In my text "Economics as a science" I argued that economics (and social sciences in general) is not a science. How stupid of me. Everybody knows, that economics is a very prominent science. Every university teaches that. Questioning this fundamental and obvious knowledge is a sheer lunacy. There are hundreds of wise texts, written by wise people, who wisely prove that economics is a science. What is then, a single text against all these wise publications? Clearly: nothing. Reassured by such stipulation, we can try to look at one of such publications.
The choice is not easy, however. As I mentioned, this otherwise 'pretty obvious truth' is explained and argued in a lot of shorter and longer elaborations. How to choose one for our discussion, then? Well, first of all, it should answer the "economics as a science" question. Secondly, it should be available publicly - so, that anyone could read it. An internet publication is the obvious choice, here. Thirdly, it should be pretty short. We (well - me, at least) do not want to spend a week on reading it. The fourth requirement would be the trustful source - it should be an academic (university grade) publication of some professor working at a decent university. It guarantees, that the text will be well set in the respected universities' world. Containing many citations of many widely respected sources.
Uncle Google is very good at finding such typical examples. Asked about “"economics as a science"”, it returned:
Adam Fforde, "Economics as a science: understanding its procedures and the irrelevance of prediction", real-world economics review, issue no. 81, 30 September 2017, pp. 91-109,
on the first page of results. This one fitted very well. Mr. Adam Fforde is the economics professor at the Victoria University, Australia. He should know pretty well, what is the broadly accepted, mainstream answer to the question of the economic science. Let's waste no more time then, and jump to his explanation.
At the beginning he discusses how important economics is, and how faulty and often useless are the economics' predictions (=pieces of advice). He also writes what kind of explanations and truths the paper offers in the author's opinion. Basically, he writes what he will be writing about. A little redundant, I would say. But that's the academic way of working, as I know. He cites there:
"… that the question of whether or not economics is a science, or makes progress, is indeterminate because of a widespread uncertainty about what science is" (p. 488).
Symptomatic. Out of thousands possible citations from many books, Mr. Fforde had chosen this one as the first one. A very good indication of what to expect. It is a widespread way of manipulation (fake reasoning): proving something good by asserting everything is bad.
Then he starts the "Scientific method # 1- Crombie and Grosseteste". Interesting that he writes: "I take Crombie thus as a useful entry point to discussion rather than an established and accepted statement of the truth of the matter." He goes back "to an Aristotelian view of procedure" and "Aristotle, according to Crombie"; he also mentions Christianity: "Divine illumination [...]in contrast to but not so different from Aristotle's psychological metaphor", etc. Watering down prediction to "a predictive criterion can be seen as essentially procedural, seeking to manage the relationship between theory and what it is meant to be about, rather than about prediction per se."
I admit, it always strikes me. You write a short text on "Economics as a science…". This science (as any other modern science) was born in XVII - XVIII century. Roughly 2000 years after Aristotle and other ancient philosophers and thinkers had died. Why to get back to them, while writing about the modern economics? I find such "retrospections" in many texts of the "university people". What could possibly Aristotle and his colleagues know about the modern economics? For many of them, things we do nowadays would seem like pure magic. Godlike powers.
I assume, it is because the scholastic texts of the medieval universities were always starting with the ancient philosophies: Aristotelianism or Platonism. The reason for doing so has been nonexistent for centuries, now. But the habit survived. Only in the 'social sciences' field, however. I've never found such mentions in the texts of the modern physicists or engineers writing on more or less general issues of the modern sciences.
Anyway, it would be more understandable in a heavy monograph like: "Science: its roots and future". But in a short paper? What could ancient, medieval, and even XV century thinkers know about the problems of the modern sciences? What could they know about the problems of astrophysics, for instance? In rare cases, their work could be somehow useful. But it should be shown, first. "However, this guy had died 400 years before economics was defined; nevertheless, his remarks on … are still very useful, because … ". But we find nothing like that.
The author starts with some thoughts and observations of people who never had a chance to deal with any branch of economics, just as if they would had been writing about it for their entire lives. Just as, if they would had known and understood the problems, that we discovered in the 20th century. Strange. Unless, of course, it is aimed at tiring the reader out. Overwhelming him with tons of wisely sounding words and thoughts. Flood him with the writer's eloquence and erudition. In that case, it is perfectly understandable.
