Quiggin doth protest too much

He doesn’t like the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Overall, economics is still at a pre-scientific stage, at least, as the idea of science is exemplified by Physics and Chemistry. Economists have made some important discoveries, and a knowledge of economics helps us to understand crucial issues, but there is no agreement on fundamental issues. The result is that prizes are awarded both for “discoveries” and for the refutation of those discoveries.

I liked this comment over at Crooked Timber:

JW Mason 10.15.13 at 1:31 am

I don’t disagree with this post. But I’m curious why the alternative to “science” is “pre-science”. Aren’t there valid forms of knowledge that are neither science nor on their way to becoming science?

Actually, I think Mason is too polite.  He disagrees very nicely with Quiggin’s premise.  As Mason supposes, economics has lots of knowledge… it is a rich and vibrant social science enterprise.  The world would be much poorer place without it (intellectually; as China shows, you don’t need much advanced academic economics to have rapidly rising standard of living).

That’s true for social sciences generally.  Can you imagine talking about social choice without understanding Arrow?  And many others.  I can still remember my shock when I understood the simple example of how setting the agenda order changes the outcome of social choice.   Imagine not understanding marginal thinking in economics (you’d be a very intelligent person running around in circles with C-M-C and other Marx stuff, and Bill don’t say it was better)?  Or not being able to articulate in a clear way the logic of comparative advantage?  Or not being able to think about causality in statistics?  More recently, imagine not understanding self-selection?  Adverse selection?  Moral hazard?  Isn’t the Revelation Principle like beautiful physics?  Or not knowing the Nash equilibrium concept?  It’s amazing to think that 100 years ago most people, even paid intellectuals, had no ability to think coherently about these things, and 100 years later Malcolm Gladwell can make millions selling them in plain prose at airport bookstores.  Finally, of course, to argue that Keynes is worthless because it isn’t really science… well like JW Mason said, it’s another valid form of knowledge.  Notice how Keynes became an it there.  I believe there is a discipline that studies that.  Lots of knowledge, little science.  Just fine.

Maybe they can rename the prize the Nobel Social Knowledge Prize.

HT: Bill Sundstrom. via Why do we *still* have a Nobel Prize in economics? — Crooked Timber.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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