debate:

The quantum revolution of the mid-1920s occurred under the direction of both Einstein and [Niels] Bohr, and their post-revolutionary debates were about making sense of the change. The shocks for Einstein began in 1925 when Werner Heisenberg introduced matrix equations that removed the Newtonian elements of space and time from any underlying reality. The next shock came in 1926 when Max Born proposed that mechanics were to be understood as a probability without any causal explanation.

Einstein rejected this interpretation. In a 1926 letter to Max Born, Einstein wrote: “I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” [Apparently, Einstein also used the line in Bohr’s presence, and Bohr replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” — TEA]

At the Fifth Solvay Conference held in October 1927 Heisenberg and Born concluded that the revolution was over and nothing further was needed. It was at that last stage that Einstein’s skepticism turned to dismay. He believed that much had been accomplished, but the reasons for the mechanics still needed to be understood.

Einstein’s refusal to accept the revolution as complete reflected his desire to see developed a model for the underlying causes from which these apparent random statistical methods resulted. He did not reject the idea that positions in space-time could never be completely known but did not want to allow the uncertainty principle to necessitate a seemingly random, non-deterministic mechanism by which the laws of physics operated.

It’s true that quantum mechanics was inchoate in the mid-1920s, and that it took a couple of decades to mature into quantum field theory. But there’s more than a trace of “attitude” in Einstein’s refusal to accept quantum mechanics, to stay abreast of developments in the theory, and to search quixotically for his own theory of everything, which he hoped would obviate the need for a non-deterministic explanation of quantum phenomena.

Improper application of the scientific method is rife. See, for example the Wikipedia article about the replication crisis, John Ioannidis’s article, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” (See also “Ty Cobb and the State of Science” and “Is Science Self-Correcting?“) For a thorough analysis of the roots of the crisis, read Michael Hart’s book, Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.

A bad attitude and improper application are both found among the so-called scientists who declare that the “science” of global warming is “settled,” and that human-generated CO2 emissions are the primary cause of the apparent rise in global temperatures during the last quarter of the 20th century. The bad attitude is the declaration of “settled science.” In “The Science Is Never Settled” I give many prominent examples of the folly of declaring it to be “settled.”

The improper application of the scientific method with respect to global warming began with the hypothesis that the “culprit” is CO2 emissions generated by the activities of human beings — thus anthropogenic global warming (AGW). There’s no end of evidence to the contrary, some of which is summarized in these posts and many of the links found therein. There’s enough evidence, in my view, to have rejected the CO2 hypothesis many times over. But there’s a great deal of money and peer-approval at stake, so the rush to judgment became a stampede. And attitude rears its ugly head when pro-AGW “scientists” shun the real scientists who are properly skeptical about the CO2 hypothesis, or at least about the degree to which CO2 supposedly influences temperatures. (For a depressingly thorough account of the AGW scam, read Michael Hart’s Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.)

I turn now to economists, as I have come to know them in more than fifty years of being taught by them, working with them, and reading their works. Scratch an economist and you’re likely to find a moralist or reformer just beneath a thin veneer of rationality. Economists like to believe that they’re objective. But they aren’t; no one is. Everyone brings to the table a large serving of biases that are incubated in temperament, upbringing, education, and culture.

Economists bring to the table a heaping helping of tunnel vision. “Hard scientists” do, too, but their tunnel vision is generally a good thing, because it’s actually aimed at a deeper understanding of the inanimate and subhuman world rather than the advancement of a social or economic agenda. (I make a large exception for “hard scientists” who contribute to global-warming hysteria, as discussed above.)

Some economists, especially behavioralists, view the world through the lens of wealth-and-utility-maximization. Their great crusade is to force everyone to make rational decisions (by their lights), through “nudging.” It almost goes without saying that government should be the nudger-in-chief. (See “The Perpetual Nudger” and the many posts linked to therein.)

Other economists — though far fewer than in the past — have a thing about monopoly and oligopoly (the domination of a market by one or a few sellers). They’re heirs to the trust-busting of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement led by non-economists who sought to blame the woes of working-class Americans on the “plutocrats” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, etc.) who had merely made life better and more affordable for Americans, while also creating jobs for millions of them and reaping rewards for the great financial risks that they took. (See “Monopoly and the General Welfare” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public.”) As it turns out, the biggest and most destructive monopoly of all is the federal government, so beloved and trusted by trust-busters — and too many others. (See “The Rahn Curve Revisited.”)

Nowadays, a lot of economists are preoccupied by income inequality, as if it were something evil and not mainly an artifact of differences in intelligence, ambition, and education, etc. And inequality — the prospect of earning rather grand sums of money — is what drives a lot of economic endeavor, to good of workers and consumers. (See “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes” and the many posts linked to therein.) Remove inequality and what do you get? The Soviet Union and Communist China, in which everyone is equal except party operatives and their families, friends, and favorites.

When the inequality-preoccupied economists are confronted by the facts of life, they usually turn their attention from inequality as a general problem to the (inescapable) fact that an income distribution has a top one-percent and top one-tenth of one-percent — as if there were something especially loathsome about people in those categories. (Paul Krugman shifted his focus to the top one-tenth of one percent when he realized that he’s in the top one percent, so perhaps he knows that’s he’s loathsome and wishes to deny it, to himself.)

