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Is economics nothing but a library of models?

Summary:
Is economics nothing but a library of models? Chameleons arise and are often nurtured by the following dynamic. First a bookshelf model is constructed that involves terms and elements that seem to have some relation to the real world and assumptions that are not so unrealistic that they would be dismissed out of hand. The intention of the author, let’s call him or her “Q,” in developing the model may be to say something about the real world or the goal may simply be to explore the implications of making a certain set of assumptions … If someone skeptical about X challenges the assumptions made by Q, some will say that a model shouldn’t be judged by the realism of its assumptions, since all models have assumptions that are unrealistic … Chameleons are

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Is economics nothing but a library of models?

Chameleons arise and are often nurtured by the following dynamic. First a bookshelf model is constructed that involves terms and elements that seem to have some relation to the real world and assumptions that are not so unrealistic that they would be dismissed out of hand. Is economics nothing but a library of models?The intention of the author, let’s call him or her “Q,” in developing the model may be to say something about the real world or the goal may simply be to explore the implications of making a certain set of assumptions … If someone skeptical about X challenges the assumptions made by Q, some will say that a model shouldn’t be judged by the realism of its assumptions, since all models have assumptions that are unrealistic …

Chameleons are models that are offered up as saying something significant about the real world even though they do not pass through the filter. When the assumptions of a chameleon are challenged, various defenses are made (e.g., one shouldn’t judge a model by its assumptions, any model has equal standing with all other models until the proper empirical tests have been run, etc.). In many cases the chameleon will change colors as necessary, taking on the colors of a bookshelf model when challenged, but reverting back to the colors of a model that claims to apply the real world when not challenged.

Paul Pfleiderer

As we all know, economics has become a model-based science. And in many of the methodology and philosophy of economics books published during the last two decades, this is standardly seen as something positive.

In Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules (OUP 2015) — just to take one illustrative example — economics is looked upon as nothing but a smorgasbord of ‘thought experimental’ models. For every purpose you may have, there is always an appropriate model to pick. The proliferation of economic models is unproblematically presented as a sign of great diversity and abundance of new ideas:

Rather than a single, specific model, economics encompasses a collection of models … Economics is in fact, a collection of diverse models …The possibilities of social life are too diverse to be squeezed into unique frameworks. But each economic model is like a partial map that illuminates a fragment of the terrain …

Different contexts … require different models … The correct answer to almost any question in economics is: It depends. Different models, each equally respectable, provide different answers.

But, really, there have​ to be some limits to the flexibility of a theory!

If you freely can substitute any part of the core and auxiliary sets of assumptions and still consider that you deal with the same theory, well, then it’s not a theory, but a chameleon picked from your model library.

The big problem with the mainstream cherry-picking view of models is of course that the theories and models presented get totally immunized against all critique.  A sure way to get rid of all kinds of ‘anomalies,’ yes, but at a far too high price. So people do not behave optimizing? No problem, we have models that assume satisficing! So people do not maximize expected utility? No problem, we have models that assume … etc., etc …

Clearly, it is possible to interpret the ‘presuppositions’ of a theoretical system … not as hypotheses, but simply as limitations to the area of application of the system in question. Since a relationship to reality is usually ensured by the language used in economic statements, in this case the impression is generated that a content-laden statement about reality is being made, although the system is fully immunized and thus without content. In my view that is often a source of self-deception in pure economic thought …

Is economics nothing but a library of models?A further possibility for immunizing theories consists in simply leaving open the area of application of the constructed model so that it is impossible to refute it with counter examples. This of course is usually done without a complete knowledge of the fatal consequences of such methodological strategies for the usefulness of the theoretical conception in question, but with the view that this is a characteristic of especially highly developed economic procedures: the thinking in models, which, however, among those theoreticians who cultivate neoclassical thought, in essence amounts to a new form of Platonism.

Hans Albert

A theory that accommodates any observed phenomena whatsoever by creating a new special model for the occasion, and a fortiori having no chance of being tested severely and found wanting, is of little or no real value at all.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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