June, 2019

Methodological confusions and the science wars in economics

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The “science wars” are a contentious, ongoing series of debates about the nature of knowledge and the proper role of the scientific method. The participants take many forms, but always central to the controversy are postmodern ideas that challenge commonly accepted understandings of the objectivity of data, science, and sometimes even reality. In this paper, we consider the relevance of these debates for the practice of economics. Ultimately we propose that these debates present two opportunities and a significant challenge to the discipline of economics. The opportunities are: 1) to incorporate post-positivist philosophy of science as a way to better interpret the meanings that become attached to institutions, which is particularly important for studies of political hierarchy and oppression, and 2) to do better empirical work by robustly incorporating interpretation into the gathering and analysis of data. The challenge is to do this work without abandoning economic theory itself, preserving the critically important insights of the universal logic of human choice while abandoning the illusion of a single best scientific method.