Justin Wolfers on trade across the disciplines
What is interesting to think about are the terms of trade between economics and all these other disciplines. We are clearly a net exporter to political science and sociology. But at this point the trade with psychology is almost all one way. We are a near-complete importer. I wonder why we haven’t been bigger exporters to psychology. I think it has to do with the research method. Like political scientists and sociologists, economists are almost all about the analysis of observational data. And then there are second-order differences. Formal political scientists write down a model before they observe data; informal ones don’t. Ethnographers observe four people; survey researchers observe 4,000. But it’s all observational. But when I watch and speak with my friends in psychology, very little of their work is about analyzing observational data. It’s about experiments, real experiments, with very interesting interventions. So they have a different method of trying to isolate causation. I am certain that we have an enormous amount to learn from them. But I am curious why we have not been able to convince them of the importance of careful analysis of observational data.
Here is the much longer interview. I would cite an additional factor. We as economists can export models to political science and sociology and at least pretend that maybe those models work. Even if they don't, someone can publish by knocking those models down. When we try to export models to psychology, it's too obvious, too early on, that our models are limited in their ability to deal with context-dependent phenomena.