Discussion Paper

No. 2007-43 | September 07, 2007
Science and Ideology in Economic, Political and Social Thought

Abstract

This paper has two sources: One is my own research in three broad areas: business cycles, economic measurement and social choice. In all of these fields I attempted to apply the basic precepts of the scientific method as it is understood in the natural sciences. I found that my effort at using natural science methods in economics was met with little understanding and often considerable hostility. I found economics to be driven less by common sense and empirical evidence, than by various ideologies that exhibited either a political or a methodological bias, or both. This brings me to the second source: Several books have appeared recently that describe in historical terms the ideological forces that have shaped either the direct areas in which I worked, or a broader background. These books taught me that the ideological forces in the social sciences are even stronger than I imagined on the basis of my own experiences.
The scientific method is the antipode to ideology. I feel that the scientific work that I have done on specific, long standing and fundamental problems in economics and political science have given me additional insights into the destructive role of ideology beyond the history of thought orientation of the works I will be discussing.

JEL Classification

B40 C50 D6 D71 E32

Cite As

Claude Hillinger (2007). Science and Ideology in Economic, Political and Social Thought. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2007-43, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2007-43

Assessment



Comments and Questions


Bhaskara (Bill) RAO - Comments
September 30, 2007 - 03:25

Dear Prof.Hillinger,

Thank you very much for a thought provoking paper. I only wish that it were about 30 pages instead of 60 plus pages.

I take the view that the scientific method can be applied to subjects like economics, sociology, politics and even to astrology. However, unlike ...[more]

... in physical sciences it is difficult to make predictions with accuracy. This is so because individuals have their own minds and differ in making decisions. Imagine that atoms have their own minds. Can we generate accurate predictions in physics? Astrology fails totally, in spite of its pretence, because its basic assumptions are false or never conclusively established.

No matter what are our views on how to make economics more scientific e.g., continuous time non-linear dynamic formulations etc., it is hard to make its predictions as accurate as in some physical sciences because its phenomena are highly volatile. Therefore, a pragmatic approach is to accept generalizations as long as they are not refuted.

If ideologically different approaches give different predictions/explanations e.g., Keynesian and monetarist approaches, it is hard to judge them on refutation principle. The vast amount of empirical work on these two approaches so far didn’t favour one over the other. Therefore, ideology also plays a role e.g., like religion and various cults etc. Which is the dominant ideology and who is the dominant Guru seems to depend on the history. Keynes was dominant in the post depression period and Friedman was dominant during the high inflation period. I guess that Solow and Paul Romer will be the dominant Gurus in the near future.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that while physics and chemistry are no doubt A plus sciences economics at the most can only be a B grade science no matter how deeply we go into methodology & philosophy.


Claude Hillinger - Reply
October 03, 2007 - 12:27

Dear Bill:

Your comment is somewhat ambiguous. At the outset you claim that the scientific method is applicable everywhere – from economics to astrology – but you don’t say how and in the rest of your comment you seem to rather identify the scientific method with the discovery of ...[more]

... exact relationships of the kind you find in physics and chemistry. The views you express there are rather common and in my view unreflected. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss these views in the present forum. To the extent that I may be attacking a straw man as far as your own views are concerned, I apologize in advance.

My reply has two parts: In the first (Part A) I discuss the validity of your argument. In the second part (B) I ask what implications those who hold this view might reasonable be expected to draw.

Part A. Is science limited to the study of exact relationships that cannot be found in relation to human action?

Let me first summarize our respective positions: We seem to agree that economics is in an inferior position, dominated by ideology rather than science. I claim that this is due to ideological influences resulting in a cavalier attitude towards facts and general intellectual sloppiness. You feel that it is the intractable nature of the subject and the resulting need to fill the void resulting from the lack of science with ideology.

The idea that serious science is limited to the determination exact quantitative relations does not survive scrutiny. Take meteorology: Here the uncertainty both in short-term weather forecasting and in long-range climate forecasting are so great that it gave birth to mathematical chaos theory. The difficulties just spur the scientists to greater efforts at getting relevant data. For this, they send balloons into the stratosphere and and bore kilometers deep into the arctic ice. For such efforts economists have neither the funding nor the interest.

Take evolutionary biology: It is unquestionably scientific, jet it makes not predictions of any kind. This is also a good p lace to look at the role of ideology. Evolution still has many mysteries, but that does not tempt scientist to fill the gaps with ideology. The ideologists are the religious fundamentalists. primarily in the US, but unfortunately also spreading to Europe, who try to fore schools, via political pressure, to teach creationism as being an alternative of equal scientific standing. None of us is immune against error, but the honest man tries to free himself from it instead of imposing dogmas on others.

