Intellectual Support for Mainstream Economics
by Philip Pilkington
If you read Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method closely and you take the argument seriously a rather unnerving fact comes to light: namely, that the argument contained therein lends full intellectual support to mainstream marginalist economics.
While the theories of philosophers like, say, Popper or Lakatos can easily be applied to refute marginalist economics by showing either that is inconsistent with the facts or is a ‘degenerating research program’, Feyerabend’s approach actually lends it weight.
Feyerabend’s argument is that a theory cannot be judged simply based on the facts that supposedly refute it or on the ad hoc propositions that are often needed to support it. Rather new theories must be seen as advancing new paradigms that may appear strange and counter-factual at first but which nevertheless require time to gain momentum and for other existing theories to catch up. Consider the following passage which nicely sums up this view,
Observations become relevant only after the processes described by these new subjects have been inserted between the world and the eye. The language in which we express our observations may have to be revised as well so that the new cosmology receives a fair chance and is not endangered by an unnoticed collaboration of sensations and older ideas. In sum : what is needed for a test of Copernicus is an entirely new world-view containing a new view of man and of his capacities of knowing. (pp111-112)
Thus the new view is arbitrarily separated from data that supported its predecessor and is made more ‘metaphysical’: a new period in the history of science commences with a backward movement that returns us to an earlier stage where theories were more vague and had smaller empirical content. This backward movement is not just an accident; it has a definite function; it is essential if we want to overtake the status quo, for it gives us the time and the freedom that are needed for developing the main view in detail, and for finding the necessary auxiliary sciences. (pp113-114)
If we take this argument seriously — and I think we must because Feyerabend makes a very strong case that this is how science progresses — then much about contemporary economics can be forgiven. When people complain about the absurd simplifying hypotheses that economic models are based on, when they raise objections that the models just cannot be squared with the facts, and when they say that various parts of mainstream economic thought are in complete disharmony with one another, all these gripes can be overcome by looking at the history of the development of science and saying “But it was always so…”.
What philosophers of science are really complaining about when they discuss mainstream economics is that the discipline does not fall in line with what they understand good reasoning to consist of. That is, they are complaining that judged by the standards of modern science — both hard science and social science — mainstream economics is a hopeless farce. But as Feyerabend shows so convincingly when judged in terms of then contemporary Aristotelianism, which was highly empirical, the theories of Galileo and Copernicus were hopelessly flawed.
One might say then that mainstream economics is so far ahead of contemporary social science that we cannot judge either its methodology or its results by the standards of other social sciences. Indeed, we could actually lend this considerable weight by pointing out how these sciences are now adopting techniques that were first deployed in economics and were developed specifically in line with its methodology — I have in mind, of course, econometrics. This could then be seen as proof that these disciplines are gradually moving in the same methodological direction as economics and thus that economics as a paradigm is taking over the social sciences.
Actually, I have long thought all of the above. I have no doubt in my mind that the economic paradigm is spreading rapidly through the social sciences. But here’s a thought: what if the process that Feyerabend spots in the development of science also works in reverse. What I mean is, what if the very same process that moves Man in the direction of progress and Enlightenment can also work to move Man in the direction of regress and intellectual darkness? What if that which sheds light on matters is the very same thing that submerges them in darkness?
I see no reason to assume that this cannot happen. Indeed, what Feyerabend’s arguments tell us is that there is no Scientific Method with a capital ‘S’ and a capital ‘M’. Rather Man is just groping in the dark trying to find his way in the world. That this process of groping may lead him in the direction of absurdity and dogma just as it may lead him in the direction of clarity and truth should be no surprise.
And what does this say about criticisms of mainstream economics from philosophers of science? Well, they are largely meaningless and can easily be ignored. They might be nice from a rhetorical point-of-view — although these days saying in academia that something is not ‘scientific’ often comes across about as sophisticated as comparing someone on the internet to Hitler — but they have no real meaning.
Rather it needs to be recognized that economics is not and never can really be a science. It is instead a tool of governance and very little else. In this sense mainstream economics works perfectly as it should in that it supports a certain mode of governance. Of course, mainstream economics cannot produce the results that it seeks — it does not lead to stability, full employment and growth — but that raises entirely different questions that are related to whether this economics is fit for purpose. It has nothing to do with how ‘scientific’ mainstream economics is.