It is all rather a description or summary of others' work.
Then goes the "Scientific method # 2 - Nisbet and metaphor" starting with how "much can be learnt from a historical discussion of accounts of social change". And that "social change is best treated through metaphor". Where is science here? Metaphors, "natural histories", myths - it is all ok. But why to talk in this context about science?! About 'scientific' procedures, methods? "They are histories about the nature of things, for focussing on their nature is the main task for metaphorical accounts."
Is the story of Cinderella a part of science, then? Probably, yes. If only, using the Marxian dialectic we would show, it is one of the "histories of the nature of change". Where the marriage of a prince (the privileged class) and Cinderella (the lowest class) is a clear sign of a social change. A social change, which "nature" is the rejection of the social obligations and duties by the representatives of the two opposite social classes. Such social change would inevitably lead to emerging of the classless society. As a natural consequence, “A (brief) story of Cinderella" should be on the same shelve (in libraries and bookstores) as the Hawking's "A brief history of time…". Cause both are 'scientific' books according to this 'definition'. Do we think it reasonable?
Science as a metaphor. Enough to make a cat laugh.
Mr. Fforde's own definition of science follows:
As a science, a producer of knowledge, to be coherent economics must be governed by, and so explicitly or implicitly contain, rules that give scientists assessable criteria for judging candidates for knowledge, including the procedures that should be followed.
According to this, rules and procedures are what "a producer of knowledge" makes a science. What fulfills such definition? Spiritual advance of yogis, for example. Yoga is full of rules and procedures to achieve the spiritual advance (=knowledge). Yoga is also a worldview - a specific explanation of reasons (for things to happen) and processes. Yogis get a lot of knowledge from their mentors and from their own spiritual experiences. It is really impossible to reject yoga as a science, especially in the light of the following paragraphs.
The criteria has been made so weak, that practically every way of gaining any kind of knowledge through any repeatable process (rules and/or procedures) IS a science! Voodoo magic is also a science! As the author writes: "if we look at canonical texts in economics, we tend to find that matters of method are treated ex cathedra: that is, they are treated as given - perhaps to be stated, perhaps not". This is it. The methods of Voodoo magic "are given". The door of science has been opened so wide, that anything can go through it.
Someone may think, that I exaggerate. Not at all. Mr. Fforde confirms what I've just written in the next 'chapter' titled "Varian". He cites him as "An analytical approach to economics is one that uses rigorous, logical reasoning (Varian, 2010, xix)." and "The conventional first chapter of a microeconomics book is a discussion of the 'scope and methods' of economics", to sum up that: "This is the only place in his text where the phrase "scope and methods" can be found" and "Searching on "facts" shows that this means for him [Varian] the facts of theory" that means: what we devise is 'a fact'. Cause theory is what we devise. "facts of theory" are simply elements (parts) of theory. With such approach, who can forbid to devise any theory and call its elements "facts". Language loses its meaning. And Mr. Fforde adds his two cents in annotation as:
He has little to say, an issue shared by Crombie and Nisbet (and Held et al), about what exactly it means to be logical. […] statements and their acceptability would depend on what one means (in part, who one is) and how in that context meaning is interpreted, so that a procedural requirement that "one be logical" should also state what that means - what logic should be followed and how disputes about being illogical be resolved
Ideas are facts. Logic is undefined. It seems we have to pull down the whole edifice of rational thinking, to prove economics a science.
And Mr. Fforde turns to Blanchard and Fischer to throw additional grenades: "they argue that the existence of "multiple truths" in macroeconomics does not mean that it is not a science". Which is equivalent to: "The existence of "multiple truths" among yoga mentors does not mean that yoga is not a science". Why is it equivalent? Because as the professor explains: "The point here is that the gauge of a model, of an explanation, is for them linked strongly to the ability to use it to give policy advice".
Let's stop here for a while. "the gauge of a model is the ability to give policy advice". Generally speaking, anything can be used to give policy advice. Every fool is eager to give policy advice. Rasputin in Russia had been giving policy advice. Many politicians trusted dreams, mediums, tarot cards, etc. in getting policy advice. I suppose, we could find politicians trusting famous yogis on this matter. Which only confirms that yoga is a science. I guess, we could find some supporting examples for Voodoo, too. Such influence may be indirect. A famous actor is instructed by his yoga mentor. He passes this 'knowledge' to his friend politicians (privately or publicly) and they decide it is profitable for them, and they follow it. And so, we have our "gauge" in action.
