The Norms of Science: Extract from Paul Romer

I was looking for something on economic method, and found this section of Paul Romer’s “The Trouble with Macroeconomics” which I thought was worth posting.

Some of the economists who agree about the state of macro in private conversations will not say so in public. This is consistent with the explanation based on different prices. Yet some of them also discourage me from disagreeing openly, which calls for some other explanation.

They may feel that they will pay a price too if they have to witness the unpleasant reaction that criticism of a revered leader provokes. There is no question that the emotions are intense. After I criticized a paper by Lucas, I had a chance encounter with someone who was so angry that at first he could not speak. Eventually, he told me, “You are killing Bob.”

But my sense is that the problem goes even deeper that avoidance. Several economists I know seem to have assimilated a norm that the post-real macroeconomists actively promote – that it is an extremely serious violation of some honor code for anyone to criticize openly a revered authority figure – and that neither facts that are false, nor predictions that are wrong, nor models that make no sense matter enough to worry about.

A norm that places an authority above criticism helps people cooperate as members of a belief field that pursues political, moral, or religious objectives. As Jonathan Haidt (2012) observes, this type of norm had survival value because it helped members of one group mount a coordinated defense when they were attacked by another group. It is supported by two innate moral senses, one that encourages us to defer to authority, another which compels self-sacrifice to defend the purity of the sacred.

Science, and all the other research fields spawned by the enlightenment, survive by “turning the dial to zero” on these innate moral senses. Members cultivate the conviction that nothing is sacred and that authority should always be challenged. In this sense, Voltaire is more important to the intellectual foundation of the research fields of the enlightenment than Descartes or Newton.

By rejecting any reliance on central authority, the members of a research field can coordinate their independent efforts only by maintaining an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth, established imperfectly, via the rough consensus that emerges from many independent assessments of publicly disclosed facts and logic; assessments that are made by people who honor clearly stated disagreement, who accept their own fallibility, and relish the chance to subvert any claim of authority, not to mention any claim of infallibility.

Even when it works well, science is not perfect. Nothing that involves people ever is. Scientists commit to the pursuit of truth even though they realize that absolute truth is never revealed. All they can hope for is a consensus that establishes the truth of an assertion in the same loose sense that the stock market establishes the value of a firm. It can go astray, perhaps for long stretches of time. But eventually, it is yanked back to reality by insurgents who are free to challenge the consensus and supporters of the consensus who still think that getting the facts right matters.

Despite its evident flaws, science has been remarkably good at producing useful knowledge. It is also a uniquely benign way to coordinate the beliefs of large numbers of people, the only one that has ever established a consensus that extends to millions or billions without the use of coercion.

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Methodology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Norms of Science: Extract from Paul Romer

  1. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    science … the only one that has ever established a consensus that extends to millions or billions without the use of coercion.

    As Planck observed “Science advances one funeral at a time” (but in German, the language of science ☺).

    The Conversation has an article today on another way that that consensus has been maintained. It reminded me of your man Paul posting that extraordinarily defensive article about #metoo a while ago…

    People are tribal, and IMO a necessary part of forming a community is building a consensus on a whole raft of things. From the micro “leadership is a male trait” stuff to major external positions like “applying economic theory to real people can be ethical”, the group has to have a high level of consensus across a wide range of topics to work as a group. Outsiders are almost the only people who can provide substantive critique of that consensus, in a nigh-tautologial way… by persisting with the critique they become outsiders if they weren’t in the first place. It takes huge social skill and effort to move a group from inside, and very few people have that ability (arguably FDR, from what I know).

    What happens far more often is that a group of outsiders coalesce around a new leader with a new position “atoms can be split”, “Jesus is an incarnation of the one god”, “government should defer to the markets that it creates”. Over time that group become significant or even dominant in their field, or not. It’s vanishingly rare for large groups of followers to flip quickly… one funeral at a time is more common.

    • Moz
      The long rein of Louis Agassiz and his blocking of acceptance of Darwin’s theory in California , is a classic example of Planck’s aphorism >

      • Moz of Yarramulla says:

        John, there are many examples but yes, that is a good (bad?) one.

