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Does it — really — take a model to beat a model? No!

Summary:
From Lars Syll Many economists respond to criticism by saying that ‘all models are wrong’ … But the observation that ‘all models are wrong’ requires qualification by the second part of George Box’s famous aphorism — ‘but some are useful’ … The relevant  criticism of models in macroeconomics and finance is not that they are ‘wrong’ but that they have not proved useful in macroeconomics and have proved misleading in finance. When we provide such a critique, we often hear another mantra to which many economists subscribe: ‘It takes a model to beat a model.’ On the contrary, we believe that it takes facts and observations to beat a model … If a model fails to answer the problem to which it is addressed, it should be put back in the toolbox … It is not necessary to have an alternative tool

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from Lars Syll

Many economists respond to criticism by saying that ‘all models are wrong’ … But the observation that ‘all models are wrong’ requires qualification by the second part of George Box’s famous aphorism — ‘but some are useful’ … The relevant  criticism of models in macroeconomics and finance is not that they are ‘wrong’ but that they have not proved useful in macroeconomics and have proved misleading in finance.

Does it — really — take a model to beat a model? No!When we provide such a critique, we often hear another mantra to which many economists subscribe: ‘It takes a model to beat a model.’ On the contrary, we believe that it takes facts and observations to beat a model … If a model fails to answer the problem to which it is addressed, it should be put back in the toolbox … It is not necessary to have an alternative tool available to know that the plumber who arrives armed only with a screwdriver is not the tradesman we need.

A similar critique yours truly sometimes encounters is that as long as I cannot come up with some own alternative model to the failing mainstream models, I shouldn’t expect people to pay attention.

This is, however, not only wrong for the reasons given by Kay and King, but is also to utterly misunderstand the role of philosophy and methodology of economics!

Clearing obstacles to science by clarifying limits and consequences of choosing specific modelling strategies, assumptions, and ontologies — that’s what philosophy and methodology can contribute to economics.

Does it — really — take a model to beat a model? No!It takes a model to beat a model has to be one of the stupider things, in a pretty crowded field, to come out of economics … I don’t get it. If a model is demonstrably wrong, that should surely be sufficient for rejection. I’m thinking of bridge engineers: ‘look I know they keep falling down but I’m gonna keep building them like this until you come up with a better way, OK?’

Jo Michell

Commenting on my critique of mainstream economics some colleagues argue that if we are going be taken seriously we also need to come up with a new and better theory. This is what Joan Robinson has to say on the issue:

It is often said that one theory can be driven out only by another; the neoclassicals have a complete theory (though I maintain it is nothing but a circular argument) and we need a better theory to supplant them. I do not agree. I think any other ‘complete theory’ would be only another box of tricks. What we need is a different habit of mind — to eschew fudging, to respect facts and to admit ignorance of what we do not know.

About Lars Syll
Lars Syll
Lars Jörgen Pålsson Syll (born November 5, 1957) is a Swedish economist who is a Professor of Social Studies and Associate professor of Economic History at Malmö University College. Pålsson Syll has been a prominent contributor to the economic debate in Sweden over the global financial crisis that began in 2008.

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