Is Economics a Science? From Nobel Prizes to Public Opinion

So, one of the questions that I like to think about on a lazy Sunday afternoon is, what makes something a science? By this I do not mean the philosophical question of what constitutes valid methods for uncovering truth, etc. Rather, I want to know why some disciplines/fields/courses of study are seen as scientific or science-like and others are not, and by whom. For example, do the practitioners think they are doing science? What does that mean to them? How about politicians? The public at large?

For example, I would argue that there is something of a debate within Sociology about the status of the discipline. George Steinmetz lays out a large piece of this debate in his article, “Odious Comparisons: Incommensurability, the Case Study, and “Small N’s” in Sociology.” Steinmetz takes up the side of critical realism against what he calls “methodological positivism”, which is a standpoint with a particular ontology, epistemology and methodology all inspired by a particular vision of science. Steinmetz also examines some postmodern critiques and contrasts them with both critical realism and methodological positivism. The details aren’t essential here, all I’m trying to show is that within Sociology there are related debates about both the meaning of ‘being a science’ and whether or not Sociology is or ought to try to be a science.

But what about economics? I don’t pretend to have anything close to an answer, and really I am just now trying to figure out how to even approach the question. One place I want to look is the creation of the Nobel Prize in Economics. In 1896, Alfred Nobel established 5 Nobel Prizes in his will, to be given out mostly by the Swedish academy, for great achievements in Literature, Peace, Medicine/Physiology, Physics and Chemistry. These prizes were first given out in 1901, and in some sense (I believe) are important markers of the rise of science in the 20th century. Every year we get a nice ritual, learning about what important discovery from the recent past we are to honor. Scientists are profiled, and forever receive the adjective “Nobel Prize-winning” before their name whenever they speak, be it on their research area, or any other matter they care to expound upon.

But what about the Nobel Prize in Economics? In 1968, 67 years after the awarding of the first prizes, the Bank of Sweden decided to create the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The bank* approached the Swedish academy, who approved of the idea, put up the money for the prize, and since 1969 it has been awarded alongside the traditional 5. And no one batted an eyelash, as far as I can tell. The newspapers** reported on the whole thing without a hint of cynicism. Everyone was sad that Keynes was too dead to receive one (only living scholars are eligible), and excited about who would receive the first awards (a pair of Europeans who pioneered econometrics got the first, then Paul Samuelson for general equilibrium theory, and then Kuznets for work on economic growth). Much of the discussion was about how much of a science economics is – how much math it used, etc. So, at least to some extent, economics had made it by 1969.

Fast forward a few decades. The 1990s and 2000s have seen a lot of conflict over economics as a discipline – from Stiglitz’ “Globalization and its Discontents” to the backlash across Latin America against the Neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus that failed to lead Latin America on a path to wealth and prosperity. So what do people think about economics now?

The General Social Survey asks thousands of Americans all sorts of fun questions every couple years. In 2006, they asked about 2300 people the following***:
“How scientific are each of the following fields?”
And then the prompt (for example),
“Physics…Is…physics very scientific, pretty scientific, not too scientific, or not scientific at all?”
Physics got 90% saying very or pretty Scientific, 4% saying not too or not at all.
Here’s the rest:
Biology – 95% very or pretty, 3% not too or not at all.
Medicine – 97% very or pretty, 1% not too or not at all.
Engineering – 78% very or pretty, 18% not too or not at all.
Economics – 51% v or p, 45% not too or not at all.
Sociology – 49% v or p, 38% not too or not at all (and a very high 8% volunteering they’ve never heard of it…).
Accounting**** – 34% v or p, 63% not too or not at all.
History – 31% v or p, 66% not too or not at all.

I don’t really have any conclusions to draw from this, although it is interesting that Sociology and Economics are not markedly different on this measure (although, not reported above, Econ has higher rates for both “very scientific” and “not at all scientific” than Sociology, and only 1% not knowing what it was, suggesting stronger opinions overall). And yet, I wonder what this really captures. If we had some sort of magic measure of the relative importance of economists and sociologists in policy making, for example, I’d imagine we’d see a huge difference in impact. (By the way, if anyone has such a measure, let me know!) And I wonder how the public would react to a Nobel Prize in Sociology. Then again, we might see a different reaction now to a Nobel Prize in Economics were it not already 40 years old, and I can’t find comparable data to that above for the 1960s (admittedly, I’ve only spent a few minutes so far looking).

