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The “Is Economics a Science” Debate, from a Darwinian Perspective

I’ve been a reader of Cafe Hayek for many years and, in spite of having moved to the left in recent years, am fond of many of their ideas. However, this article by Russ Roberts is profoundly disturbing:

Is economics a science because it is like Darwinian biology? Darwinian biology is very different from the physical sciences. Like economics it is a very useful way to organize your thinking about complex phenomena. But it is not a predictive or very precise science or whatever you want to call it. Before seeing any direct fossil evidence, no biologist can tell you how long the giraffe’s neck was ten million years ago. They cannot make accurate backcasts of any precision such as the year that the forerunner of the giraffe began to lengthen its neck through natural selection. It cannot model why the giraffe’s neck isn’t longer. Darwinism, like much of economics, exploits tautological reasoning. If the fossil record is incomplete or shows no change or vast periods or the pace of change is inconsistent with the fossil record, the theory is not discarded but modified with the concept of punctuated equilibrium. Is punctuated equilibrium true? There is no real way of knowing. It is our best hypothesis given very limited data. Is it a science? Sure. But it is a science that is unlike physics. That’s OK. It is still a very useful way of organizing one’s thinking about evolution. And the “imperfection” of biology is fine unless you really want to know when the elephant got his trunk. Then you are in unscientific territory. It doesn’t matter whether our understanding of natural selection is imperfect or that we simply don’t have enough fossil data. Biologists understand the limits of their field. (Emphasis added)

This strikes me as a complete misunderstanding of science and, specifically, biology. To begin with, if biologists can’t predict a giraffe’s neck length, it is due to the fact that biology deals with incomplete information, as do all of the sciences. If they can’t predict a giraffe’s neck length, what they can do, if the evidence is available (meaning fossils), is predict when the change occurred. They can then lead teams to the appropriate geological layer and geologists can point them to areas where such layers are exposed. The teams can then begin to look for fossils to support the prediction. The fossils might not exist; the conditions for fossilization occur only rarely. Just because the fossil might not exist doesn’t in any way make the prediction wrong, it merely means it is unsupported at this time.

Likewise, evolution does not rely on tautological reasoning. Roberts’s reasoning on this is particularly bad. As an example he uses the fact that the theory of evolution is not discarded when biologists find something they don’t expect. This isn’t a weakness, this is science. As I said earlier, scientists are always dealing with incomplete information and this is particularly difficult in biology. Roberts also says that biology is a science unlike physics. Not at all. It is a science that uses the scientific method and studies the natural world. I can assure you that physicists have to revise their models in much the same way that biologists do. If the Large Hadron Collider fails to discover the Higgs Boson, does that mean that the universe will fly apart? No. Does it mean that the experiment wasn’t well designed enough to provide the information they needed? Maybe. It might also mean that it doesn’t exist. Should physicists abandon well established theories because of this? They might have to, or they might simply need to revise them. Why? Because, as with all scientists, they are dealing with incomplete information.

I should also add that, as with other scientific theories, evolution is indeed falsifiable. The reason this is so unlikely to happen is that it is supported by 150 years of research and evidence. Indeed, that could have happened with the discovery of DNA and the subsequent advances in genetics, but evolution was supported instead (see Ken Miller’s part in Judgment Day – Intelligent Design On Trial).

This whole discussion originated a couple of days ago on Twitter, on the issue of whether economics is a science. For my money the best take on it was by Ryan Avent with Matt Yglesias’s comments appended.

Via Joe Carter’s Google Reader feed

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About Robert Prather
Robert Prather formerly blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished and, unlike his co-blogger Dodd, can not kill a mime using only his thumb. Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Darwinism, like much of economics, exploits tautological reasoning. If the fossil record is incomplete or shows no change or vast periods or the pace of change is inconsistent with the fossil record, the theory is not discarded but modified with the concept of punctuated equilibrium. Is punctuated equilibrium true?

    This sort of reasoning is akin to assuming that If the lights don’t come on when I turn the switch, we must discard atomic theory. Russ Roberts doesn’t seem to grasp that leaping to an extreme conclusion is exactly the wrong thing to do.

    Rather, science pursues the most conservative explanation, which (rather than a century and a half of research being utterly wrong) would presume that data regarding a phenomenon is incomplete.

    The most disturbing aspect is not that Roberts’ thinking is flawed, but that people will read his work and come away from it severely misinformed.

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  2. Agreed in total, Mr. Wolf.

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  3. RW Rogers says:

    Economist Tyler Cowen weighed in on this question earlier today.

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  4. george says:

    I’ve no idea if they’re correct about economics, but their understanding of evolution is extremely weak – I have to wonder if they even took Biology 101 while at university. Darwinism only means the exact theory that Darwin came up with over a century ago, which is as outdated as most science from that period is – which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a work of genius … the theory of evolution has come a long way since then, including incorporating genetics (the mechanism of evolution) which is turning out to have considerable predictive properties.

    I’m not sure if they’re just building up a straw man for evolutionary theory, or if they simply don’t understand it, but its a bit strange to not at least get the basics correct.

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  5. ponce says:

    “Sure. But it is a science that is unlike physics.”

    Haha, give me economics over physics any day.

    At least economics hasn’t wasted 50 years (and billions of dollars) looking for a nonexistent particle. Not to mention it hasn’t wasted any time on infantile twaddle like String Theory.

