May 27, 2016

The consistent ancients and the confused moderns

Comment on Asad Zaman and Ken Zimmerman on ‘Economists confuse Greek method with science’


Science is guided by the binary code true/false. True/false in turn has two dimensions: logical and material/empirical/factual. Economics claims since Adam Smith and Karl Marx to be a science, explicitly with “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”. Yet, everybody who looks deeper into the matter (‘So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.’ Feynman) comes to the conclusion that economics has not risen above proto-scientific storytelling since Smith and Marx.

The rules of conduct of the scientific community demand that the actual state of economics is at all times unambiguously communicated to the general public. So, the first thing to do is to make it absolutely clear that economic policy advice of BOTH orthodox and heterodox economics has no better scientific foundation than old Roman poultry entrails reading.

By consequence, economic policy advice of Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism has to be taken without exception as scientifically worthless agenda pushing.

The second thing to do is to expel BOTH orthodox and heterodox economists from the sciences because of proven scientific incompetence over more than 200 years. The current pluralism of provable false or vacuous theories and the permanent ignorance and erosion of well-defined scientific standards (playing tennis with the net down, anything goes) is not acceptable.

The task of economists is to explain how the monetary economy works. This is NOT done by storytelling but in the form of a theory that satisfies the criteria of formal and material consistency.

What Asad Zaman calls the Greek method consists essentially in the distinction/ demarcation between doxa=opinion and episteme=knowledge=science, that is, “There cannot be both opinion and knowledge of the same thing at the same time.” and “When the premises are certain, true, and primary, and the conclusion formally follows from them, this is demonstration, and produces scientific knowledge of a thing.” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Wikipedia)

In modern terminology: “The basic concepts and laws which are not logically further reducible constitute the indispensable and not rationally deducible part of the theory. It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” (Einstein, 1934)

The current state of economics is this: Orthodoxy got the premises/basic concepts/axioms badly wrong#1 and Heterodoxy has none at all. What we actually have is storytelling, political blather, senseless model bricolage, and utter methodological confusion.

The ancient Greeks had a better understanding of science than present-day orthodox/ heterodox economists and in any case than Asad Zaman and Ken Zimmerman.#2

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 “... most of what I and many others do is sorta-kinda neoclassical because it takes the maximization-and-equilibrium world as a starting point” (Krugman).
#2 When substandard thinkers dabble in science it is called economics

Immediately preceding Methodological wrong-way drivers.

REPLY to Asad Zaman on May 28

You say: “I insist that science is not axiomatic-deductive. ... A crucial requirement of science is GUESSING at invisible real structures based on observations.”

This is true for the creative solution of a scientific problem. It is a matter of indifference whether the eureka flashes while taking a bath (Archimedes), mounting a bus (Poincaré), dreaming (Kekulé), looking out of the window and imagining how gravity appears to a person falling from the rooftop (Einstein).

But science is a social activity and therefore the original inspiration has to be brought into a communicative form so that others can put the idea/result/conclusion in context and can reproduce it logically and factually on their own. This specific communicative form is called a theory. Methodology refers to the properties of a well-formulated theory and is NOT a prescription of how to solve a problem. There is no such thing as a prescription for scientific creativity.

So “guessing at invisible real structures” (context of discovery) is FULLY compatible with the axiomatic-deductive method (context of justification). As a matter of fact, axioms are themselves guesses, as every economist could know from J. S. Mill: “What are the propositions which may reasonably be received without proof? That there must be some such propositions all are agreed, since there cannot be an infinite series of proof, a chain suspended from nothing. But to determine what these propositions are, is the opus magnum of the more recondite mental philosophy.”

Or, as Feynman put the relationship between guessing and axiomatics: “It does not matter that moos and goos cannot appear in the guess. You can have as much junk in the guess as you like, provided that the consequences can be compared with experiment.” And: “Some day, when physics is complete and we know all the laws, we may be able to start with some axioms, and no doubt somebody will figure out a particular way of doing it so that everything else can be deduced.”

The decisive point is that Walrasian junk cannot be compared with experiments because its moos and goos are not ‘invisible real structures’ but NONENTITIES. Hence, standard economics is a story and not a theory, and economists are storytellers and not scientists.

Immediately following End of confusion.

Related 'Petitio principii — economists’ biggest methodological mistake' and 'When substandard thinkers dabble in science it is called economics' and 'Econ 101 — worse than useless'.