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Mainstream economics — a harmful fantasy

Summary:
From Lars Syll Anyone who accepts the Neoclassical definition of ‘rational’ has, to some significant degree, lost touch with reality. So, I was expecting an ‘irrational’ reaction from this young zealot to my talk … He tried to engage me in further debate after the session, and shouted ‘But we have to make some simplifying assumptions!’ at me as I left the seminar room. My riposte, cast over my receding shoulder, was ‘Mate, you have to learn the difference between a simplifying assumption and a fantasy’. Many mainstream economists working in the field of economic theory think that their task is to give us analytical truths. That is great — from a mathematical and formal logical point of view. In science, however, it is rather uninteresting and totally uninformative! The framework of the

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from Lars Syll

Mainstream economics — a harmful fantasyAnyone who accepts the Neoclassical definition of ‘rational’ has, to some significant degree, lost touch with reality. So, I was expecting an ‘irrational’ reaction from this young zealot to my talk …

He tried to engage me in further debate after the session, and shouted ‘But we have to make some simplifying assumptions!’ at me as I left the seminar room. My riposte, cast over my receding shoulder, was ‘Mate, you have to learn the difference between a simplifying assumption and a fantasy’.

Many mainstream economists working in the field of economic theory think that their task is to give us analytical truths. That is great — from a mathematical and formal logical point of view. In science, however, it is rather uninteresting and totally uninformative! The framework of the analysis is too narrow. Even if economic theory gives us ‘logical’ truths, that is not what we are looking for as scientists. We are interested in finding truths that give us new information and knowledge of the world in which we live.

Scientific theories are theories that ‘refer’ to the real-world, where axioms and definitions do not take us very far. To be of interest for an economist or social scientist that wants to understand, explain, or predict real-world phenomena, the pure theory has to be ‘interpreted’ — it has to be ‘applied’ theory. An economic theory that does not go beyond proving theorems and conditional ‘if-then’ statements — and do not make assertions and put forward hypotheses about real-world individuals and institutions — is of little consequence for anyone wanting to use theories to better understand, explain or predict real-world phenomena.

Building theories and models on unjustified patently ridiculous assumptions we know people never conform to, does not deliver real science. Real and reasonable people have no reason to believe in ‘as-if’ models of ‘rational’ robot-imitations acting and deciding in a Walt Disney-world characterised by ‘common knowledge,’ ‘full information,’ ‘rational expectations,’ zero  transaction costs, given stochastic probability distributions, risk-reduced genuine uncertainty, and other laughable nonsense assumptions of the same ilk. Science fiction is not science.

Much work done in mainstream theoretical economics is devoid of any explanatory interest. And not only that. Seen from a strictly scientific point of view, it has no value at all. It is a waste of time. And as so many have been experiencing in modern times of austerity policies and market fundamentalism — a very harmful waste of time.

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

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