Thursday, August 29, 2013

Patterns or points?

The NY Times' Invitation to Dialogue had touched on the question of whether economics is a science.  In today's Letters, economist Eric Maskin rejects the idea that successful predictions are a plausible a test of science or not. He cites seismology and meteorology as sciences that explain but that do not predict.

But think about general pattern forecasts. Are they not predictions? There are plenty of seismic maps that do not predict specific earthquakes but that are useful to insurers as well as insured.  There are many similar products developed by meteorologists.  It is not a matter of predicting vs. not.  It surely is a matter of patterns vs points.

Science can be involved in either. But so can other areas of investigation, including the study of history.

Whereas the Nobel in economics is (unfortunately, in my view) awarded in the name of "economic sciences," many of the most auspicious awards have been to economists working in a literary/historic tradition, e.g., James Buchanan, F.A. Hayek, Douglass North, Robert Fogel, Elinor Ostrom, Daniel Kahneman, and others. Does that make them "economics scientists"?  Look who's most popular!

Economics vs. physics involves people vs. particles.  Unlike particles, people have mood swings. We should forget about point forecasts.