Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Great Quotes

1. "Keynes was a brilliant economist. He came up with an ingenious theory within the context of an economic crisis. Even if I think in the end that the theory was not right what does that prove? Most theories are not right." - Robert Barro, 1993 (HT - Zac Gochenour)
I like this because it shows a very deep appreciation for the role of theory in science. Science isn't about exegesis of past scientists. And science isn't about being "right" in a deep, universal sense. It's about useful approximation and continual refinement. Keynes has been refined, but I'd probably say his tradition is still more useful than Barro would say it is. Still, the general perspective of Barro here holds up well.

2. "Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become. He does so precisely because he does not know what man he will want to become in time." - James Buchanan, 1978 (HT - Don Boudreaux)

3. "Funeral by funeral, theory advances" - Paul Samuelson
Upon reflection, I think this one by Samuelson may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition.

4. "Economics is a technical and difficult subject. It is even becoming a science." - John Maynard Keynes, 1930


  1. Economists seem to use the term theory in a way that is quite different from the way scientists do.

  2. Explain.

    Sometimes it's short-hand synonymous for "model", but that shorthand is used in a lot of places ("I've got a theory for how X works"). I don't see any great difference.

  3. Daniel,

    Theory means different things to different disciplines (one can think of some obvious examples of this). Well, economists seem to mostly be talking about something other than empirical data when they are talking about theory; they seem to be talking about, well, viewpoints, opinions, thoughts, ideas, etc. when they use the term theory; scientists aren't talking about that so much as they are they talking about an explanation of observations (even if their explanations are crappy ones much of the time).

  4. Oh, no - I definitely think economists think of theories as what you ascribe to other scientists.

    If you think of a "theoretical economist" vs. an "empirical economist" it's the same sort of distinction as between a theoretical and empirical physicist. A theory is a cohesive explanation of a phenomenon.

    There can be a problem with conflating models with theories, I think. Presumably multiple somewhat different models can be communicating the same scientific theory. But this conflation is minor in its consequences, I think.

    I don't see why anyone would present an opinion they have as a "theory". Again, speaking casually I might say something like "I have a theory for why X happened", but everyone talks like that in a more casual way.

    I'm not sure where you're getting this, but I think you're misdiagnosing the problem - I've always found them to be using it in the same way.

  5. Daniel,

    No, a "scientific theory" is a cohesive explanation of empirical findings; one could have a cohesive explanation of a phenomenon without the latter being empirical in nature.

    "I don't see why anyone would present an opinion they have as a 'theory.'"

    Because that is how the term is used in some fields.


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