The emperor’s economical new clothes

 Economics may flaunt statistics, mathematical methodology and make claims to predict the future scientifically, but it conspicuously lacks the kind of reality check on its theories present in real science. Writing in International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Jeffrey Turk, of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Brussels, demonstrates this truism but concedes that the nature of the social world precludes the use of a true scientific approach to economics.

Economics has become increasingly sophisticated in its use of mathematics and computer models of the behaviour of stock markets, commodities and futures. Unfortunately, this sophistication hides a simple truth that does not afflict the world of particle physics, for instance. Put simply, economic theories simply do not live up to their grandeur because they are measuring complex, emergent behaviour at the human, societal and international level, rather than making repeatable observations about reality to support a hypotheses and testing again to build a coherent theory based on evidence. Compare the testable reality of the theory of gravity with the dubious notion of tracking a stock market. The only thing they have in common is that will both inevitably lead to a fall.

Of course, economics has its value, but it offers no valid predictions about the world other than to reveal time and again that where money is concerned it is wholly unpredictable.

Turk, whose background is in particle physics, specialises in realist research methods in the social sciences with a focus on European policy studies. Given the current state of the European economy, perhaps insight from a former CERN scientist is precisely what is now needed to untangle the Euro zone members from the financial crisis. He points out that acquiring Nobel status and borrowing scientific metaphor and the formalism of physical theory do not venerate economics as a real science. Analysis financial data and determining statistical significance is not equivalent to the ceaseless reality checks present in science.

Fundamentally, economics is an artificial construct to make us feel better about greed and to placate the poverty-stricken when the next crash comes. In the sense of realist measurement, economics, and money, do not exist, they are real only in the social sense. Important yet, but measuring things that are not real cannot claim to be science. Next week, The Emperor’s New String Theory

Research Blogging IconJeffrey David Turk (2011). Science is measurement: muons, money and the Nobel Prize Int. J. Pluralism and Economics Education, 2 (3), 291-305

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2 thoughts on “The emperor’s economical new clothes”

  1. I don’t claim to know much about economics. I’m just a nutrition nerd. But it seems like the steep decline in the public health over the past three decades is at least partly responsible for a lot of the economic uncertainty of the present.

    The world health organization acknowledges that the burden of noncommunicable diseases is increasing in every country in the world and hampers economic development accordingly. This means financial resources, that could have been used for infrastructure improvement, economic development, research, and education, are required to meet heightened demand for medical services(1).

    The trend could be reversed, but that’s not likely to happen until the world’s leading health experts realize that 1) it was a mistake to ever suppose that saturated fats clog arteries(2) and 2) excessive omega-6 consumption is a major factor in the current global epidemic of obesity, diabetes, noncommunicable disease, and depression(3).


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