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? (more…)


History, Sociology, Science(!), and a Personal Note

First, a quote from an article by historian Isaiah Berlin from this 1960 essay, “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific History”

For one of the central differences between such genuine attempts to apply scientific method to human affairs as are embodied in, say, economics or social psychology or sociology, and the analogous attempt to apply it in history proper, is this: that scientific procedure is directed in the first place to the construction of an ideal model, with which the portion of the real world to be analysed must, as it were, be matched, so that it can be described and analysed in the terms of its deviation from the model. But to construct a useful model will only be feasible when it is possible to abstract a sufficient number of sufficiently stable similarities from the things, facts, events, of which the real world – the flow of experience – is composed. Only where such recurrences in the real world are frequent enough, and similar enough to be classifiable as so many deviations from the self-same model, will the idealized model that is compounded of them – the electron, the gene, the economic man – do its job of making it possible for us to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.

I really like this conception of science, models and the connection to the social sciences. I would add a slight corollary – very few of the things social scientists (even economists) care about exhibit the kind of stability and repetition you need to make a lot of generalizations very useful as anything more than heuristics, and the models that seem the most general and applicable (“the economic man”) may do as much harm as good if taken to be too literal or true (compare with the previous post on economics). My tendency is to view knowledge as hard. As a good friend of mine likes to quote, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”*

Second, on a personal note, I have decided to take my prelim exam (in Economic Sociology and Organizations) this fall, which means my summer will be devoted to reading classic and contemporary works in that field and little else. As such, this blog may swing away from observations about politics and towards interesting tidbits I find in that literature, or perhaps even summaries of the works I find most interesting. I apologize in advance to anyone hoping for more politics and less sociology and economics. It also means my posting may get a bit more erratic. I hope I can make the material as interesting as possible, while still being generally useful for myself (as is the purpose of a commonplace book). Thanks for reading.

* Attributed to Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist.

What Economists Knew About Knowing

In his excellent book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, economics journalist David Warsh lays out the fascinating back story (in a broad sense) of a single important economics paper – “Romer 1990”. In this paper, titled “Endogenous Technological Change”, Paul Romer lays out a new model for understanding the growth of a nation which finally brought knowledge – in the form of improvements in technology – into the model. Previous growth models (such as the famous Solow model) had left such improvements to the ‘residual’, and thus failed to explain a great deal of the changes that occurred in 20th century economies.

(Warning – this post is rather lengthy!) (more…)

The Social Construction of Booze and Pot

What’s socially constructed about alcohol and inebriation, or pot and getting high? Well, almost everything:

New York Times – When People Drink Themselves Silly, and Why:

In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

In a repeat of the session performed for a coming documentary, one participant insisted that she could not have been drinking because alcohol always made her flush.

“We told her that, yes, in fact she was drinking it,” Dr. Marlatt said. “She immediately flushed.”


Hello (academic blogging) world!

About myself: My name is Dan Hirschman and I am a (budding) Sociologist. My interests range over a variety of topics but lately I have been very interested in Economics (both as a way of understanding the world and as a social phenomenon). I’m also interested in the Free Software/Open Source movement, Fair Trade coffee, and other examples of ‘ethical consumption’. My earlier work (of which there is very little) mostly focused on immigration from Latin America to the United States. I am also interested in the rhetoric of research, and in particular quantitative methodology. Lastly, I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering the 2008 presidential race and learning how to cook.

About this blog: The idea of a commonplace book came to me from the delightful A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. This blog will hopefully serve as a sort of commonplace book for my thoughts on the above subjects. In particular, I hope to use it to motivate myself to read a bit more carefully, and post little book and article reviews as reminders to myself at least.