Economics

Sorry, But Economics Isn't 'Astrology for Dudes'

The dismal science can explain lots of things with data and theory. Astrologers explain nothing.

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Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse recently took to Twitter to comment on the relative merits of academic disciplines. He declared that hard sciences, humanities and even sports are superior to the social sciences. But economists were spared the worst of his scorn, as he declared the field superior to all other social sciences.

It’s unlikely that Sasse has much specific knowledge of the disciplines in question, and that the Republican senator’s disdain for social science comes mainly from the common allegation that sociology, anthropology and social psychology have a left-wing bias. His grudging compliment of economics probably comes from the stereotype of econ as a more rightward-leaning discipline.

The latter stereotype appears to be shared many on the other side of the political spectrum. For example, Daily Beast writer Erin Gloria Ryan responded to Sasse’s tweet by declaring that “economics is astrology for dudes.” Her post was retweeted more than 5,000 times.

Is Ryan right? The “for dudes” part, sadly, often is true. Only about 13 percent of tenured U.S. economists are women. Only a single woman -- the late Elinor Ostrom -- has ever received the Nobel prize in the field. The undergraduate major is also very male-dominated. As academics, women tend to be given less credit for co-authored economic research, and women’s papers tend to take much  longer to make it through peer review. Sexist attitudes are rampant in the field, as evidenced by recent research analyzing an anonymous internet forum dedicated to discussing economics academia.

So economics certainly has a sexism problem. But, as a scientific enterprise, is it at all similar to astrology? Absolutely not.

First of all, astrology doesn’t work. You can’t predict people’s personalities or life outcomes from the astronomical phenomena that were present at their birth. Economics, in contrast, has a number of theories that work well. Economic theories can accurately predict which kind of auctions will get customers to pay the most while still being satisfied with their purchases. They can increase the number people who get needed organ transplants. They can predict who will ride a train before the train is even built. And they can predict how much countries will trade with each other when trade barriers are lifted.

So while astrology is pseudoscientific bunk -- useful only for fun and games -- economics is often just as practically useful and predictively accurate as a natural science.

Moreover, much of economics today doesn’t put theory first at all. Over the past three decades, the field has become much more empirical. Economists are out there studying the impact of mobility vouchers on lifetime earnings (it’s big), the effects of minimum wage on employment (it’s small), and the effect of paid parental leave on economic security (it’s big). These and many other crucially important, timely policy questions can be answered much more reliably with empirical economics. The honest, careful researchers out there combing through data and paying close attention to the minutiae of statistical methodology are not wasting their time -- and they don’t deserve to be called astrologers.

So why does the negative stereotype persist? University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak has  an answer. For decades, a loose alliance of think-tank researchers, political advisers, pundits and a few ideologically driven academics publicized a folk version of economic theory that had little resemblance to what the people in academic departments really do or think. In this cartoon caricature of econ -- which expresses a blithe certainty and a disdain for evidence that few economists actually hold -- markets always work well, taxes and regulation are always bad, inequality doesn’t matter, monopoly power isn’t a threat and business people are perfectly rational beings.

This sort of libertarian pop economics, which Kwak calls “economism,” provokes grumbles among serious academic economists, who are upset to see their theories and empirical results misrepresented or ignored, and who in any case tend to lean politically to the left. But those grumbles rarely escape the ivory tower -- a mistake, perhaps, in that the determination of most academic economists not to get involved in politics ends up abandoning the field to the ideologically driven popularizers.

The stereotype created by economism is doubtless responsible for Sasse’s compliment and Ryan’s scorn alike. In order for economics and economists to have a more positive impact on the national discussion, that stereotype has to go in the trashcan. Writers and politicians should be more aware of the careful, intellectually honest, data-driven nature of most of modern economics. And academics need to do a better job educating the public about this. Econ has plenty of flaws, but astrology it is not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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