What the authors of such "gauges" seem to overlook is the fact, that what is really measured here is not the ability of models or explanations, but rather the ability of their advocates to influence the policy. A naive, silly model having potent advocates may be used for years, even if bringing chaos, poverty and destruction. Don't you believe? And what about communism? There are hundreds of old and pretty fresh examples here (Castro, Chavez). It is discrediting for anyone sane and educated to give such criterion. Such professors are fools, indeed.
The author tries to improve it somehow, using the phrase: "asserted to possess predictive power". I like that one. We all know (including the author), they do not possess predictive power (the irrelevance of prediction is our subject). They are "multiple truths". Usually contradictory in many aspects. Nevertheless, their authors (and followers) "assert" us about their power. Just like followers of a Voodoo priest would assert us about his power. And it sometimes does show up. We have many testimonials from various explorers. Anyway, where does such economics predictive power come from? From people's trust and believe. I explained it in my text on economics as a science.
Part of the story, however, surely is that audiences expect economists to be, in some sense, scientists, seeing economics as rule-governed.
Let's analyze this sentence. It is not the experts, but the broad public - "audiences". They do not think so, or believe it; they only "expect". And they do not "expect it to be", but only: "expect it, in some sense, to be". Could it be put more unconvincingly? Why would the author write something like that, if he would really think that economics is a science? If economics is a science, then economists are scientists. It is simple like that. And what we have here, looks like a Freudian slip. Compare for example: "audiences expect politicians to be, in some sense, truthful". This is the usual way of using such constructs. For statements, we know are generally untrue. The author really disbelieves that economics is a science. Anyway, he struggles to prove otherwise, but at moments, the truth shows up.
Later, Mr. Fforde explains that, according to books and authors mentioned, scientific knowledge (that is science) is an "acceptable model" a.k.a. "satisfactory account". However, both terms are left undefined. The authors do not follow what our professor defined earlier as scientific methodology. It's even worse:
Searching through the text for references to "data" is illuminating. On pp. 83-84 data is presented to show how a utility function can be derived from data describing consumer behaviour. This is no more than a demonstration that a particular functional form, selected ad hoc, "fits" the data presented. The particular functional form used for this exercise is not theoretically justified (as, for example, an inverse square law is justified in Newtonian theories of gravitation).
So, we are presented with conclusion that we deal with "a science of metaphor". I would rather say: a metaphor of science. Plainly speaking: a fake science, as we go ""beyond" something else, what is often called "reality".".
More and more examples are given that economics is in fact a metaphor of science. Because, what we really have here, and what becomes apparent with each paragraph, is that economics is nothing more but social knowledge. Knowledge of social behaviors, expected outcomes of social situations. Generalized as natural histories. Good models are simply a good grasp of an essential nature of human behaviors. Something we used to build for ages: in tales, myths, religions. It is amusing to see how the author, using phrases better suited for discussing tales or legends - like: metaphor or social account; insists on calling it science.
The "Economic science" chapter starts with another citation:
"The truth of economic statements is … the product of economists' success in enlisting the support of other economists, data, whole economies, mathematics, and other agents, rather than adherence to an established and rule-based method" (Breslau and Yonay, 2006, p. 5).
If we ponder it for a while, we will realize that Einstein's theory of relativity was... untrue for quite a long time! As he was unable to enlist the support of other physicists, data and so on. We have here a 'science', where the truth is decided by... democratic voting. The more supporters you get, the more true is your statement! Do you think the Earth is flat? Make it a true scientific statement! Find supporters. Find data - it will be easy. People had believed the Earth is flat for ages. You will find plenty of "natural histories" to support it. Provide some "mathematics" for it. Don't worry! You can use anything - "selected ad hoc, [that] "fits" the data presented". Make sure, you will find some "other agents". And… it's done! It is much easier "than adherence to an established and rule-based method".
Those astrophysicists, human genome researchers, quantum physicists, they are all so stupid, to do the things the hard way. They spend their lives seeking answers, instead of giving, for instance, some "metaphorical accounts" on the black holes, backed by some ad hoc taken equations. Don't they know it would be science, too?
