Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Economics as a Soft Science

When is a horse not a horse?

photo by Kingfisher

I've run into a fantastic article pointing out the problem with government-funded research in any scientific field, and most particularly in the social sciences like economics. These "soft sciences" are the ones unlike physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. that have more than just precise, observable and manipulable data to work with. Often they deal with some aspect of human behavior, making it impossible to set up an experiment to manipulate a reproducible result. Examples of such "soft science" would be sociology, psychology, linguistics, anthopology, political science, history, and jurisprudence, and any of the modern combinations of the above.

Hard scientific research (in fact all scientific research, if it is to utilize that name) is not an art form. It must be performed according to strict objective parameters that have evolved over the centuries. The naming of any other type of research as "science" is very hard to defend given its subjective nature; and although such research might be valid as an exercise and perhaps even lead to useful conclusions, its subjectivity and punctuality make it more of an art form than a science - which is not to take away its value, but which does imply that such research has no place aspiring to be cloaked in the scientific veil. Otherwise, big mistakes can be made.

I've written about this in previous blogs, because it's one of my bugaboos. It is just too tempting for economists and other scientists to become snake oil salesmen.

Read the article here.


Blogger Vache Folle said...

In addition to cautions about the softness of social sciences, I would reiterate the Weberian view that social science cannot tell you what "ought" to be done. All social science can do is make more or less plauisble statements about costs and potential consequences of actions.

11:55 AM  

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