Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Economics needs a scientific revolution

Compared to physics, it seems fair to say that the quantitative success of the economic sciences is disappointing. Rockets fly to the moon, energy is extracted from minute changes of atomic mass without major havoc, global positioning satellites help millions of people to find their way home. What is the flagship achievement of economics, apart from its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises, including the current worldwide credit crunch?

Why is this so? Of course, modelling the madness of people is more difficult than the motion of planets, as Newton once said. But the goal here is to describe the behaviour of large populations, for which statistical regularities should emerge, just as the law of ideal gases emerge from the incredibly chaotic motion of individual molecules. To me, the crucial difference between physical sciences and economics or financial mathematics is rather the relative role of concepts, equations and empirical data. Classical economics is built on very strong assumptions that quickly become axioms: the rationality of economic agents, the invisible hand and market efficiency, etc. An economist once told me, to my bewilderment: These concepts are so strong that they supersede any empirical observation. As Robert Nelson argued in his book, Economics as Religion, the marketplace has been deified.

Physicists, on the other hand, have learned to be suspicious of axioms and models. If empirical observation is incompatible with the model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient. So many accepted ideas have been proven wrong In the history of physics that physicists have grown to be critical and queasy about their own models. Unfortunately, such healthy scientific revolutions have not yet taken hold in economics, where ideas have solidified into dogmas that obsess academics as well as decision-makers high up in government agencies and financial institutions. These dogmas are perpetuated through the education system: teaching reality, with all its subtleties and exceptions, is much harder than teaching a beautiful, consistent formula. Students do not question theorems they can use without thinking. Though scores of physicists have been recruited by financial institutions over the last few decades, these physicists seem to have forgotten the methodology of natural sciences as they absorbed and regurgitated the existing economic lore, with no time or liberty to question its foundations.

The supposed omniscience and perfect efficacy of a free market stems from economic work in the 50s and 60s, which with hindsight looks more like propaganda against communism than a plausible scientific description.

Full Monty at the Post Autistic Economics Review