Rizzo on “Methodological Exclusivism”
| Peter Klein |
Great anecdotes on contemporary social-science methodology in Mario Rizzo’s post, “The Failure of Macroeconomics” (including the comments). Young economist to senior scholar: “All that is in Adam Smith.” Senior scholar: “Maybe — but until my theory it was not science.” Deepak Lal asks distinguished colleague what should be done about the current crisis. Reply: “I do not consider that an intellectually respectable question.” My own beloved dissertation adviser indulged my quirkier interests, but stated plainly: “Methodology is a swamp.” And of course there’s the famous Ed Leamer analogy.
Here’s Mario’s take:
This is the great problem with economics today: methodological exclusivism (or in my more intemperate moments I call it “methodological fascism”).A young person goes to graduate school. He or she is filled with the excitement of ideas. Today, in particular, some may come with a great desire to understand what has happened in the real world of the bailouts, recessions, stimulus, and so forth. And then academic reality hits.
Formal modeling, axiomatic foundations, tractability, technical power, and topological studies. Shall I get an MA in mathematics? Do I need to take a third semester of macro-econometrics? . . .
It seems pretty clear that what we have is a collective insecurity. If we open the floodgates to methodological inquiry, or even worse, to methodological pluralism, we shall become like political science, or God forefend, like sociology. So let’s keep those with disruptive instincts out of the profession. If this is not possible, then let’s at least keep them out of the good schools.
If you’re feeling subversive, you can browse our methodology/theory of science archive for more forbidden thoughts.
Addendum: My former classmate and former colleague Menzie Chinn responds to Mario’s complaints about macroeconomic models. “I won’t deny that in the past 20 years, [I've] seen more than a few models that struck me as pretty irrelevant for analysis of real world issues. . . . [But] one can think of completely irrelevant frameworks for looking at the world even without a [formal] model, just as one can with a model.” True, but I don’t think this gets at Mario’s point, which is not that formal models per se should be abandoned, but that it’s okay to question their use in particular contexts, and to examine methodological issues more generally. Adds Menzie:
Furthermore, perhaps my experience in a Ph.D. program is atypical but I don’t remember being forced into a particular mode of analysis in writing my dissertation. . . . We studied Euler equations as well as the market for lemons. We knew what Arrow-Debreu markets were, but we also learned about the Great Depression (from Bernanke’s paper as well as Friedman and Schwartz). The time series econometrics taught did not presuppose optimizing behavior. We even studied models with sticky prices (gasp!). Doesn’t sound too doctrinaire to me.
That was my experience as well. But this is simply saying that there are many flavors of “orthodox” macroeconomics and many families of formal models, and some graduate programs teach more than one. It still begs the question of what counts as orthodoxy, whether other modes of theorizing (e.g., verbal logic) or empirical analysis (e.g., case studies) are legitimate, and so on. I think that is what Mario is getting at.