Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The bogus science

Brad DeLong is among the economists reflecting on the failures of his profession in the wake of the financial crisis. But I don't think he goes far enough. The problem in economics is not just a failure to re-read Walter Bagehot. It's a failure to connect to reality, on any level, methodologically or even epistemologically.

I have long watched with a little bit of amusement and a lot of annoyance as economists have claimed to be the most scientific and rigorous of the social scientists, if not the only "real" scientists of society. That's supposedly why they make higher salaries than professors in other disciplines and give each other a phony Nobel prize every year so they can pose next to the physicists and biomedical researchers.

In fact, economics is more akin to theology than it is to science. I had to pass qualifying exams in economics for my Ph.D., so I have actually taken quite a lot economics courses. Here's how economists work -- for real, this is not a cartoon.

First, they present a number of assumptions, every one of which is false. They then spin an elaborate theory, complete with calculus, from these assumptions. Along the way they forget that the assumptions are false and start to believe their theory is describing reality. When they run up against an undeniable instance in which the theory conflicts with reality, they label that an exceptional "market failure" and, like Ptolemaic astronomers, add an epicycle to their theory account for the supposed "exception" while preserving the central theory. But in fact, the theory fails in every single instance, all the time, without exception. "Market failures" are pervasive and inevitable, because the theory is completely wrong. Therefore they must ignore most of reality and only allow occasional bits and pieces of it to intrude.

Why the success of this peculiar cult? Because the theory provides a justification for wealth and privilege. It is indispensable as a foundation of libertarianism and economic conservatism. It comforts the comfortable. That is the only reason.

Economics is a vast edifice of bullshit erected on a foundation of sand.

9 comments:

kathy a. said...

this is off-topic, but i ran across this news story about AIDS research: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2011/04/30/state/n131821D13.DTL&tsp=1

identical twin boys were reportedly both infected with HIV via transfusions, but their outcomes some years later are quite different. the news story itself is fuzzy on a lot of questions -- were they infected from the same source? were they treated in different ways?

what exactly are researchers studying with respect to these twins? three studies are mentioned but it sounds like at least one of them does not involve the twins. maybe your superpowers can get more info?

Cervantes said...

Arrgh! I wrote a long response and Blogger lost it.

It appears that only one of the studies involves the twins. But the others are described too vaguely for me to say anything about them. The whole story seems pointless, actually, since it doesn't explain anything except that these people are doing these studies. Well, there are thousands of studies going on right now.

As for the twins, there isn't necessarily anything mysterious about that at all. The implication is they were infected at the same time, from the same source, though why both would get a transfusion at the same time is a bit hard to imagine. It's also very surprising that this would happen since the blood supply has been safe for many years.

But the different clinical course is very easy to explain. One of them had the bad luck to have the virus acquire a mutation that confers resistance to the drugs being used to treat them. This is essentially a random event, it happens all the time, and it is very well understood. So there isn't necessarily anything mysterious or even instructive about this at all. HIV drug resistance is partly a crap shoot and we already know that.

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