Finally, the professor starts earning his title. Less citations, more his own thoughts. He starts with the question: "are tests for predictive power best seen as tests for the ability of a theory to predict?". Which could be rephrased as for example: "are tests for lifting power best seen as tests for the ability of a crane to lift?". It is a very old way of reasoning known from the time of ancient sophists, at least. Make a fool of your disputant. Show obvious things as unclear, questionable and even dubious. Which the professor confirms immediately: "Whilst it may superficially appear clear, an alleged ability of a theory to predict is easily shown to depend upon a host of tangled factors, so things are not clear at all."
It is a very old intellectual trick used to construct many so called 'paradoxes'. Like the "Achilles will never catch the tortoise" paradox. For everyone, the result of the race between Achilles and a tortoise is obvious. How can anyone prove otherwise? The answer is simple: using manipulation, fake arguments. Arguments, which seem wise, even 'scientific'. And the professor follows this old way of making fools of readers (listeners).
You might think that the theory of gravity predicts clearly the required path of a probe to get the most of Jupiter's gravitation. Or that the theoretical physics predicted clearly enough the behavior of neutrinos, which allowed for building the neutrino detector. You are wrong. "things are not clear at all. [...] Theories from physics, such a Newton's laws of motion, are widely felt to be predictive". You see: they are felt to be predictive. FELT. It's only a feeling. Nothing more. The spacecrafts were built on feelings. Engineers felt it was right to build them that way.
Later, the professor explains that "lines as measured have width". I wonder, where in the universe did he find a line? Any line? Did he measure the width of the horizon line? Our professor seems to think (or at least, he tries to convince us to think), that mathematical entities like points, lines, or numbers should really exist in the universe. That one should be able to find somewhere number 67 and check if it is really bigger than 66, for instance.
By the way, did you know that "forces cannot be directly observed"? Mr. Fforde tries to convince us, that it makes physics dubious. Such argumentation is good for uneducated people, who do not understand what a real science is. Our university professor presents here the obvious, most basic facts, in a way suggesting that something is wrong here. It's like someone writing about the US economy would 'discover': "US dollars are just pieces of painted paper". A child knows that. Mentioning such obvious facts only to indirectly suggest that "in general the US economy is a fake" is below any reasonable discussion. It is manipulation in its pure form.
Or maybe the professor does not know or understand the very notion of the adjective "abstract". Fundamental thing for human development and knowledge. However, he had used this very word at the very beginning of his text. But as a noun. Synonym of "summary". Perhaps for a social science degree at the modern university such selective knowledge is enough? I wouldn't be surprised. As the 'science', so the 'scientists'.
He concludes: "There is no escape from the social context in which beautiful theory like Newton's might - or might not - be used". And I totally agree with Mr. Fforde, here. There are "social contexts" where science or mathematics, or even logic "might not be used". Discussing with clinical idiots is one example. The other could be a discussion with economics professors trying to prove that physics is as dubious as economics. But does the fact, that there are idiots (and professors) analyzing physics in "social contexts" change anything? The science of the physical world is objective. It does not depend on what someone thinks of it, how one uses it, etc.
All those fake arguments were needed by the professor to do the trick: convince the reader that "prediction is most important in that it requires two things, and neither are to do with prediction per se, as it is generally understood (e.g. "getting a rocket to the moon")". It is exactly the "Achilles will never catch the tortoise" way of reasoning. This time, we are being persuaded that we do not know what "prediction" means. That we need a definition which will make predicting dubious or impossible. Just like catching the tortoise.
And he presents a new definition using two steps:
First is the requirement for comparison between theories as a matter of procedure. If, however, this is not part of scientific procedure and a single truth is required, then this choice is logically done outside of scientific procedure.
The fragment above sounds quite reasonable, at first. But if we consider it more closely, we will realize that it describes exactly the difference between economics (and other so called "social sciences") and the real sciences.
The professor seems to forget that the problem of "the requirement for comparison between theories as a matter of procedure" had been solved in science long ago as: conformance to the physical reality. Einstein's theory is considered as true, not because Einstein finally succeeded "to enlist the support of other physicists". But because his theory is conformant to the physical reality in a degree not available for any other. And the choice is made inside scientific procedure! Not outside of it. The experiments, calculations, that resulted in accepting it, had been done inside physics. The same procedure of comparison between theories is used from the very beginning of the modern sciences. Every natural and formal science follows it.
