Is Economics a Science? Dogmatic Economics Vs. Reflective Economics..

Fixing the economists Blog has this interesting post on the topic.

This is one of the most important philosophical questions regarding economics- is it a science? Econs surely believe and have tried to model  their ideas as Science like with laws and theories etc. This is met with criticism as these laws are not universally applicable and are inconsistent.

But then what is science at the first place? There is huge disagreement on the same. The blog defines science and then sees whether economics fits as a science:

Let me then give a different definition of science. I am not saying that this is the correct one but it appears to me to be the one that modern economics as a discipline tried to follow when it was being born in the 19th and 20th century. My definition is as such:science is the search for timeless laws.

Here the obvious reference is Newton and his physics. Now, while we know that Newton’s system was imperfect and was completely overturned in the early 20th century the spirit of what he was doing was, I think, what gave rise to the scientific impulse during the Enlightenment out of which economics was born. When you look at a supply and demand graph you are looking at a representation that is trying to copy Newton by giving us timeless laws. This is also how such constructions are taught to students (any concerns are whisked away using the mysterious ‘ceteris paribus‘ clause).

By this criteria I do not believe that economics is science either. Before undertaking such a discussion I will first lay out my underlying criticism which will be long familiar to readers of this blog: economics deals with historical time which is non-homogenous and thus cannot generate timeless laws. Anything that remotely resembles a functional timeless law in economics is in fact an identity and is true only by its tautological construction.

Much of philosophy of economics is around two broad schools – dogmatic and reflective. Needless to say the dogmatic ones rule and confuse the world with their ideologies pushed as theories:

Thus economics, and with it economists, fall into two categories. On the one hand we have what I opt to call ‘dogmatic economics’. Dogmatic economists are basically ideologues. They think that they have access to timeless truths and are scientists in the Newtonian mold. These economists are probably apt to get most things wrong most of the time. They also likely change their basic discourse over and over again. In the face of an ever-changing history they roll with the times, all the while maintaining the pretense that they have access to timeless truths. Basically the interpret and reinterpret their dogmas in light of new facts. The purpose of the dogmas is not illumination, rather it is to lend what they say authority. Dogmatic economists make up the majority of academic economists and also some very high up policy economists in government and economic institutions.

The other category of economics is what I opt to call ‘reflective economics’. Reflective economists understand that what they do is provide interpretations of a given historical constellation. They understand that there are better and worse interpretations — just like a judge can recognise a better or a worse interpretation of a law — but they do not hold to the idea that there are timeless, Newtonian laws in economics. Much of the sort of theory that they promote might be said to be very loose-fitting in that the tools needed for such interpretation tend to be less precise than those exacting constructions put together by the dogmatists. Reflective economists make up the minority of economists in academia. But the vast majority of serious working economists are in practice reflective economists.

What is the relationship between dogmatic and reflective economists in our society? Here there is no firm answer. The dogmatic economists react to the reflective economists in two ways: condescension and deep suspicion/fear. Working economists who do not partake in theoretical debate can be safely condescended to by the dogmatic economists. But the reflective economist who actually tries to engage in theoretical debate will provoke confusion and frustration in the dogmatic economist who is not used to having his or her authority challenged. The main device utilised here is to simply ignore these reflective economists and try to push them out of the debate through social isolation.

The reflective economists also react in two ways to the dogmatic economists. Some build a relationship of what psychotherapists call ‘transference‘ to the dogmatic economists. They assume that the dogmatic economists do in fact have access to timeless truths and that they, the poor working economist, did not make the cut to gain access to these truths. This reinforces the dogmatic economists’ power and social prestige. The other reaction is one of overt hostility. These reflective economists know that the dogmatic economists are Emperors that do not wear any clothes and they make no bones about saying it in public. This makes them quite unpopular with the dogmatic economists who then try to avoid such awkward discussions by isolating the critical reflective economists.



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