Is economics a science? It’s an old question – and in my view, not a terribly useful one. Yet there is of course a reason why it never stops being asked.
Physicists have discovered the universal laws governing energy and motion, and as a result can tell us with scarcely credible precision how to land a man on the moon. Economists, by contrast, can’t even agree on why the last financial crisis happened, let alone what we should do to prevent the next one – and that’s despite the fact we wrote the rules of finance ourselves. Real sciences make progress. Economics, on the other hand, seems to go round and round in circles.
Needless to say, this embarrassing situation irritates economists more than anyone else. As a result, over the past several decades, mainstream economics has attempted to assimilate itself ever more closely to the culture and methods of the natural sciences. These days, self-respecting economists express their theories as mathematical models, not in words. Advanced statistical techniques are deployed to test hypotheses and so resolve the answers to empirical questions. If possible, experiments are designed and conducted. A few of the most avant garde researchers have even gone so far as to rebrand their research groups as “labs”.
Whether these developments represent a long-overdue reform of the methodology of economics, or just the symptoms of a chronic inferiority complex, they have certainly dealt a mortal blow to one formerly central area of the economics curriculum: the history of economic thought. If, after all, economics is a science, there is no more point in reading the economists of prior ages than there is in engaging with Aristotle on biology or mugging up the theory of phlogiston.
The publication of Linda Yueh’s The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today is therefore a fascinating event for anyone interested in economics. For this is a book which, as it title suggests, openly champions the value of studying the leading economic thinkers of the past. You can read my review of it in the New Statesman here.