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Methodology: From anything-goes to rien-ne-va-plus

Economics is a perplexing subject. Though I have spent the better part of my academic career thinking about its aims and methods, I have never been confident that I or anyone else for that matter really understand its cognitive status. ... Without assurance about the cognitive status of the theory, there is no basis of confidence in it. (Rosenberg, 1994, pp. 216-217)

 

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Now, the doubts about the explanatory relevance of general equilibrium theory suggest that it cannot explain choice within constraints. That is, so to speak, how the problem of justifying general equilibrium theory starts. (Rosenberg, 1994, p. 221)

 

The great contradiction revealed is as follows: one of the theories greatest strength – its claim to deduce significant results from very general hypotheses about the behavior of economic agents – turns out to be its greatest weakness. (Ingrao and Israel, 1990, p. 364)

 

To the extent that they [alternative theories] trade in the preferences and expectations of individuals, they will do no better than neoclassical economics. (Rosenberg, 1994, p. 233)

 

By having a vague theory it is possible to get either result. ... It is usually said when this is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can't be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it. (Feynman, 1992, p. 159)

 

If we ask, ‘What is the most adequate model of behaviour for economics?’ we implicitly assume that economics actually needs a model of behaviour; hence, we already assume psychologism of a kind. (Hudík, 2011, p. 147)

 

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In fact, it has been not such a good idea to organize economic theory around a model of behavior.

 

The scientific method has rather narrow limits, especially in dealing with human behavior and social phenomena. (Knight, 1921, p. 144)

 

...  there has been no progress in developing laws of human behavior for the last twenty-five hundred years. (Hausman, 1992, p. 320), (Rosenberg, 1980, pp. 2-3)

 

... theorists all over the world have become aware that anything based on this mock-up [GET] is unlikely to fly, ...  (Hahn, 1981, p. 1036)

 

The moral of the story is simply this: it takes a new theory, and not just the destructive exposure of assumptions or the collection of new facts, to beat an old theory. (Blaug, 1998, p. 703)

 

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What particular reality is described by a given theory can be ascertained only from that theory's axiomatic foundation. (Georgescu-Roegen, 1966, p. 361)

 

The process of axiomatic thought is then a method both for accreting and warranting knowledge claims, for those claims, if developed from independent and consistent axioms, themselves make strong claims on our attention and reason. (Weintraub, 2002, p. 87)

 

Axiomatization is indispensable because the methodological anythings-goes mentality among economists is the proximate reason for the proto-scientific condition of conventional economics. Because of conceptual sloppiness neither Orthodoxy nor Heterodoxy has a clear idea of the fundamental economic concepts income and profit. Doing economics without a clear idea of income and profit is like doing physics without a clear idea of force and mass — it cannot possibly yield practical results, it has not, and it will not.

 

I think it is the lack of quite sharply defined concepts that the main difficulty lies, and not in any intrinsic difference between the fields of economics and other sciences. (von Neumann, quoted in Mirowski, 2002, p. 146 fn. 49)

 

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Since, therefore, it is vain to hope that truth can be arrived at, either in Political Economy or in any other department of the social science, while we look at the facts in the concrete, clothed in all the complexity with which nature has surrounded them, and endeavour to elicit a general law by a process of induction from a comparison of details; there remains no other method than the à priori one, or that of “abstract speculation.” (Mill, 2004, p. 113-114)

 

Abstract speculation starts with clearly stated foundational propositions.

 

What are the propositions which may reasonably be received without proof? That there must be some such propositions all are agreed, since there cannot be an infinite series of proof, a chain suspended from nothing. (Mill, 2006, p. 746)

 

These propositions must relate to economic facts and not to human behavior.

 

The attempt is made to collect all the assumptions, which are needed, but no more, to form the apex of the system. They are usually called the ‘axioms’ (or ‘postulates’, or ‘primitive propositions’; no claim of truth is implied in the term ‘axiom’ as here used). The axioms are chosen in such a way that all the other statements belonging to the theoretical system can be derived from the axioms by purely logical or mathematical transformations. (Popper, 1980, p. 71)

 

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His [Adam Smith’s] method is always the method of Newton, which we have already seen applied to psychology and morals: to attain, by generalization, certain simple truths, from which it will be possible to reconstruct, synthetically, the world of experience. (Halévy, 1960, p. 100)

 

By sketchily copying Newton and by applying the axiomatic method to psychology and morals Adam Smith set economics on the wrong track. There is nothing wrong with Newton or the axiomatic method,  only with Smith's shallow scientific understanding, which still prevails among economists.

 

If one takes seriously what Popper says about falsifiability and the critical attitude, then the methodological practice of economics is not only mistaken, it is stupid and intellectually reprehensible. (Hausman, 1992, p. 275)

 

One hopes that the economics profession will not spend the whole twenty-first century waiting for a new Newton or Einstein of formal economics to emerge to shed a more powerful light in the current darkness. (Nelson, 2006, p. 227)

 

As a matter of fact, it is not a question of hope and waiting: As long as the darkness persists economists have no mandate to speak in the name of science. At present, economic policy advice is at bottom the personal opinion of someone who cannot tell the difference between income and profit.

 

 

References

Blaug, M. (1998). Economic Theory in Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 5th edition.

Feynman, R. P. (1992). The Character of Physical Law. London: Penguin.

Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1966). Analytical Economics, chapter Economic Theory and Agrarian Economics, pages 359–397. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hahn, F. H. (1981). Review: A Neoclassical Analysis of Macroeconomic Policy. Economic Journal, 91(364): 1036–1039. URL

Halévy, E. (1960). The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Hausman, D. M. (1992). The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hudík, M. (2011). Why Economics is Not a Science of Behaviour. Journal of Economic Methodology, 18(2): 147–162.

Ingrao, B., and Israel, G. (1990). The Invisible Hand. Economic Equilibrium in the History of Science. Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press.

Knight, F. H. (1921). Traditional Economic Theory - Diuscussion. American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 11(1): 143–147. URL
Mill, J. S. (2004). Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, chapter On the Definition of Political Economy; and the Method of Investigation Proper to It., pages 93–125. Electronic Classic Series PA 18202: Pennsylvania State University. URL (1844).
Mill, J. S. (2006). Principles of Political Economy With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, volume 3, Books III-V of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. (1866).

Mirowski, P. (2002). Machine Dreams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nelson, R. H. (2006). Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. Pennsylvania, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Popper, K. R. (1980). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London, Melbourne, Sydney: Hutchison, 10th edition.

Rosenberg, A. (1980). Sociobiology and the Preemption of Social Science. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rosenberg, A. (1994). What is the Cognitive Status of Economic Theory? In R. E. Backhouse (Ed.), New Directions in Economic Methodology, pages 216–235. London, New York, Ny: Routledge.

Weintraub, E. R. (2002). How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. Durham, NC, London: Duke University Press.

 

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See also Newton and Euclid

 

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