Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Great comments on science

From the discussion of Hayek's contributions to macroeconomics (which before two days ago I thought everyone agreed were few after the 1930s), Edwin Herdman writes:

"From the description of Hayek you've [another commenter] given, it seems as if he was tempted to claim the task of macroeconomics impossible and throw up his hands. "I've done my work, let me rest on my laurels!" ...To say that a theory has no use because it might conceivably be improved is to miss the point of having a theory in the first place, and this seems only increased in the case of one of the "soft sciences" like macroeconomics."

My one objection - as regular readers know - is that I hate the term "soft science". But it's true that in a complex science the understanding of theory as a useful attempt at explaining the world rather than a "mirror of nature" is even more important.

You can read more of Edwin's comments here.

We really shouldn't praise Hayek for the scientism stuff, although I'm willing to give him credit for lots of things - not that one. Same with Mises and the rejection of economics as empirical. These are really corrosive approaches to science that rely on a comparison with a misconceived benchmark. It's the old Russ Roberts fallacy: claim that economists shouldn't try to emmulate physicists and then turn around and dismiss the scientific status of economics because it's not like physics (or how Russ Roberts conceives of physics, I should say)!


  1. "We really shouldn't praise Hayek for the scientism stuff..."

    Tony Lawson at Cambridge (who is *not* an Austrian, btw) offers the following three-line vindication of that view:

    1) Humans beings learn;
    2) We can't possibly predict what it is they will learn, or we would have already learned it; therefore
    3) The social sciences are fundamentally different than physics and chemistry, in which the subjects of the science do not learn.

    Knock-down argument.

  2. Gene,

    This is where non-reductive materialism really gets interesting. Even if the universe is ultimately just physical, there are still unpredictable sciences and unknowable concepts.

  3. Gene I don't see how Lawson vindicates "that view". Perhaps you need to be more specific about what "that view" is.

    I certainly think social sciences are fundamentally different from physics and chemistry for this reason and for other reasons as well.

    I think that point is quite obvious, but it doesn't justify or vindicate dismissing (say) mainstream macro as scientism, which is the view of Hayek's that's been tossed around lately.

  4. I felt a twinge of conscience in writing "soft science." I apologize for the term which really does no credit to the difficulty of a conceptual science like economics.

    You know what else is odd, though? The phrase "rest on your laurels." As it comes from the ancient Roman tradition of placing a crown of laurels on the head of a victorious campaign general, but the phrase implies sitting on the laurels. This could be the result of translation and re-translation over the ages, I suppose.


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