Economics: Physics or Biology? Or Mineral?

At my boss’s 40th birthday a number of years ago, I found myself, as per usual, in a heated debate over a topic of which I knew very little. In this case, I was talking with my boss’s brother, an economics professor, over the idea that economics isn’t really a science and shouldn’t be considered as such. The man, to his credit, humored my ignorance and let me walk away feeling smug and superior knowing that I had won an argument, as it was not a battle of wits but a war of attrition.

Again, I had argued that economics wasn’t a science, but perhaps I meant that economics wasn’t an exact science.

Thankfully, we have Russ Roberts to explain this thought much better than I, then or now:

I have often said that economics, to the extent it is a science, is like biology rather than physics. Let me try to make that clearer. By biology, I do not mean the study of the human cell, which we have made a great deal of progress understanding though there is more to learn. I am thinking of biology in the sense of an ecosystem where competition and emergent order create a complex interaction of organisms and their environment. That sounds a lot like economics and of course it is. But we would never ask of biologists what the public and media ask of economists. We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time. Economists should be honest and say that the tasks they are often asked to do are outside the scope of economics as we know it and perhaps outside the scope of economics as it will ever be known.

Read the whole thing.

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