Monday, September 13, 2010

Historians versus Economists?

Gideon Rachman had a really abominable article in the FT. It is not his call for economists to become less vain that I have trouble with:
The vanity of economists needs to be challenged. Above all, their claim to scientific rigour – buttressed by models and equations – must be treated much more sceptically.
I am not really sure who is so vain. But the use of models and equations is of course misunderstood here. Models and equations are used to make arguments understandable, not to pretend. But this is not the worst. Rachman quotes Stiglitz calling for new paradigms in economics, and then argues:
For somebody educated as a historian, there is an obvious alternative conclusion to draw from Prof Stiglitz’s opening observation. And that is to conclude that the entire attempt to treat economics as a “science ... defined by its ability to forecast the future” is misconceived.
Economics is not about predicting the future. That is a straw man. It shows how little Rachman understands about economics. Fortunately, his FT colleague, Tim Harford has a good column that deals with this. Here is the money shot:
Historians deal in hindsight. It is a wonderful thing. But it is not the only thing. I wonder whether Gideon, intoxicated with a heady brew of Niall Ferguson and Herodotus, has forgotten that.

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