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Noah Smith

Economics Has a Math Problem

The field begins to look like others that rely on data.
An economics department in the future.

An economics department in the future.

Photographer: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

A lot of people complain about the math in economics. Economists tend to quietly dismiss such complaints as the sour-grapes protests of literary types who lack the talent or training to hack their way through systems of equations. But it isn't just the mathematically illiterate who grouse. New York University economist Paul Romer -- hardly a lightweight when it comes to equations -- recently complained about how economists use math as a tool of rhetoric instead of a tool to understand the world. 

Personally, I think that what’s odd about econ isn’t that it uses lots of math -- it’s the way it uses math. In most applied math disciplines -- computational biology, fluid dynamics, quantitative finance -- mathematical theories are always tied to the evidence. If a theory hasn’t been tested, it’s treated as pure conjecture.