        I’m kinda thinking there are two strands here as well. On the one hand there’s heretical takes on the actual material like “government should directly own natural monopolies”, but on the other there’s heretical analysis of the whole field “economics is about what rich, old, white men value”.

        Or on the gripping hand, challenges to the entire narrative that underpins the field – the claim that economics is a “social science” like gender studies rather than a hard/proper science like archaeology. Or for example the idea that Australian agriculture didn’t start only when white people arrived – the usual claim is that anything before then isn’t agriculture. We see the same with arguments about when art and religion started – current evidence suggests that homo sapiens sapiens no more started those things than homo neanderthalensis did. But that’s anthropology, not art history or religious studies (and even then, “just say you don’t know, calling everything religion is stupid” is very much a minority position within anthropology).

        In terms of unspeakable truths, science is often built on carefully cultivated ignorance. We talk about the Fermat Conjecture without acknowledging that it’s likely an annotation derived from someone else’s work and claims as to who the idea came from are not so much controversial as unhearable. Even in supposedly hard sciences, we get obscure doctrinal wars – for a long time in astrophysics MOND was anathema while string theory was acceptable. If you wanted publication let alone tenure you didn’t fsck with Newton’s Einstein’s theory of gravity, but making up inherently undetectable entities to explain things was fine (it’s elephants, I tell you, elephants all the way down).

        • Moz
          Economics seems to me to as a discipline to be if anything closer to History than to science. But I’m not an economist.
          btw these days you can buy daisy yam seeds online.

          • Moz of Yarramulla says:

            It occurs to me that economics suffers many of the criticisms that history does, and few of those that afflict more rigorous disciplines. Arguably that’s inherent in the attempt to describe the social behaviour of humans, but even so… stuff like Kaldor-Hicks makes Freudian psychology look well-grounded and rational. “well, it could happen” is no basis for a system of government (Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony! Sorry)

            Maybe purely on “which critiques apply” it has to be counted a social science?

            (and yes, native food plants are slowly becoming more popular)

            • Moz ,
              historians are obsessive about the nitty gritty -spend most of their lives rooting around in archives often going through boxes of docs that nobody has had the time to even index let alone read.
              For example Beevor before writing even a single word of his history of the battle of Stalingrad must have spent years reading many thousands of individual letters to home and diaries( as well as well as a mountain of official docs etc).
              I’m not sure that economics does enough of that kind of ‘grounding ‘at all ,but it sure should.

              • Moz of Yarramulla says:

                Economists are often equally obsessive, but sadly often more in the way that, say, religious extremists are rather than more reality-based types. Microeconomists love to go on about the minutiae of whatever they’re studying, but all too often in a counting the angels on a spherical cow sort of way. “given the implausible simplifying assumptions noted above, and following the articles of faith of the discipline, the following 80 pages of equations allow us to clearly see that the People’s Front of Judea is 0.6253% superior to the Judean People’s Front”.

                I have studied micro a little but found it harder to read their material than I found the bible and the koran. For the same reason: I kept going “but that’s just obviously not true” (but in a more vernacular way).

                I suspect that may be closer to what the good sir Nick meant in his post – big chunks of the discipline only work if you accept the axioms of the founders. At the pop sci level, as soon as you disallow perfect information a lot of market theory stops working (but if you allow perfect information a lot of companies stop working… it’s not an easy call). Worse, if you allow for actual criminal behaviour I get the impression the whole pretense of economics as science becomes dramatically less tractable (but as we see all too often, economics leads to finance leads to crime).

                There are quite a few economists and economically-trained outsiders who study heterodox stuff like “the value of unpaid work” (when axiomatically value = payment received). Sadly it’s very easy for economists to retreat into defensive jargon when asked about stuff like that. “we can assign a monetary equivalent to value to the social value of the exchange”… we’re all sex workers (even the 5 year old children sexualised in the minds of perverts), and we should all be paying tax on the implicit value of the social services we receive from our friends. It pays not to think about this stuff too much.

