Economics isn't 'astrology for dudes'

US Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently took to Twitter to comment that the hard sciences, humanities and even sports are superior to the social sciences. PHOTO: AFP

United States Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently took to Twitter to comment on the relative merits of academic disciplines. He declared that the hard sciences, humanities and even sports are superior to the social sciences.

But economists were spared the worst of his scorn, as he declared the field superior to all other social sciences. It's unlikely that Mr Sasse has much specific knowledge of the disciplines in question, and that the Republican senator's disdain for social science comes mainly from the common allegation that sociology, anthropology and social psychology have a left-wing bias.

His grudging compliment of economics probably comes from the stereotype of economics as a more rightward-leaning discipline. The latter stereotype appears to be shared many on the other side of the political spectrum. For example, Daily Beast writer Erin Gloria Ryan responded to Mr Sasse's tweet by declaring that "economics is astrology for dudes".

Her post was retweeted more than 5,000 times. Is Ms Ryan right? The "for dudes" part, sadly, often is true. Only about 13 per cent of tenured US economists are women. Only a single woman - the late Elinor Ostrom - has ever received the Nobel prize in the field.

The undergraduate major is also very male-dominated. As academics, women tend to be given less credit for co-authored economic research, and women's papers tend to take much longer to make it through peer review. Sexist attitudes are rampant in the field, as evidenced by recent research analysing an anonymous Internet forum dedicated to discussing economics academia. So economics certainly has a sexism problem.

But, as a scientific enterprise, is it at all similar to astrology? Absolutely not.

First of all, astrology doesn't work. You can't predict people's personalities or life outcomes from the astronomical phenomena that were present at their birth. Economics, in contrast, has a number of theories that work well.

Economic theories can accurately predict which kind of auctions will get customers to pay the most while still being satisfied with their purchases. They can increase the number of people who get needed organ transplants. They can predict who will ride a train before the train is even built. And they can predict how much countries will trade with each other when trade barriers are lifted.

So while astrology is pseudo-scientific bunk - useful only for fun and games - economics is often just as practically useful and predictively accurate as a natural science.

Moreover, much of economics today doesn't put theory first at all. Over the past three decades, the field has become much more empirical. Economists are out there studying the impact of mobility vouchers on lifetime earnings (it's big), the effects of minimum wage on employment (it's small), and the effect of paid parental leave on economic security (it's big). These and many other crucially important, timely policy questions can be answered much more reliably with empirical economics.

The honest, careful researchers out there combing through data and paying close attention to the minutiae of statistical methodology are not wasting their time - and they don't deserve to be called astrologers.

So why does the negative stereotype persist? University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak has an answer. For decades, a loose alliance of think-tank researchers, political advisers, pundits and a few ideologically driven academics publicised a folk version of economic theory that had little resemblance to what the people in academic departments really do or think.

In this cartoon caricature of economics - which expresses a blithe certainty and a disdain for evidence that few economists actually hold - markets always work well, taxes and regulation are always bad, inequality doesn't matter, monopoly power isn't a threat and business people are perfectly rational beings.

This sort of libertarian pop economics, which Prof Kwak calls "economism", provokes grumbles among serious academic economists, who are upset to see their theories and empirical results misrepresented or ignored, and who in any case tend to lean politically to the left.

But those grumbles rarely escape the ivory tower - a mistake in that the determination of most academic economists not to get involved in politics ends up abandoning the field to the ideologically driven popularisers.The stereotype created by economism is doubtless responsible for Mr Sasse's compliment and Ms Ryan's scorn alike. In order for economics and economists to have a more positive impact on the national discussion, that stereotype has to go.

Writers and politicians should be more aware of the careful, intellectually honest, data-driven nature of most of modern economics. And academics need to do a better job of educating the public about this. Economics has plenty of flaws, but astrology it is not.


Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline Economics isn't 'astrology for dudes'. Subscribe