Economics is a social science not physics

Economics as physics is the death of economics as a useful empirical science studying how we can best provision ourselves, but it does seem to have some self-preservation qualities as well. Steve Hayward has written on Universities: Euthanasia or Suicide in which he discusses how economics is turning itself into a STEM field rather than an area of the humanities. Nothing will leave economics with less penetration and use than to ship it off to the mathematical side of academic studies. Nothing is more likely to help us find a way to a Venezuelan future, as discussed in my post on Mill and the marginalists. There are numbers in economics, of course, and statistics, but to turn economic theory into highly rigorous models will ensure nothing found in an economics journal will ever provide a solution to an actual problem related to the world. Once economics dealt with problems and thought through to solutions, but economics-as-physics is the Death Star for the subject. In reaching his conclusions, Hayward discusses at the start a lecture he had previously given.

One of the points I made in that lecture is that universities would start to divide into practical subjects like business and economics and STEM sciences, and leave behind the humanities and social sciences:

I think we’re already seeing the beginnings of a de factodivorce of universities, in which the STEM fields and other “practical” disciplines essentially split off from the humanities and social sciences, not to mention the more politicized departments. One early sign—perhaps a canary in the university coal mine—can be seen in the recent announcement of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point campus that it is shuttering 13 departments in the humanities and social sciences, and laying off tenured faculty, on account of declining enrollment and budget pressures, and reallocating funds to STEM subjects.   Another sign are the economics departments that have begun subdividing themselves into “general economics” and an even more-math centric “quantitative econometrics.” Several economics departments are formally reclassifying themselves as STEM departments (there are federal guidelines for this) for a variety of reasons, but among them has to be wishing to disassociate themselves further from other social sciences.

Lo and behold, more economics departments are deciding to become STEM subjects, supposedly for advantages STEM classification provides (especially in attracting and keeping talented foreign students), but I am sure it is in part to disassociate themselves from the rest of the politicized social science disciplines. If nothing else, economics is the one social science field where degree earners have good job prospects, and which doesn’t need propping up.

The Economist reports:

Economics departments appear to be catching on. Yale and Columbia have both changed the code for their economics major in the past few months; five of the eight Ivy League Universities have now done so. Students at Pennsylvania and Cornell are agitating for a switch.

And the American Institute for Economic Research gives five more reasons why economics is better suited as a STEM subject. If you read through these five reasons carefully, it’s what they don’t say that stands out loudly. See what is implied by this passage, for example:

The objective of STEM programs is to create professionally and socially qualified individuals to overcome 21st-century challenges. For that reason, these courses should make students learn how to apply the scientific method to everyday life and acquire useful skills for real-world applications. Economics promotes and develops both of them.

Due to the prevalence of mathematics and pragmatism in economics, positivism is the dominant research method in the field. Therefore, economists examine real-world problems and evaluate feasible solutions through economic positivism, a scientific method.

Further, this degree encourages students to acquire or improve on relevant skills for today’s life, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, entrepreneurship and innovation, resourcefulness and resilience, teamwork and collaboration, and a sense of civic responsibility.

Here are a few of the commenters who seem to get it:

Don’ t economics departments want to do this to attract more federal dollars for STEM? Not a good sign. About 30 or so years ago, UVA’s economics department kicked out Buchanan and Coase to go more in the econometrics route. (Paul Craig Roberts wrote about this.) The economics department at my undergraduate university came to be dominated by Marxists. In short, the revolution is corrupting econ departments too.

STEM disciplines are evidence-based. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that Marxism does not work. If an econ department has not ejected all of its Marxists, it should not be allowed to work this dodge.

If Econ is a STEM field, does that mean that Econ Profs can’t point to Venezuela as an example of the success of socialism? Unless they can prove it?

Economists almost killed off the history of economic thought and may still do it. For an account of this disastrous venture into suicide, see my Defending the History of Economic Thought. Marxists and socialists generally can do maths as well as anyone. But it is a rare temperament who can do economics, and understanding Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill not only does not require maths and stats, will actually prevent you from understanding anything they have to say.


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