Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:36 | SYDNEY

What kind of discipline is economics?


Sam Roggeveen


8 September 2010 10:46

I want to add a thought to Mark Thirlwell's lament about the recurring debate on whether economics can claim to be a hard science. There is an alternative way to examine the differences between various fields of enquiry which might throw some light on this discussion.

Rather than distinguishing between 'hard' and 'soft' disciplines, it might help to divide the 'progressive' from the 'abstract'. (These terms are my invention, though I'm sure the concepts are not. I have pulled the concepts from the depths of my memory and can't recall their origins, so have come up with some new labels.)

A 'progressive' discipline is one in which we can discern advancement from a primitive to a less primitive state. 'Progress' here can be identified by the fact that modern students of the discipline will only have to study the latest knowledge in order to develop a command of it.

An obvious example is medicine; every branch of medicine has progressed over time, with knowledge and expertise accumulating to reach the stage we are now at. A modern medical student clearly needs to understand the latest thinking and evidence on, say, the functioning of the human heart. But this student would become no worse a physician for being ignorant about what 19th century medical practice thought about the heart. Similarly, a modern astronomer would be no worse at his or her job if they were ignorant of pre-Galilean thinking about the solar system. In both cases, that knowledge has been surpassed.

By contrast, an 'abstract' discipline is one where we cannot discern progress, and where the earliest thinking on a subject remains just as relevant as what is thought today.

Ethics is one example. We cannot argue that there has been progress in moral philosophy since the days of Plato (even if there has been progress in moral practice since that time). Because the latest thinking on ethics does not surpass or overtake what has come before, we would consider the education of a young moral philosopher incomplete if they had read, say, Raimond Gaita but ignored St Thomas Aquinas.

Economics, I would argue, exists somewhere in between these two types of knowledge. And this is why I think Mark was unable to fully convince me of the merits of stimulus spending, which he defended again in a recent post.

Mark makes his case for stimulus spending on the grounds of progressive knowledge about economics. He believes that, on the basis of what has been tried before, we can make certain judgments about what should occur now. Knowledge has accumulated, and earlier thinking about what will revive our flagging economies has been surpassed. 

I'm not quite prepared to grant this. And it isn't because I think it is wrong – its just that it is unfalsifiable.

What Mark sees as an accumulation of evidence leading to better knowledge about what makes economies work looks to me more like an extremely disparate group of events and circumstances from which it is very difficult to draw generalisable conclusions. Each decision about whether or not to pursue economic stimulus took place in specific times and circumstances which will never be repeated and can never be 'scientifically' recreated, so we can't know what might have happened if different policies has been pursued.

In short, our knowledge about economics is not of the same type (or quality) as what we know about medicine or astronomy (and in some respects economics might actually resemble moral philosophy as a discipline). So we have to apply a discount when we try to use that knowledge in making decisions.

Photo by Flickr user Ork de Rooij, used under a Creative Commons license.