May 26, 2016

Methodological wrong-way drivers

Comment on Asad Zaman on ‘Economists confuse Greek method with science’


The most ridiculous mistake of heterodox economists is that they take the claim of orthodox economists seriously that what they do is science. It is not. It is what Feynman called a cargo cult or look-alike science. Because of this, the methodological critique of Heterodoxy regularly runs into a vacuum. Here is the exact point where the discussion plunges into utter confusion.

(i) “As with any Lakatosian research program, the neo-Walrasian program is characterized by its hard core, heuristics, and protective belts. Without asserting that the following characterization is definitive, I have argued that the program is organized around the following propositions: HC1 economic agents have preferences over outcomes; HC2 agents individually optimize subject to constraints; HC3 agent choice is manifest in interrelated markets; HC4 agents have full relevant knowledge; HC5 observable outcomes are coordinated, and must be discussed with reference to  equilibrium states.”
(ii) “By definition, the hard-core propositions are taken to be true and irrefutable by those who adhere to the program. ‘Taken to be true’ means that the hard-core functions like axioms for a geometry, maintained for the duration of study of that geometry.” (Weintraub, 1985, p. 147)

The mistake is in part (ii), that is, in “taken to be true and irrefutable”. No genuine scientist makes the claim that his hard-core propositions, a.k.a. axioms, are irrefutable. This is, or should be, well-known to every economist: “Whether an axiom is or is not valid can be ascertained either through direct experimentation or by verification through the result of observations, or, if such a thing is impossible, the correctness of the axiom can be judged through the indirect method of verifying the laws which proceed from the axiom by observation or experimentation. (If the axiom is deemed to be incorrect it must be modified or instead a correct axiom must be found.)” (Morishima, 1984, p. 53)

The claim that axioms are irrefutable is quite simply silly. Asad Zaman, however, does not get the point: “I am single-mindedly focused on one central idea here. What I call the Greek Method, is the Axiomatic-Deductive method. This method has no possibility of conflict with observations. This because axiom are certainties, and logical deductions from axioms are equally certain.”

The mistake is in “axioms are certainties”. Axioms are taken as TENTATIVE certainties for the duration of analysis and NOT as absolute or irrefutable certainties. Axioms are, as a matter of principle, open to scrutiny and revision. The best-known example is the critique of the axiom of parallels and the subsequent development of non-Euclidean geometries. Paradigm shift means replacement of axiomatic foundations, either because they are false or more general axioms have been found.

Hence, Asad Zaman’s assertion “This method has no possibility of conflict with observations” is patently false: “One of the most famous stories about Gauss depicts him measuring the angles of the great triangle formed by the mountain peaks of Hohenhagen, Inselberg, and Brocken for evidence that the geometry of space is non-Euclidean.” (Brown, 2011, p. 565)

Asad Zaman is so single-mindlessly focused on his methodological hallucination that he cannot see the elephant in the economics living room. All one has to do is to critically re-read section (i) above. What should become clear immediately is that HC2, HC4, HC5 are not acceptable as axioms and therefore the whole set is unacceptable. The axiomatic foundation of standard economics is PROVABLE false. As a consequence, the whole logical superstructure from supply-demand-equilibrium onward is false.

The heterodox methodological idiocy consists in rejecting the axiomatic-deductive method instead of replacing the false Walrasian axiom set by correct heterodox axioms.* To repeat ad nauseam that Orthodoxy is rubbish is, while true, not a noteworthy scientific achievement. Both, orthodox AND heterodox economists are methodological wrong-way drivers.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Brown, K. (2011). Reflections on Relativity. Raleigh, NC:
Morishima, M. (1984). The Good and Bad Use of Mathematics. In P. Wiles, and G. Routh (Eds.), Economics in Disarry, pages 51–73. Oxford: Blackwell.
Weintraub, E. R. (1985). Joan Robinson’s Critique of Equilibrium: An Appraisal. American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 75(2): 146–149. URL

* See also
Causa finita
Axiomatics — the heterodox bugbear
Over the cliff

Immediately following post 'The consistent ancients and the confused moderns'.