Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics - D McCloskey History of Economic Ideas XIII (3,2005): 85-102

Extracts from the essay:

The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics
D McCloskey  History of Economic Ideas XIII (3,2005): 85-102


"A real science, or any intelligent inquiry into the world, whether the study of earthquakes or the study of poetry, economics or physics, history or anthropology, art history or organic chemistry, a systematic inquiry into one's lover or a systematic inquiry into the Italian language, must do two things. If it only does one of them it is not an inquiry into the world. It may be good in some other way, but not in the double way that we associate with good science or other good inquiries into the world, such as a detective solving a case.

I am sure you will agree: An inquiry into the world must think and it must look. It must theorize and must observe. Formalize and record. Both. That's obvious and elementary. Not everyone involved in a collective intelligent inquiry into the world need do both: the detective can assign his dim-witted assistant to just observe. But the inquiry as a whole must reflect and must listen. Both. Of course." 


"So pure mathematics, pure philosophy, the pure writing of pure fictions, the pure painting of pictures, the pure composing of sonatas are all, when done well or at least interestingly, admirable activities. I have to keep saying "pure" because of course it is entirely possible—indeed commonplace for novelists, say, to take a scientific view of their subjects (Balzac, Zola, Sinclair Lewis, the post-War Italian realists, among many others are well known for their self-conscious practice of a scientific literature; Roman satire is another case; or Golden Age Dutch painting). Likewise scientists use elements of pure narration (in evolutionary biology and economic history) or elements of pure mathematics (in physics and economics) to make scientific arguments."


"The theorists don't have to operate in this existence-theorem way. They could instead—some do—use mathematics to develop functional forms into which the world's data can be plugged. It is the difference between abstract general equilibrium—a field of economics which practically everyone now agrees was a complete waste of time and talent—and computable general equilibrium, which has nothing whatever to do with the existence theorems and has everything to do with picking sensible numbers and simulating."

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