In October Russell Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution,tweeted that if told an economist’s view on one issue, he could confidently predict his or her position on any number of other questions. Prominent bloggers on economics have since furiously defended the profession, citing cases when economists changed their minds in response to new facts, rather than hewing stubbornly to dogma. Adam Ozimek, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, pointed to Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 2009 to 2015, who flipped from hawkishness to dovishness when reality failed to affirm his warnings of a looming surge in inflation. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason, published a list of issues on which his opinion has shifted (he is no longer sure that income from capital is best left untaxed). Paul Krugman, an economist and New York Times columnist, chimed in. He changed his view on the minimum wage after research found that increases up to a certain point reduced employment only marginally (this newspaper had a similar change of heart).
Economists, to be fair, are constrained in ways that many scientists are not. They cannot brew up endless recessions in test tubes to work out what causes what, for instance. Yet the same restriction applies to many hard sciences, too: geologists did not need to recreate the Earth in the lab to get a handle on plate tectonics. The essence of science is agreeing on a shared approach for generating widely accepted knowledge. Science, wrote Paul Romer, an economist, in a paper* published last year, leads to broad consensus. Politics does not.
Nor, it seems, does economics. In a paper on macroeconomics published in 2006, Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University declared: “A new consensus has emerged about the best way to understand economic fluctuations.” But after the financial crisis prompted a wrenching recession, disagreement about the causes and cures raged. “Schlock economics” was how Robert Lucas, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, described Barack Obama’s plan for a big stimulus to revive the American economy. Mr Krugman, another Nobel-winner, reckoned Mr Lucas and his sort were responsible for a “dark age of macroeconomics”.
Moreover, hard sciences are not immune from ideological rigidity. A recent study of academic citations in the life sciences found that the death of a celebrated scientist precipitates a surge in publishing from academics who previously steered clear of the celebrity’s area of study. Tellingly, papers by newcomers are cited far more heavily than new work by the celebrity’s former collaborators. That suggests that shifts of opinion in science occur not through the changing of minds so much as the displacement of one set of dogged ideologues by another.
Agree to Agree
But even if economics is not uniquely ideological, its biases are often more salient than those within chemistry. Economists advise politicians on all manner of important decisions. A reputation for impartiality could improve both perceptions of the field and the quality of economic policy.
Achieving that requires better mechanisms for resolving disputes. Mr Romer’s paper decried the pretend “mathiness” of many economists: the use of meaningless number-crunching to give a veneer of academic credibility to near-useless theories. Sifting out the guff requires transparency, argued John Cochrane of the University of Chicago in another recent blog post. Too many academics keep their data and calculations secret, he reckoned, and too few journals make space for papers that seek to replicate earlier results. Economists can squabble all they like. But the profession is of little use to anyone if it cannot then work out which side has the better of the argument.
“Mathiness in the theory of economic growth“, Paul Romer, American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 2015.
“The macroeconomist as scientist and engineer“, Gregory Mankiw, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2006.
“The moral narratives of economists“, Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt, Econ Journal Watch, 2015.
“Political language in economics“, Zubin Jelveh, Bruce Kogut and Suresh Naidu, Columbia Business School Research Paper Number 14-57, 2015.
“How politically diverse are the social sciences and humanities? Survey evidence from six fields“, Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern, Academic Questions, 2004.
“Does science advance one funeral at a time?“, Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen and Joshua Graff Zivin, NBER Working Paper 21788, 2015.