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  6. Tlaloc says:

    At least economics hasn’t wasted 50 years (and billions of dollars) looking for a nonexistent particle. Not to mention it hasn’t wasted any time on infantile twaddle like String Theory.

    Wow. You really want to compare physic’s success rate to that of economics? Really?

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  7. ponce says:

    Sure, Tlaloc,

    Considering we’re living in the dark ages of physics.

    I don’t even consider physics a science any more.

    Economics, OTOH, has plenty of useful everyday application for humans.

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  8. john personna says:

    I tend to use the economic toolbox, and to argue with anyone who takes that same toolbox too far. I think it’s because while I recognize that humans have an “economic” aspect to their nature(*), it is only one aspect to human nature. Is it true that economists (professional or amateur) go off the rails when they start thinking the world is a little too purely economic?

    For those reasons, I’d really rather see economics as a descriptive social science, and for it to give up all that physics envy.

    * – That “proto-economics” have been observed in primates reinforces my confidence

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  9. george says:

    At least economics hasn’t wasted 50 years (and billions of dollars) looking for a nonexistent particle. Not to mention it hasn’t wasted any time on infantile twaddle like String Theory.

    And what’s with all that particle-wave duality crap? Its a particle, or its a wave. Make up your mind. And don’t get me started on the lack of absolute simultaneous events in relativity – things happen when they happen. Period.

    (And yes, I’m being ironic, and I suspect ponce is too).

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  10. Murray says:

    For those interested, Judgment Day – Intelligent Design On Trial with Ken Miller’s testimony can be watched online here:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-404729062613200911#

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  11. Mr. Prosser says:

    I’m gratified to see this post and the discussion. I think the important thing to remember is real science, whether it is physics, biology, or the study of human behavior, including economics, is demanding. It requires discipline, education and ability. Unfortunately those who do not have these requirements often use science in pursuit of their own ends. What must be constantly emphasized is research and modified theories and hypotheses and not a proclamation of final truth. The statement about politics and science in one of the referenced posts sums it up very nicely.

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  12. anjin-san says:

    > Considering we’re living in the dark ages of physics.

    I don’t even consider physics a science any more.

    Really?

    http://www.dailytech.com/China+Teleports+Photons+10+Miles+Surpasses+USEuropean+Record/article18551.htm

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  13. Tlaloc says:

    (And yes, I’m being ironic, and I suspect ponce is too).

    I hope so, although as they say nobody ever went broke betting on human stupidity.

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  14. Raymond says:

    That’s all junk science. What until you hear about the Super Technology.

    http://www.deathbytechnology.us

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  15. Justin says:

    Darwinism only means the exact theory that Darwin came up with over a century ago, which is as outdated as most science from that period is – which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a work of genius … the theory of evolution has come a long way since then, including incorporating genetics (the mechanism of evolution) which is turning out to have considerable predictive properties.

    But at it’s base, the theory of evolution is still precisely where Darwin left it, genetics or no genetics – stochastic variation and natural selection. It simply has more support in some areas than others.

    However, it’s still a bad theory. The conclusion, that common descent is true, certainly appears to be a reasonable conclusion. Darwinian theory, however, completely fails to explain all observable phenomenon, however. In particular, the fossil record. Darwinian theory demands gradual change over time, which is not what is observed. To this extent, Darwinian theory ceased to be science when it persisted in the face of a rather complete fossil record (during the last 540 million years, at least). It’s now religious dogma. Scientists and creationists alike both confuse the terms “incomplete” and “adequate”. The fossil record is incomplete, sure. But several studies have been done in paleontology which support the notion that the fossil record is adequate for showing the general pattern life took during the past 3.5 billion years.

    One such paper:
    http://cas.bellarmine.edu/tietjen/Evolution/Fossil%20Record/quality_of_the_fossil_record_thr.htm

    It’s precisely why Gould and Eldridge proposed their theory of punctuated equilibrium. The funny thing is that the dogmatic Darwinists such as Dawkins and Dennet criticized punctuated equilibrium.

    This is akin to having a theory of physics that predicts the sun should send out lightwaves predominently in the blue part of the spectrum. The observation that the sun is predominantly sending out light in the yellow part of the spectrum is then ignored. This is the current state of Darwinian theory, and no amount of hand-waving or yelling that “evolution is fact” will change this rather embarrassing predicament. This is fact.

    I’m not sure if they’re just building up a straw man for evolutionary theory, or if they simply don’t understand it, but its a bit strange to not at least get the basics correct.

    Sure, some people don’t understand evolution. Many of those are the internet “experts” that run around claiming the Darwinian theory “fact”. If evolution occurred quickly, followed by long periods of stasis, then that theory is not Darwinian. It’s something else.

    This sort of reasoning is akin to assuming that If the lights don’t come on when I turn the switch, we must discard atomic theory. Russ Roberts doesn’t seem to grasp that leaping to an extreme conclusion is exactly the wrong thing to do.

    Perhaps that is what Russ is doing. However, what Darwinian proponents are doing is every bit as embarrassing, especially when they wrap themselves in the flag of “science”. If Russ Roberts is guilty of tossing out atomic theory because a light switch doesn’t come on, Dawkins and Dennet are guilty of tossing out the observation that the sun is yellow when their theory predicts it should be blue.

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