Saturday, March 26, 2011

Internal vs. External Incentives: The Case of Economics

[This is a random, off-the-cuff post, with some wild generalizations, so please let me know if you think any part of it is wrong.]

There's been an interesting debate in the blogosphere recently about what science is and whether economics is a science.  The debate is interesting not so much because it settles the issue but because it's a good data-point for looking at public understandings of what it means to do science. 

Tyler Cowen started it all off by saying:

Economics is most like a science when people do not care about the outcome of the argument.

To which Matthew Yglesias responded in agreement, adding:

In other words, social science is like science when it’s like science—disinterested. But when it’s like politics, then it’s like politics. I note that American economists are generally able to reach a much greater degree of consensus when they offer policy recommendations to foreign countries than when they offer recommendations to the US congress. That’s not because foreign countries have easier problems to solve. 

When Cowen talks about the "outcome" of the argument, he means the external outcome of the argument: in this case, specifically, the public policy that seems to be the logical consequence of a certain knowledge claim.  When a knowledge claim has no link to a public policy choice, he suggests, economics is most like a science -- a condition Yglesias calls being "disinterested."  In Ygelasias' view, when a economic knowledge claim has no obvious public policy consequences (especially for the country said economists live in), economists behave like scientists -- which is not to say that they agree, but rather, that they disagree, but in a disinterested way.

In STS, this is what I call the Internal vs. External debate on what drives science.  Do scientists accept theories because they are, in some sense, true?  Are they convinced of the validity of a certain knowledge claim because of "internal" reasons -- reasons deemed to be "proper" within the field?  Or are they influenced by what one might call "external" reasons, reasons deemed by the community to be properly out of bounds, such as the desire for money, support for a political program, etc.? 

But an interesting aspect of what it means to be a disinterested economist struck me (and correct me if I'm wrong).  As far as my reading goes, ideology doesn't count as an improper reason for being partial to a knowledge claim.  So economists will routinely proclaim that they are libertarians or progressives or egalitarians.  What they won't say is whether they are Democrats or Republicans -- and so this is often deployed in debunking someone's claim.  Thus one  is more likely to hear things like "X has nothing to say about this because he worked for a Republican president and so would rather not contradict said president's policies" rather than "So-and-so makes this claim because he is left-wing and is therefore biased"  One also hears things like (at least on blogs) "I am sympathetic to such-and-such claim because I believe in progressive causes" -- which means that ideology is arguably a more acceptable reason for being sympathetic/antagonistic to a knowledge claim, than, say, membership of a political party.

Which is, in a way, different from what counts as a proper reason for accepting a knowledge claim in the actual sciences, like physics or biology.  Here, I'd say, even ideology does not fly.  Membership of a political party, of course, is completely out of bounds.  (Note that this is an assertion about community standards and rhetoric rather than about the actual workings of the hard sciences.)

Which is to say economists should probably be comparing themselves to other social scientists rather than to the practitioners of the "hard" sciences.

Other links:

And here are two more posts about the "Is economics a science?" debate which bring out interesting rhetorical perspectives on what economists think being a science is: here and here.   Greg Mankiw's little paper on "The Macro-economist as a scientist and engineer" [PDF].  And finally, on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell applied public choice theory to economics

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a professional scientist (biology) let me just say that ideology flies. All the time.

Also, we make small-stakes bets on outcomes that result in pretty heated arguments.