May 2, 2016

Heterodoxy, you have a problem

Comment on Zimmerman, Roth et al. on ‘Market Reflex’


Economics is a science without scientists.

The first peculiarity of science is that, strictly speaking, humans do not need it. Commonsensical people know that when they walk over the cliff they will move downwards with considerable speed and in most cases be dead after hitting the ground. That is all one had to know in the business of survival since cave dweller times. Commonsensical people do not need the Law of the Falling Bodies or the concepts of gravity/mass/acceleration or the inverse square formula.

Accordingly, commonsensical economists insist that all there is to know about the economy can be known by going to the supermarket, reading the business press, and studying the history of how all developed from cowrie shells to electronic money, in one word, by looking at the naked facts.

Not much can be said against this except that it is like looking at the sunrise and telling the rest of humanity: the sun rises. This is sufficient for all practical purposes but it is NOT science. It never ever leads to the absolutely counter-intuitive heliocentric theory.

This is what Zimmerman and Roth and most failed economists including Marshall and Keynes and Hayek and Friedman think is science: “Science is about observing and concluding. And scientists do it over and over and over with the hope of building an accurate representation of what is shown by the observations.”

This is absolutely beside the point and everybody can know this from the inventors of science, the ancient Greeks. Take the atom as an example. Did the ancient Greeks observe atoms? No! atom is an abstract concept and, lo and behold, the observation came more than 2000 years LATER. And so it goes in the three steps perception-theory-observation with all other scientific concepts.

The subject matter of economics is the (world-) economy and this is an abstract entity which is NOT observable with the two natural eyes but only with the third eye of theory. Every economist can know this from J. S. Mill: “Since, therefore, it is vain to hope that truth can be arrived at, either in Political Economy or in any other department of the social science, while we look at the facts in the concrete, clothed in all the complexity with which nature has surrounded them, and endeavour to elicit a general law by a process of induction from a comparison of details; there remains no other method than the à priori one, or that of ‘abstract speculation’.” (1874, V.55)

With ‘speculation’ is NOT meant waffling about nonentities like dancing angels on a pinpoint. Ultimately, all scientific speculation returns to the hard ground of reality. This, too, is clear since Mill: “The ground of confidence in any concrete deductive science is not the à priori reasoning itself, but the accordance between its results and those of observation à posteriori.” (2006, p. 896-897)

Mill’s methodology has NOT been borrowed from physics, just the other way round: “They [Einstein and Dirac] agreed that science was fundamentally about explaining more and more phenomena in terms of fewer and fewer theories, a view they had read in Mill’s A System of Logic.” (Farmelo, 2009, p. 137)

Einstein and Dirac understood Mill but heterodox economists still subscribe to the methodological junk of observationism, naive empiricism, common sense, better-roughly-right sloppiness, misplaced realism, and the ant perspective of partial analysis.

Light bulb 1: You cannot understand the universe by empirical observation of your backyard.

Light bulb 2: The fault of Walrasianism is NOT abstract speculation but VACUOUS speculation. The key foundational concepts (utility, constrained optimization, equilibrium, demand function, etc) are NONENTITIES. In other words, the axiomatic foundations of Walrasianism have NO real content. This is the ultimate cause of failure because: garbage in, garbage out, or: nonentities in, nonsense out.

Light bulb 3: The critique of model bricolage, mathiness, unrealism, physics envy etc. is justified but superficial. The foundational error/mistake of standard economics is methodological individualism.

Light bulb 4: NO way leads from the understanding of individual behavior, or more general from partial analysis, to the understanding of the economic system as a whole. This is why economics is a failed science.

Light bulb 5: Economics has to move from microfoundations to macrofoundations.

Light bulb 6: To dabble in psychology, sociology, politics, or history is NOT economics. Economics is about the economy and this is an ABSTRACT but REAL entity which is beyond the horizon of BOTH orthodox and heterodox economists.

The main problem of economics is how to get out of the proto-scientific stalemate between vacuous orthodox modeling and clueless heterodox debunking. Heterodoxy has the SAME problem as Orthodoxy: a dearth of scientists and an overabundance of half-witted windbags.*

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Farmelo, G. (2009). The Strangest Man. The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. London: Faber and Faber.
Mill, J. S. (1874). Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper To It. Library of Economics and Liberty. URL
Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

* See ‘How the intelligent non-economist can refute every economist hands down