November 2, 2015

Free the academy from economics

Comment on David Ruccio on ‘Academic unfreedom in economics’


You say “Most departments of economics [in North America] offer — in the classroom and in terms of research and policy advice — only mainstream economics. By that I mean they hire economists who only teach, conduct research, and offer policy advice defined by one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics. Other approaches to economics — generally, these days, referred to as heterodox economics — simply aren’t recognized by or represented within those departments.” (See intro)

There is a big problem here. Imagine, the followers of Geo-centrism complain that academia is dominated by the followers of Helio-centrism. Or that the Astrologers and Alchemists complain that there is no place for them in academia. Would anyone seriously conclude from these facts that there is unfreedom in physics, astronomy or chemistry?

The real problem is this. Academia is, loosely speaking, committed to science — this is the original idea. And science is well-defined by material and formal consistency (Klant, 1994, p. 31). To recall, when Plato founded the first academy he explicitly excluded what he considered as nonscientists: "Let None But Geometers Enter Here." (See Wikipedia)

The practical problem is that it is not always easy to establish material and formal consistency and this is what the demarcation problem has always been about, that is, how to draw a clear line between science and nonscience. “The problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the other, I call the problem of demarcation. This problem was known to Hume who attempted to solve it. With Kant it became the central problem in the theory of knowledge.” (Popper, 1980, p. 34)

As good sophist, McCloskey has given the whole topic a social spin, insinuating that demarcation is the same as discrimination: “In practice methodology serves chiefly to demarcate Us from Them, demarcating science from nonscience. Once the modernist have found a Bantustan for nonscience such as astrology, psychoanalysis, acupuncture, nutritional medicine, Marxist economics, spoonbending, or anything else they do not wish to discuss, they can get on with the business at hand with a clear head. Methodology and its corollary, the Demarcation Problem (What is Science? How is It to be distinguished from nonscience?), are ways at stopping conversation by limiting conversation to people on our side of the demarcation line.” (1998, p. 161)

Contrary to this subtle redefinition it has to be affirmed that demarcation is not only legitimate but necessary in order to protect the integrity of science, which consists in upholding the distinction between true and false regardless of any other criteria.

It is pretty clear who should be in and who should be out: “A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. ... A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent. (Haack, 1997, p. 1)

Therefore, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between political and theoretical economics. The main differences are:
(i) The goal of political economics is to push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to explain how the actual economy works.
(ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics scientific standards are observed.

Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and nothing else. The history of political economics, on the other hand, can be summarized as the perpetual violation of well-defined scientific standards.

The fact of the matter is that theoretical economics has from the very beginning been dominated by the agenda pushers of political economics. Smith and Mill fought against the precapitalistic order, Marx and Keynes were agenda pushers, so were Hayek and Friedman, and so are Krugman and Varoufakis.

Political economics is scientifically worthless. Economics is a failed science. Orthodox economics does not satisfy scientific criteria, neither does Heterodoxy (see for example 2011).

Theoretical economics has been hijacked by politics and intrumentalized. Political economics in turn has occupied academia. Academic freedom means not only to get rid of Neoclassical economics but of all of economics as far as it is political economics. There can be no freedom and pluralism of false theories. Academic freedom does not include the freedom to push a political agenda, neither to talk plain scientific junk. Both, current Othodoxy and Hetrodoxy has to go the way of astrology.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Haack, S. (1997). Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism. Skeptical Inquirer, 21(6): 1–7. URL
Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2011). Why Post Keynesianism is Not Yet a Science. SSRN Working Paper Series, 1966438: 1–20. URL
Klant, J. J. (1994). The Nature of Economic Thought. Aldershot, Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar.
McCloskey, D. N. (1998). The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison, WI, London: University of Wisconsin, 2nd edition.
Popper, K. R. (1980). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London, Melbourne, Sydney: Hutchison, 10th edition.

* See the related posts ‘The case for pure economics’ and ‘Time to get rid of political economics’ and ‘Heterodoxy: promising or hopeless?’ and 'How to be a good scientist'