Social scientists can have really weird hang-ups about this. I don't know why. Science is a method for understanding the world around you, it's not some secret club that you're not allowed into because you have some inferiority complex around physicists. Get over it. We're just highly evolved apes. Do you think other people who study other apes with the scientific method are scientists? OK - then you're a scientist.
Yes, you do science that has immediate implications for human welfare and lots of normative questions lurking around the corner. So do lots of other scientists.
Anyway - a very strange hang-up.
In discussing the Manzi quote yesterday about whether the number of stars in the galaxy was odd or even, I was reminded of this news piece from 2010.
A Yale astronmer believes that the traditional method for counting (counting, nothing fancier than that - just counting) stars is providing biased estimates (umm... sound familiar to you econometricians?), and he wants to triple the number of stars out there. The idea, while not entirely accepted, is being taken very seriously. The guy is making a good point apparently - not a crackpot or anything like that. Whether it's a correct point needs to be sorted out, but it's apparently a good point.
Other astronomers are a little worked up over it, and the guy making the claim even admits "it's a big pain". Why? Because they have to rethink a few things and recheck things, etc.
Notice what you don't see them saying. You don't see them saying "astronomers have a huge range for the potential number of stars out there - this is clearly not science" or "this guy is a hack he's clearly not a scientist".
The fiscal multiplier is a very tricky thing to pin down, both because we don't observe a lot of data and the data series that we do observe are simultaneously determined. Tricky stuff. But multiplier estimates still seem to fall in a fairly narrow range. Of the estimates people generally trust, the largest estimate is no more than triple the smallest estimate.
And that's pretty good, particularly since multipliers might be expected to vary with institutional settings anyway.
Astronomers don't go into soul searching over this sort of thing - why do economists? Why do we have people out there making such a big deal over uncertainty and error?
If you can't deal with uncertainty and error, you shouldn't be doing science.
I think there are two major reasons social scientists do this - one of which I've stated before:
First, people get weird because they think humans are special. Humans are special, of course - there's a lot that's unique about us. But we're not special in a way that makes us unamenable to scientific study.
Second, I think a lot of social scientists got interested in social science because they were first interested in political or social philosophy, and social science seemed more practical than philosophy. But they've still got a philosopher's mindset. I think you see this hang-up about science less among psychologists precisely because fewer of them come at the field from an interest in more philosophical issues.
Philosophy's fine. That was the entry point for natural scientists too at one time, and that's how social science started. But let's not let it get in the way of doing good science.
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