April 16, 2015

Science or Circus Maximus?

Comment on Lars Syll on ‘Economists — arrogant and self-congratulatory autists’


Moisés Naím refers to an article of his in The Atlantic: “Ten years ago, a survey published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that 77 percent of the doctoral candidates in the leading American economics programs agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘economics is the most scientific of the social sciences’.” (See intro)

He sums up “economists would be well advised to trade in their intellectual haughtiness for a more humble disposition.”

This ad hominem argument is, of course, characteristic of base-level yellow press gossip. Most people have ego problems and arrogance is the keyword to pique their wrath.

From the question of the scientific status of economics, Moisés Naím lands after a few paragraphs in the Circus Maximus of cheap emotions, ridiculous moralizing, and sham debate.

Let us put things straight.

The first thing to notice is that there is an illegitimate suggestion in this initial statement of the survey ‘economics is the most scientific of the social sciences.'

It has been noted repeatedly by genuine scientists that, to begin with, the term social sciences is a misnomer. Feynman, for one, characterized them as follows.

“I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. ... They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. ... So I call these things cargo cult science because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, ...” See here or Wikipedia.

Some economists are well aware of the fact that this applies perfectly to economics.

“Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, what we presently possess by way of so-called pure economic theory is objectively indistinguishable from what the physicist Richard Feynman, in an unflattering sketch of nonsense ‘science,’ called ‘cargo cult science’.” (Clower, 1994, p. 809)

So, for a meaningful survey, the suggestive initial statement has first to be translated into ‘‘economics is the most cultic of the cargo cult sciences.” The approval rating then should be close to 100 percent.

The fact of the matter is that the representative economist cannot even tell the difference between income and profit (2015). Therefore, it is not at all exigent that economists become humble but that they learn elementary logic in their programs and at long last get out of the proto-scientific Circus Maximus.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Clower, R. W. (1994). Economics as an Inductive Science. Southern Economic Journal, 60(4): 805–814.
Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2015). Essentials of Constructive Heterodoxy: Profit. SSRN Working Paper Series, 2575110: 1–18. URL