Measurement, Quantification, and Economic Analysis: Numeracy in Economics

By Ingrid H. Rima | Go to book overview

Chapter 18

Is emotive theory the philosopher’s stone of the ordinalist revolution?

John B. Davis

In the latter half of the twentieth century economics has come to be regarded as a science little different in its use of scientific methods from the longer established natural sciences. In good part this has been due to economists’ adoption of sophisticated mathematical models and state-of-the-art econometric techniques that permit empirical testing of formally expressed causal relationships. Science since Newton has been understood to be mathematical in nature, and good science has for an even longer time depended upon evaluating theory according to its ability to explain and predict observable events. But is economic behavior truly governed by causal laws? The foundation of modern economics is the theory of individual choice, and while we say that circumstances often occasion the choices individuals make, it seems inappropriate to make the stronger claim that choices are actually caused. Given this, it seems odd that economic behavior is modeled in terms of relationships between independent and dependent variables, where the former cause or bring about the latter. Indeed one might go so far as to say that the reliance on mathematical functions to represent human behavior is a misuse of mathematics, and that economics should return to an earlier practice of producing more descriptive, qualitative analysis. 1

The argument in this chapter is somewhat more modest. Here it is argued that there are significant limitations on the use of mathematics in economics on account of the nature of choice behavior, and that these limits have been generally overstepped by economists anxious to legitimate social science thinking in the wider scientific community. The immediate thesis of the chapter is that an important problem in contemporary economics is its systematic misapprehension of the nature of practical reasoning or practical inference. This misapprehension, it is argued, principally derives from the widespread acceptance of Lionel Robbins’s critique of value judgments and ethics advanced more than a half century ago in his influential methodological tract An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1932, 1935). Value judgments and ethical argument of course are only one species of practical reasoning. Indeed, pragmatic reasoning without ethical implication is an equally if not more pervasive form of practical inference. However,

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