Crony capitalism is trotted out as a major cause of very high incomes. But that’s hardly a universal cause, given that a lot of very high incomes are earned by athletes and film stars beside whom most investment bankers and CEOs are making peanuts. Moreover, as I’ve said on several occasions, crony capitalists are bright and driven enough to be in the stratosphere of any income distribution. Further, the fertile soil of crony capitalism is the regulatory power of government that makes it possible.

Many economists became such, it would seem, in order to promote big government and its supposed good works — income redistribution being one of them. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are two leading exemplars of what I call the New Deal school of economic thought, which amounts to throwing government and taxpayers’ money at every perceived problem, that is, every economic outcome that is deemed unacceptable by accountants of the soul. (See “Accountants of the Soul.”)

Stiglitz and Krugman — both Nobel laureates in economics — are typical “public intellectuals” whose intelligence breeds in them a kind of arrogance. (See “Intellectuals and Society: A Review.”) It’s the kind of arrogance that I mentioned in the preceding post in this series: a penchant for deciding what’s best for others.

New Deal economists like Stiglitz and Krugman carry it a few steps further. They ascribe to government an impeccable character, an intelligence to match their own, and a monolithic will. They then assume that this infallible and wise automaton can and will do precisely what they would do: Create the best of all possible worlds. (See the many posts in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

New Deal economists, in other words, live their intellectual lives  in a dream-world populated by the likes of Jiminy Cricket (“When You Wish Upon a Star”), Dorothy (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), and Mary Jane of a long-forgotten comic book (“First I shut my eyes real tight, then I wish with all my might! Magic words of poof, poof, piffles, make me just as small as [my mouse] Sniffles!”).

I could go on, but you should by now have grasped the point: What too many economists want to do is change human nature, channel it in directions deemed “good” (by the economist), or simply impose their view of “good” on everyone. To do such things, they must rely on government.

It’s true that government can order people about, but it can’t change human nature, which has an uncanny knack for thwarting Utopian schemes. (Obamacare, whose chief architect was economist Jonathan Gruber, is exhibit A this year.) And government (inconveniently for Utopians) really consists of fallible, often unwise, contentious human beings. So government is likely to march off in a direction unsought by Utopian economists.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to thwart the tax collector. The regulator can and does make things so hard for business that if one gets off the ground it can’t create as much prosperity and as many jobs as it would in the absence of regulation. And the redistributor only makes things worse by penalizing success. Tax, regulate, and redistribute should have been the mantra of the New Deal and most presidential “deals” since.

I hold economists of the New Deal stripe partly responsible for the swamp of stagnation into which the nation’s economy has descended. (See “Economic Growth Since World War II.”) Largely responsible, of course, are opportunistic if not economically illiterate politicians who pander to rent-seeking, economically illiterate constituencies. (Yes, I’m thinking of old folks and the various “disadvantaged” groups with which they have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

The distinction between normative economics and positive economics is of no particular use in sorting economists between advocates and scientists. A lot of normative economics masquerades as positive economics. The work of Thomas Piketty and his comrades-in-arms comes to mind, for example. (See “McCloskey on Piketty.”) Almost everything done to quantify and defend the Keynesian multiplier counts as normative economics, inasmuch as the work is intended (wittingly or not) to defend an intellectual scam of 80 years’ standing. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,” “The True Multiplier,” and “Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier.”)

Enough said. If you want to see scientific economics in action, read Regulation. Not every article in it exemplifies scientific inquiry, but a good many of them do. It’s replete with articles about microeconomics, in which the authors uses real-world statistics to validate and quantify the many axioms of economics.

A final thought is sparked by Arnold Kling’s post, “Ed Glaeser on Science and Economics.” Kling writes:

I think that the public has a sort of binary classification. If it’s “science,” then an expert knows more than the average Joe. If it’s not a science, then anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. I strongly favor an in-between category, called a discipline. Think of economics as a discipline, where it is possible for avid students to know more than ordinary individuals, but without the full use of the scientific method.

On this rare occasion I disagree with Kling. The accumulation of knowledge about economic variables, or pseudo-knowledge such as estimates of GDP (see “Macroeconomics and Microeconomics“), either leads to well-tested, verified, and reproducible theories of economic behavior or it leads to conjectures, of which there are so many opposing ones that it’s “take your pick.” If that’s what makes a discipline, give me the binary choice between science and story-telling. Most of economics seems to be story-telling. “Discipline” is just a fancy word for it.

Collecting baseball cards and memorizing the statistics printed on them is a discipline. Most of economics is less useful than collecting baseball cards — and a lot more destructive.

Here’s my hypothesis about economists: There are proportionally as many of them who act like scientists as there are baseball players who have career batting averages of at least .300.
* Richard Feynman, a physicist and real scientist, had a different view of the scientific method than Karl Popper’s standard taxonomy. I see Feynman’s view as complementary to Popper’s, not at odds with it. What is “constructive skepticism” (Feynman’s term) but a gentler way of saying that a hypothesis or theory might be falsified and that the act of falsification may point to a better hypothesis or theory?


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