B. What if economics cannot be scientific.

This is a big topic that I can only touch upon here. The ideology of scientism, that regards science, or the pretense thereof, as the only knowledge that counts, was unfortunately propounded by scientists themselves in the formative period when they were in conflict with religious and other authorities. But, there is common sense, the foundation of all else, and honest scholarship that advances knowledge without claiming the high ground of ‘science’.

Those who deny that economics can be a science along the lines of physics have mostly been silent as to what positive achievements, if any, it is capable of. Nor, has any convincing alternative been put forward.

It seems to me that those who believe that economics cannot produce reliable knowledge and must instead partake in the propagation of ideology would do a genuine service to society if they would turn to teaching high school mathematics instead of economics.


Massimo Florio - Claude Hillinger on ideology in economics
October 01, 2007 - 12:58

I enjoyed reading this paper. Please see my comments in the attachment.


Claude Hillinger - Reply
October 03, 2007 - 20:28

Dear Massimo:

I am very appreciative of your sympathetic and insightful remarks and particularly also your effort at providing some guidelines to readers who may feel overwhelmed by all of the diverse topics.

Evidently I don’t have much of a quarrel with what you are saying. I will ...[more]

... elaborate a bit regarding the difficulties you mention at the outset. Regarding your concluding remarks I have some differences of emphasis.

Ideology is in my view perhaps the most important topic facing humanity; it is at the same time the least understood. Ideology in most discussions is simply the politics that we disagree with. The Twentieth Century has been rightly named the century of ideology. It gave us Communism, Fascism and the associated disasters. Now we have a mixture; on the one hand still all sorts of ideological beliefs, on the other a general disbelief in anything. Ideology in economics and social science is just an aspect of this, though an important one. Evidently, the theme is enormous and only some fragmentary remarks can be made here.

I have just started to read the most fascinating book that I have come across in a long time: It is the Empire of Debt by Bonner and Wiggen. While the book is specifically about the American empire, it is equally about empires generally. A major theme of the book is the increasingly delusionary nature of the beliefs that permeate especially modern empires. Economics and the other social science have been a part of this delusionary system for the American empire.

As described on my home page, that you also mention, it has been a struggle for me in this atmosphere to do and publish the work I wanted to do. Much is as jet left undone. For the past several years I have tried to pull the strings together and publish a series of articles that summarize my work and thought. The aim is ultimately to publish these together as a book.

I do not expect that someone reading the present article can come to qualified judgments regarding the various topics discussed and mentioned by you. I do believe that a reader might start to think about the subject of ideology in general and his own beliefs. He may also wish to pursue one or the other topic more deeply.

It is true that I am more pessimistic than you are. At least in the areas that I am familiar with I see decline rather than advance. In macroeconomics for example, during the height of the internet boom, it was often stated inside and outside of economics that all relevant macroeconomic knowledge was hidden in the windings of Fed. Chairman Allen Greenspan’s brain; he was assumed to be either unwilling or unable to impart it to others. Now we know that he produced a gigantic credit bubble that may still take years to unwind.

Bonner and Wiggin state what I would like to call their law: The faster an empire rises, the faster it goes down. The US is doing all it can too prove them right! The social sciences are pointing the way: From McNamara’s MIT ‘Whiz kids’ who led the way to Vietnam to the contemporary Neo-liberals and Neocons.

Evidently, I can exhaust myself, but not the topic, so I will stop here.

Thanks again and best wishes.


Anonymous - Response to Prof. Hillinger
October 06, 2007 - 02:42

Dear Professor Hillinger,

Thank you for your response. Perhaps we met at a conference in Germany in the early/mid 1990s and I have great admiration for your works and views.
I am sorry that you found that my response is ambiguous. I don’t think I took the view that ...[more]

... “science is limited to the study of exact relationships”. Therefore, what you said in Part B of your response doesn’t interest me.
You have accurately summarised our differences in Part A of your response. We both agree that economics is like a B grade science because exact relationships, which are abundant or potentially abundant in physical sciences, are hard to find in relation to human actions. You took the view that ideological influences result in a cavalier attitude towards facts and general intellectual sloppiness. I took the view that ideological dependency is due to the intractable nature of the subject and the resulting need to fill the void.
Ideologies in economics, unlike elsewhere, have their own logic and philosophical foundations. Intellectual sloppiness exists in some applications of various ideologies. There are some very naive applications of both the monetarist and Keynesian approaches. Such intellectual sloppiness is avoidable. However, I hesitate to assert that one of these ideologies is based on cavalier attitudes to facts and intellectual sloppiness.

Best regards,
Bill Rao


Anonymous - Referee Report
December 11, 2007 - 12:05

see attached file


Anonymous - Decision of the Associate Editor
December 11, 2007 - 12:06

see attached file