24 October 2013

Economics, Economists, Science?

Recently, The New York Times ran this Op-Ed defending the scientific status of economics on grounds that members of the profession share a "profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses." It comes on the heels of this earlier offering at The Times that argues to the contrary: "The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist." And today Paul Krugman argues in this post on his blog at The Times that while economics may, in fact, closely approximate a science, not all economists act like scientists in the sense of revising their views in the face of cogent counterarguments or dis-confirming evidence.

There are at least two complicated themes in all this. The first is whether we want to reduce our assessment of whether some mode of inquiry is scientific to a one dimensional matter of empirical performance - interpreted in terms of hypothesis testing or predictive success or whatever. I think the answer to that is simple - no. The second is how social inquiry is entangled with politics in particular and with evaluative concerns more generally. Typically this entanglement is intricate, making the question of how to act like a scientist difficult to discern. But in the case of political economy where there are large material and ideological stakes, that is perhaps even more difficult to see.

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