Clearly, we have here a deceptive lumping together quite different species. Clearly - because it is clearly visible at the basic logical level. This statement logically says: "if it is not part of A, then it is outside of A". A pure tautology. But why do we have to lump together disjunctive things? These having the property X, and those not having it? Why? Because we want to call economics a science, and therefore we have to insist that this obvious difference does not matter. Surprisingly, the professor, who at other occasions, cares about what logic (if any) should be used, what is the social context of the physical laws; does not hesitate and he uses the good, old, plain logic, here. When he needs it, the logic is obvious. Clever, isn't it?
The other step in the professor's definition of prediction is obvious, non-controversial and widely used. Anyway, Mr Fforde stresses that "This view of the nature of predictability seems to me to be novel". That's less important. The more important thing is, that it is daft and needless. Just like the "novel" definition of "catching" made up for the sake of 'Achilles won't catch the tortoise paradox'.
Now, we have a "Discussion", which provides a little insight on the real procedure followed by economists:
Levine and Zervos concluded that in the data there were almost no robust relationships, in other words that the articles in large literature asserting that the causes of growth were known, and reporting statistical analyses to support this, were spurious. […] most economists dealt with this anomaly by ignoring it
Others tried the metaphysics of "ontological and epistemological universalism" insisting that, however we are wrong, nevertheless we are right. Nothing new. It repeats through the entire text.
But, luckily, we have reached the final "Conclusions". At last! Little of interest here. The author writes:
Arguments about the value of competition and free markets, supported and informed by economic theory, sit well within what Nisbet has to tell us about the particular and deep-rooted beliefs he reports governing what is required for accounts of reality to be accepted - to be given a "seat at the table". For me, this very much helps explain the power of economics as a science.
It is long. I'll make it shorter: "arguments of economic theory sit well within deep-rooted beliefs [of the common folk] for what is required for any science to be accepted - to be given a "seat at the table"". And I do agree 100%. The compliance with the current beliefs is what "very much helps explain the power of economics as a science". It gives, the otherwise more or less common, beliefs or knowledge, the legitimacy of a science. Politicians, economists, ideologists, and many others do need economics "sitting at the table" as a science. And they will ignore everything that denies it. It is simply a potent tool of manipulation.
Mr. Fforde again, perhaps unwillingly, agrees with my point of view on economics as a science:
For those seeking to gauge policy analyses, such as politicians and their political advisers, my argument suggests that they wisely be keenly aware that it is they, not the procedures shared by the array of knowledge producers confronting them, that decide the "truth of the matter" - that is, which amongst competing theories will be used.
In short: it is politicians, not economic science, that decide the "truth of the matter". It is this kind of 'science' where laics decide what is true and correct.
I've checked briefly some other "economics as a science" texts. They all repeat the same "Achilles will never catch the tortoise" way of argumentation: that we do not know what science is, that things are not what we think they are, etc. They would be funny, if not their quantity. In their number, they are simply boring.
Mr. Fforde had placed many citations and references to such works of other 'respected' authors. We saw it. Nothing surprising. Nothing better. Frankly speaking, Mr. Fforde shows some intellectual honesty, at times. I could not expect so many arguments confirming my thesis. Among the famous economics authors he mentions, who present things "ex cathedra", choose mathematical formulas "ad hoc", and deal with anomalies by ignoring them; Mr. Fforde deserves some warm feelings for what he does.
Nevertheless, he is, what he is. A product of the modern (social science) university. A place of creating and enforcing ideologies, fake disputes, terrorizing and expelling persons, who think differently. Farming "herds of 'independent' minds". They are no longer universities. More and more they become - daftersities. You think something is really daft? That it cannot get worse? Be assured, that people at daftersities shall make it even dafter. And limes inferior seems nonexistent for them.
We have two worlds, here. One is the world of the real science - where physicists, biologists, and others just do the science. Having great effects. The other world is the world of the social 'scientists'. Effectless. But they try hard to improve their standing by undermining the real science. Their problem is, that even the proving that economics is a science, is like proving that horses can fly. They have to decapitate logic and rational thinking to prove that. And they do not hesitate.
Social scientists break through successive bottoms falling into absurdity. Unfortunately, our Western world agenda is firmly linked to their 'advancements'. And it is hard to break this linkage for as long as we believe, that what they do is science. Deserving the same trust as physics or engineering.