In a response to a link to one of my economics posts over on the book of faces someone questioned whether economics was a science at all. The question is a valid one because when you look at folk as diametrically opposed on pretty much every point as Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman, both Nobel Prize winning economists, well, you have to wonder if “there’s any ‘there’ there.”
The thing is, there is a science of economics. What makes something “science” rather than something else is falsifiability (something that, if seen, would indicate that a concept is wrong) and the related concept of making testable predictions.
Consider, for instance, from Thomas Sowell’s memoirs, when he was working for, I think it was the Department of Labor. As I remember it (I have the memoirs on audio book–great for listening while in the car but not so good for looking up particular points to refresh ones memory) there was a question about the cause of increased unemployment in Puerto Rico. Two popular theories were proposed. One involved minimum wage rates. Another involved seasonal storms. Sowell figured that while either theory, if correct, might both lead to the specific problem under investigation (unemployment) there should be something, some result, different between one being the cause vs. the other. After much thought he figured one out (if I’m being vague, again, it’s because it’s been a while since I listened to the audiobook), something related to agricultural production. If theory A were correct then they’d also see this change in the particular agricultural aspect. If theory B were correct, then they’d see a different result.
Of course, there’s always the possibility of “C” something they hadn’t thought of yet, being the “real” cause. But then, that’s true in other sciences as well. After all, for along time there were two competing theories regarding the
That, right there, is science in all its purity. You formulate a hypothesis (as Feynman put it “you guess”), you determine what the results would be if your hypothesis is correct, and then you go look.
The problem was in that last step, the DoL didn’t have access to the relevant data. That would be the USDA. To get the information he would have to send a request up the chain in the DoL, at an appropriate level it would be passed over to USDA and then back down the chain to the particular branch which had the relevant data. So he sent in the request. As of the writing of the memoirs and long after Sowell had left the DoL, according to Sowell, the request still had not completed its journey.
So, yes, there is a science of economics. The problem is that the subject matter is complex enough that people will often simply skip the whole “testable predictions” thing. Instead they’ll look through a vast sea of information, find something, anything that can be presented as supporting their particular view (and quietly sweeping things that refute that view under the rug), and go “Ah, hah!”, something Thomas Sowell called, suitably enough “‘Ah, hah!’ statistics.”
And while the “social sciences” are particularly prone to this phenomenon, the physical sciences are not immune. People are all too often prone to letting their politics dictate their science. Whether it’s the “Union of Concerned Scientists” and their “doomsday clock” which is nothing more than a measure of how much they dislike the current administration and its policies or the “Climate Change” peole who, instead of making testable predictions and abiding by the results simply point at any bad thing happening (and there’s always something bad happening somewhere in the world) and saying “See? Human caused climate change.”
So, while there is a science of economics there are also a whole bunch of people out there attempting to hide that fact and use the cachet of science to justify their own “philosophy” which can be summed up as: “If A is false, I will be sad. Therefore, A is true.”