                There’s just been a case in NZ where the supreme court finally told the dole office that loans are not income (hopefully the government here tells Centrelink that and they stop doing the same thing… but I wouldn’t hold your breath).

                • Moz
                  Re the bible it’s ,poetry.

                  Do you think that Robbie Burns was actually in love with a rose? Or that he thought that the law was literally a ” fig leaf”?

                  • Moz of Yarramulla says:

                    Oh, definitely. Bible as mythology is fine (albeit it makes Grimms look pretty friendly), some of it is awesome and even the English is often clearly designed to be read aloud.

                    I just can’t help but think that if you told an economist “your recent paper didn’t really work for me as poetry, it wasn’t so much the dubious metaphors as the terrible metre” you wouldn’t get a good reception. But … I suppose that’s another way that economics falls short when critiqued :)

                    As explanatory stories I suspect you’d have the same problem “I think your theory of wealth allocation is better than John 2:1, but not as useful as the sutras of Apastamba”. Not that I disagree, it’s all making up stories in an attempt to explain the world.

  2. Simon Musgrave says:

    Planck was not so aphoristic alas. What he said was:
    A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. Wikiquotes

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      By rejecting any reliance on central authority, the members of a research field can coordinate their independent efforts

      I’d like to see that claim expanded in the context of the irreproducability of many experiments (for experimental disciplines) and the lack of disprovability that is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of theoretical disciplines.

      One would expect that even in the most abstruse of theoretical fields, when clear evidence emerges that central claims cannot possibly be true, that the discipline would react in some way other than “nananana we can’t hear you” or the social science love of the no true Scotsman fallacy (“that’s not real communism/Islam/neoliberalism”).

      I’m currently waiting for my copy of Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis to arrive, because based on reviews it suggests that many economists can’t afford even a glancing nod to observable reality. But then… is economics a science, and if so does that make proactive phrenology medicine?

  3. derrida derider says:

    Economic truth is, as so many other truths about the world, hard to settle on. But that doesn’t licence anyone to throw up their arms and say “it’s all too hard” and just believe what the tribe they identify with believes. Which is what I think so many of the critics of modern economics do.

    Romer’s critique is very much of MACROeconomics. Yes, he’s right to be strident about it – things like the Reinhart and Rogoff scandal (especially the lack of serious sanctions for it) are symptoms of a sick intellectual culture. But noneconomists should realise macro is only a relatively small part (admittedly a practically important one) of economics. The problems elsewhere are not usually quite so resistant to the scientific method, so sociology does not play quite as dominant a part in deciding opinion.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks DD

      The reading I did on the R&R scandal led me to believe that it was an innocent mistake – which was corrected in a way that reflected well on R&R to the extent that they made their data available.

      I’d like to see sanctions for lots of other barking mad propositions – like Lucas’s comment in his Nobel acceptance speech(pdf):

      Central bankers and even some monetary economists talk knowledgeably of using high interest rates to control inflation, but I know of no evidence from even one economy linking these variables in a useful way

      But I might be missing your point. What sanctions do you think were appropriate?

      • derrida derider says:

        R&R made an incredibly sloppy but innocent mistake, but that was the least of the problems with their work. A crappy single variable OLS with a sample size of 20, of which they accidentally left out four outliers so that even that was all wrong? A terribly simplistic and bias-generating weighting schema, from people supposed to be serious social scientists? What the hell were their referees thinking? They’d have flunked a second year undergraduate who handed in such rubbish – but then no second year undergraduate is a friend and colleague.

        And most damning of all, R&R did not make their data available for two years despite repeated requests, until someone published a failed replication. And eventually issued a non-apology apology.

        But really the story of R&R is a great example of what Romer is on about – crap is not questioned if it comes from the right people.

  4. Moz
    It was getting too squeezed:-)
    Re “meter” am told that in Indian cosmology in the beginning the Gods were not immortal and lived in constant fear of the bright shining blades of creation, the gods only became immortal when they stole meter( can’t remember from whom) and wrapped themselves in it and so became immortal. And consequent to that ,there wasn’t that much meter left over for mere humans ( let alone for economists ).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.