Anyway, to sum up. Right now, it does not appear that Economics and Sociology, for example, have a ‘science’ gap in public opinion. But that does not seem to reflect their relative importance in policy making. I’m not yet sure what, if any, meaning it does have. Hopefully it entertained at least, or perhaps provoked a bit of thought. Do you think economics is a science? What does that mean, either way?

A last little tidbit. In 1999, the National Council on Economics Education conducted a poll on economics and economic understanding*****. They asked:
“Do you think basic economics should be included in high school education, or not?” 96% said yes. I wonder what that actually means.

* Who exactly was responsible for this idea remains opaque to me, but I’ll get back to you when and if I figure out the exact sequence of events and actors.
** Meaning here the Washington Post and New York Times, by my impressions from my first read through the archives.
*** All polling data here is from the Roper Center’s iPOLL Databank.
**** No clue why they asked about accounting.
***** Whew. I need a better footnotes system. Anyway, you should check out the NCEE’s test of economics literacy. Some of the questions are a bit… silly or controversial, depending on how you read them. For example, “The resources used in the production of goods and services are limited, so society must:
A. Make choices about how to use resources.
B. Try to obtain additional resources.
C. Reduce their use of resources.
D. Don’t Know.”
B and C both sound pretty good.. but, shockingly enough, A is the ‘correct’ answer.



  1. Natalie

     /  April 4, 2008

    I’m troubled by your conflation of “considered a science” and “important.” But I am in definitely not a science, no matter what 31% of you apparently think.

    Also, given that there’s a Nobel Prize in Literature (definitely definitely not a science) I’m not sure what the relevance of that line of inquiry is.

  2. I don’t mean to conflate considered a science and important. What interests me about economics as a science as the implication for the product of economics – i.e. that economists are producing scientific knowledge. Where exactly do you see me conflating the two? I do think economics is more important than it would be were it considered less scientific.

    As to the Nobel Prize – you are right that I need to make a much stronger argument for why I think the Prize is an important marker of Economics’ scientificity. The answer has several parts. First, the prize is the “Central Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” (Depending on the translation), often shortened to the “Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences” and shortened once more to “Nobel Prize in Economics”. So, the founders of the prize clearly wanted to emphasize the scientificity of economics. Second, the prize is awarded by the same body that gives out the physics and chemistry prizes (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences). Third, from my so far limited reading of the contemporary newspaper accounts, the prize was heralded as recognizing how science-y economics had become, unlike its bastard brothers in sociology, anthropology, etc. By adopting the mathematical formalism of the natural sciences, and making sweeping claims that were purportedly transhistorical, economics looked more like a natural science, and thought of itself more like one than the other social sciences. The Nobel Prize was taken, at least in some accounts, as recognition of the success of this move.

    So, shorter answer, while there are Nobel Prizes not in the sciences, the Nobel Prize in Economics was seen as, and intended to be, a Nobel Prize in Science!.

  3. shaji.k.P

     /  December 24, 2009

    I cannot agree with this arguments as the very route of economics begins from the behaviour of man(how he thinks and act not according to what theory in economics says).Since the thinking and perception of the people are different we cannot say it as a a science.Even there are many factors which cannot be measured are also affecting the happening of economic events for which scientific explanation is not possible.


     /  July 22, 2010

    i am confused about that economics is a science or art. science is something different from economics because it depend upon some testable law and scientific methods but economics does not prove it.

  5. Bam

     /  January 21, 2011

    I question your qualifications to even write this article because of what you wrote about the test of economic literacy. The example of a question you used to demonstrate how silly or controversial they can be was:
    “The resources used in the production of goods and services are limited, so society must:
    A. Make choices about how to use resources.
    B. Try to obtain additional resources.
    C. Reduce their use of resources.
    D. Don’t Know.”

    I don’t know if you’ve ever studied economics, but even from a course in principles you learn that this question gets at the underlying focus of economics. How does a person or society allocate its scarce resources? B and C are hardly acceptable answers, which is why they are not correct. Learn a little bit about economics before you try to approach the question of whether or not it’s a science.


    • Anonymous

       /  April 14, 2012

      Bam, I get the impression that you are student, so I’ll try to forgive your condenscending tone (irony may have been applied).
      The author’s issue is not with the theory nor teaching, but the framing of that particular question. It asks what society should do when there are limited resources, and surely society needs to focus on B and C as well. A particular individual in a particular situation is more worried about A, than B and C of course and had it been framed as such, the answer would be more straightforward.

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