My dad is disappointed in me. He tries to restrain it, but every so often he lets it come out. He thinks I shouldn’t have chosen to do Economics at University. “It’s not a real science,” he says. He is a chemist, you see. Sometimes I find it difficult to disagree with him, although I don’t think that it makes economics worthless at all. I hated chemistry at school anyway. Besides, my mum warned me not to do a science at university because according to her it’s almost impossible to get a job. What do I do with parents like this?
Anyway, that throny issue as to whether or not economics is a science is something that Greg Mankiw has got his teeth into on his blog.
In my opinion there are a few barriers to economics being a science (so far). One of the things my dad says is that because the behaviour of humans is “random” (his word), you cannot possibly make any serious predictions. Perhaps so. It does get tiring after a while to see economic models assuming “rationality”. Every human becomes the robotic Homo economicus (there was a post about this yesterday at The Fluffy Economist).
Nevertheless, many economic theories do appear to hold true in real life. I should have asked my dad, “When the price of a good goes up, is it really a ‘random’ occurance if the demand for that good goes down?” Yet even such simple concepts which even non-economists would recognise almost as facts of life are not without their problems.
I was discussing economics with a friend on my way back home from our exam yesterday, and I mentioned that my biggest personal gripe with the economics I have learned at university and that I read in the textbooks is all of the maths involved. The movement towards a more maths-based approach was an attempt by the discipline of economics as a whole to gain more credibility; to look more like a real science and not one of those wooly humanities subjects.
But I think I would take a lot of economics much more seriously if it stopped trying to sum up human behaviour in an abstract equation. It is a square peg in a round hole, in my view. By coming out with such an approach that gives you such precision makes it look like economics is promising the moon on a stick when it evidently cannot bring you it. Maybe this is just my personal aversion to maths coming out though. 😀
Another huge barrier to economics being seen as a science is that it is so closely related to politics. To make a comment about economics is to make a comment about politics. And as we all know, making a comment about politics makes you ten instant friends and a hundred instant enemies. Even if many economists can agree on something (which isn’t often, but hey), many non-economists almost certainly will not. Immigration is a good example (and I’ll probably have a post on that tomorrow — I bet you can’t wait!).
As one anonymous commenter on Mankiw’s blog said, “One hardly hears of Republican chemical theories and Leftwing chemistry.” Is it any coincidence that, for the man on the street at least, one of the most controversial scientific theories today is that of evolution? The scientific community may be pretty well united in its support of the theory of evolution, but because creationism / Intelligent Design and evolution has become such a politicised issue, the theory of evolution has become questionable in the eyes of the general public.
This is a rare, freak event: a biology theory has become politicised, and therefore questioned. Economics is not so lucky: every economic theory is politicised from the word go, and is therefore questioned.
Here is some better news for economics though. Economics is still an extraordinarily young science. While people have been pondering about mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry for thousands of years, modern political economy is said to have begun with Adam Smith just a couple of hundred years ago.
If we go back to when chemistry was that old, we would probably find four elements: earth, fire, water, air. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical if economics still seems a bit unsteady on its feet, and we should instead make do with what we’ve got.