Economists and biology

Mike the Mad Biologist has posted this piece on economists’ understanding of biology. He pulls apart some statements by Russ Roberts and suggests that if economists are going to use biology as a model for the economics discipline, they should try to understand it first.

Naturally, I agree with this. Apart from preventing the mangling of biological concepts when using a biological analogy, there is a lot in biology that could benefit economics.

However, Mike then moves to one of his favourite topics, which is the use of “stupid … natural history facts” in biology and their seeming absence in economics. As he states when comparing economics and biology, “the really key difference is that biology has accepted modes of confronting theories and, importantly, discarding them“.

I agree that economics has more models floating around for which there does not seem to be  factual support. But I am not sure that there is a general lack of empirical work in economics. This hits on one of Russ Robert’s favourite issues, which is the use of complex statistical techniques to empirically validate theories. Statistics can be as misused as theoretical models. Take the back-and-forth on “more guns, less crime” or the impact of legalised abortion on crime. The debate is now predominantly about data and neither side has conceded. As Roberts usually asks, how many economists have changed their mind on the basis of an empirical study? I don’t know of many.

On the flip side, did Dawkins or Gould (or their respective supporters) ever concede to the other side that they were wrong and substantially change their world view?

So why does biology discard theories out of sync with the facts more readily than economics? I can only suggest that economics is more prone to personal bias. The issue government spending tends to elicit a stronger response than whether a particular gene is pleiotropic. Many evolutionary biologists have strong views on economics (as a read of Mike’s blog will show), while most economists probably aren’t overly concerned about evolutionary biology. Perhaps we should ask how many evolutionary biologists have fundamentally changed their economic or political views in the face of data?

Update: Some follow up on whether biologists can admit they are wrong by Razib Khan.

Update 2: And Mike the Mad Biologist with some further thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Economists and biology

  1. I don’t know; there are an awful lot of theories that have hung on for decades in evolutionary biology. I do get the feeling that reductionist theories are easier to deal with, and discard, than “world system” theories. Lamarckism comes to a crux on a single kind of observation in a way that Marxism does not. But the kin vs group selection debate seems never-ending precisely because many empirical cases can be reframed from both perspectives, with some vivid dispute about the relevance of some facts.

  2. The facts that the iconic partisans of a position don’t change sides doesn’t necessarily mean that battles of ideas aren’t won and lost. As “the paradigm of scientific revolutions” notes, these kinds of conflicts don’t ultimately die until everyone on the losing side is dead. But, that doesn’t mean that converts aren’t being won over in the mean time.

    Supply and demand has triumphed over the labor theory of value. Very few professional PhD economists adhere to the pure lassiez-faire model that college students begin studying as a point of depature in Econ 101. The fact that unemployment is a lagging indicator of a business cycle, while the stock market is a leading indicator of a business cycle, when the business cycle is defined in GDP growth terms, is uncontroversial. Price fixing has seen a bipartisan drop in popularity. Nobody denies that incentives matter.

    Also, old discarded concepts that are disproven can often be reconceptualized and find a scientific basis. Lamarckism is dead, but the notion that environmental effects in a parent can produce congenital impacts in a child independent of that child’s upbringing has also been well established and is reputable now that mechanisms for that kind of change such as epigenetic germline alteration and environmentally induced germline mutations have been discovered.

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