"The field is getting much more empirical," he tells me matter-of-factly. (Christopher Hayes quoting economist Jesse Shapiro in "Hip Heterodoxy")
You mean economics wasn't empirical before? Would never have guessed. Haye's article is worth a read, and the discussion of it at TPM Cafe is worth some time as well. It's worth it to get some sense of where economics is at this point in time, but also in thinking about some basic issues in the sociology of o knowledge. What people think with certainty to be true very often, perhaps even most often, has less to do with evidence than with underlying, mostly unconscious belief system. This is an ongoing argument I've been making in post you can find here and here. But I was struck how the so-called heterodox economists are making pretty much the same argument. For instance this passage from Thomas Palley's response to the Haye's article:
...[G]ood intentions can still produce bad outcomes, and in economics the problem starts with what I term the “science myth.” Economists subscribe to a belief that they can access truth through mathematical modeling, econometrics, and now lab experiment. This meta-view implies only one point of view can be correct. However, the reality is the scientific method can never prove things as true: it can only falsify. Moreover, the complex nature of social reality means the facts (which are themselves the subject of debate) can often be consistent with different theories. That means a truly scientific economics has to accept the co-existence of other theories, including heterodox theories, because they cannot be rejected on scientific grounds.
The science myth is one pillar of exclusion. A second pillar is the sociology of knowledge, which concerns how social forces affect knowledge production. That sociology applies in economics, though economists live in a state of denial about this because the sociology of knowledge sits so uneasily with the science myth and the idea of truth.
Economic ideas have a profound influence on real world outcomes, which means powerful social interests will seek to control what gets accepted as knowledge. Furthermore, economists are themselves members of society and will therefore be influenced by what currently passes as knowledge. On top of that economists are motivated by their own economic self-interest, which means they are willing to produce knowledge that their customers want. - be they investment banks, business think-tanks, or the IMF and World Bank. Moreover, since cognitive dissonance makes it hard to produce knowledge you do not believe in, that willingness to produce easily merges into belief. Consequently, for all of these reasons, economists can be quite comfortable producing knowledge that supports the economic interests of the rich and powerful (see The Knowledge Police in Economics).
The science myth then provides a tight cover for this knowledge. Those who gate-keep the profession, letting some ideas in and excluding others, can do so with clear conscience. Indeed, because they subscribe to the science myth most economists are blithely unaware of their gatekeeping and resentful when it is pointed out. That is because rather than seeing themselves as gatekeepers. they see themselves as truth-keepers exercising appropriate quality standards. This is one lesson from the closing of the heterodox economics department at the University of Notre Dame and its replacement by an orthodox neo-classical economics department. Finally, it is doubly difficult to expose the science myth and its mind-closing effects because the general public also believes it.
None of this is a conspiracy theory. Instead, it just reflects the way the social world works – but that is something society should be aware of. Economists are ordinary people and subject to social influences and pressures that work to include some ideas and exclude others – but this is not a matter of truth vs. error.
This is as succinct a description why people who think they "know" the truth, really only believe it. Now anybody who has read this blog over time knows that "believing" is not a bad word in my lexicon. My argument is not that believing is inferior to knowing, but that we hardly know anything and that most of what we think we know is really only belief buttressed by social authorities, be they economic, cultural, or political. Controlling the narrative means controlling what the social authorities deem to be "truth". And as Palley points out, the social authorities have their own agendas, and often those agendas are not even something they are consciously aware of.
So the challenge for us is not to develop criteria for proper knowing, but rather for proper believing. Believing is "practical" and as such is empirical, provisional (always open to revision), common sense based, and suspicious of rigid orthodoxies and of the people who promote them.