Non-scientific disciplines alone need to distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy – part II

Editorial board

In a recent post we have commented on the economist John Kay’s statement against a heterodox reform of the economic curricula whereby “no one would cross a bridge built by a heterodox engineer.” Our line of reasoning was that scientific disciplines do not need to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox members. Moreover, we argued that the fact that this distinction is made in economics is a clear indication of an at least partial lack of a scientific attitude. We would now like to return to this issue.

To be considered scientific a discipline must be falsifiable through clear independent experiments, a condition that it is absent in economics (particularly in macroeconomics). We also maintain that founding a discipline on mathematics does not automatically confer to the discipline in question a scientific status: only an experimental attitude can do so. This is not to say that non scientific disciplines are not useful: humanities and social sciences, though not strictly scientific per se, undoubtedly contribute to progress in human knowledge.

Why, then, does economics yearn to be acknowledged as a solid scientific discipline? The answer is quite simple: because at present scientific disciplines are considered to be “superior”. Their foundations and, above all, their consequences must therefore be accepted without discussion by non specialists. Scientific facts overrule any objection.

Democracy is at stake here: if you acknowledge my paradigms to be scientific then you must accept their consequences and hence my economic recipes (for example the Greek austerity issue).

images-9Consider for instance the problem of building a nuclear power plant. This is a political decision and, as such, the ensuing responsibility and costs must be shared with the taxpayer. However, the political decision-making process in no way questions the physical laws underlying nuclear fission: nuclear fission is an objective, falsifiable and experimentally confirmed process that plays no part in the political discussion. In economics (and particularly in macroeconomics) there are no “nuclear fission” equivalents – no clearly objective data – so it follows that there are economists who believe in “nuclear fission” (orthodox economists) and others who do not (heterodox economists). The absence of falsifiable data compels the community of economists to make this and other distinctions (like those between different schools such as Keynesian, Marxian, Austrian, etc.).

Mainstream economists may try to convince you (and the taxpayer) that their approach is scientifically grounded and robust. In doing so they will express their thesis “scientifically” by using mathematics. Indeed, formulating a concept through mathematics  insteaimages-6d of ordinary language is expedient to their purpose, much in the same manner as writers do in choosing between prose and verse. Abandoning prose – and thus the most widespread and commonly understood form of expression – can have a very powerful effect: indeed, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Brutus’ memorable speech in prose, Mark Antony very effectively switches to persuasive and spell-binding verse to win over the mob.

However, in the absence of objective data mathematics simply cannot confer a genuine scientific (falsifiable) value to economics. Rather it confers a magical scientific “aura” to the discipline, just as if there were an underlying “nuclear fission” process which is measurable and falsifiable. This is tantamount to cheating and is particularly dangerous, because it apparently produces objective political recipes while in it actual fact what is being imposed is a political supremacy (as in the case of Germany and Greece in the current debate on austerity) without having to resort to a political clash or even warfare.


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