Is economics a science?

Yes, says the Royal Society, the most prestigious scientific body in the world; no, says Cambridge, the UK’s leading science university which still considers it part of the arts.

What might appear an arcane academic argument has suddenly assumed huge significance following the election of Sir Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, an economics professor at Cambridge, as a fellow of the Royal Society which was founded in 1660.

From Venice, where he has been attending a gathering of the European Association for Economists, a delighted Dasgupta told The Telegraph: “This is a bigger honour for me than my knighthood. I believe I am the first economist in 350 years of the Royal Society to be made a fellow.”

He added: “Until now, economists have been considered social scientists eligible for membership of the British Academy, of which I am a fellow, but not the Royal Society, which was only for scientists and mathematicians.”

Each year, the Royal Society can elect 44 new members, which this year includes Dasgupta.

An official statement from Cambridge University proudly declared: “He is the first economist elected to the Royal Society.”

Here is the full story. Here is a press release. Here is Dasgupta’s home page. I’ve long been an admirer of how he blends microeconomic technique and philosophic reasoning about welfare economics. I would have voted for him without reservation. That being said, he is an odd pick in the sense of being less “scientistic” than most traditional empirical economists. He is not an ideal test case to broach the precedent.

And in my view economics is surely a science. We produce empirical knowledge which is subject to process of testing, broadly interpreted, and feedback; see my post above. We even now have controlled experiments. And look at some of our competitors. String theory is not yet empirical. Environmental science and ecology are rife with ideology. Astronomy doesn’t have controlled experiments. And isn’t chemistry just plain outright boring? There is plenty of empirical economics I don’t trust, but usually it is for quite hackneyed reasons (e.g., data mining), rather than for “intrinsic to economics” reasons.

Addendum: Here is a neat description of economic historian Niall Ferguson.


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