Yummie surplus

The Journal of Economic Methodology
February 24, 1995

The first issue of the Journal of Economic Methodology (JEM), sponsored by the International Network for Economic Method, could not have arrived at a more opportune time. Methodological issues are once more at the forefront of discussion given that an increasing number of the "econ tribe" have become disillusioned with the view that the only worthwhile game in town is technical puzzle solving.

Thomas Mayer's recent book, Truth versus Precision in Economics (1993), and Donald McCloskey's Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (1994) both provide penetrating critiques of mainstream economic analysis, which appears obsessed with maintaining a methodological stance committed to excessive formalism and where "relevance" is sacrificed on the altar of "rigour". Mark Blaug (American Economist, 1994 ) has recently repeated his belief in the Popperian and Lakatosian ideals that economists must aspire to produce theories with empirically refutable implications. While Mayer's book is a vigorous plea for an empirically oriented policy relevant economics, McCloskey has announced the death of the logical positivist ideal. In McCloskey's view the persuasiveness of an idea or theory is not just a matter of logic or appeal to the empirical evidence but depends crucially on "the whole art and science of argument, the honest persuasion that is good conversation". Certainly the current division of macroeconomists into schools marching under different banners would seem to suggest that the narrow falsificationist approach is in deep trouble.

Against this background the introduction of a journal devoted to issues relating to how economists explain and conduct their scientific enquiries is to be welcomed. With the prestigious mainstream journals devoted to formalist theory and mathematical techniques the "market" for economic research has become self-referential. As a result a research culture has been generated whereby the following dubious equation has too often been applied by journal editors: difficult mathematical or econometric technique = high quality paper. But as everyone knows, a great deal of so called economic "scholarship" is careerist and represents a rational response to the incentive structures in academia where strong pressures exist to publish and differentiate one's product from others'. Too often impeccable mathematical logic associated with models based on dubious assumptions has allowed economists to charge off down the wrong path with an infectious, sometimes evangelical certitude. Unfortunately, given the importance of economic issues, the dazzling displays of technical fireworks and jargon (so necessary to impress the editors and referees of prestigious journals) more often than not contain "five cent thoughts" hidden in "five dollar words". Robert Clower, reflecting on his time as editor of the American Economic Review, recalls how, from something like 1,000 manuscripts a year, few if any new ideas emerged. He concludes that the profession would be better off if most of them had not been written.

Thus an appealing feature of the JEM is that it does not confine itself to a narrow view of economics or methodology. Contributions are welcomed on a wide variety of topics including the history of methodological thought, philosophy of science, epistemology, sociology of economic science, methodological appraisal of research programmes, methodological issues in applied fields, the rhetoric of economics and the relation between other disciplines and economics. Each issue also contains a book review section covering recent contributions to the methodology literature and economics in general.

The JEM has appointed a distinguished team to the editorial board and includes among many others Kevin Hoover (chairman), Clive Grainger, Mark Blaug, Arjo Klamer, Roger Backhouse, Thomas Mayer and Donald McCloskey. The inaugural issue contains an impressive set of papers and reviews as well as a symposium focusing on "Disagreement among Economists". And who better to contribute to such a symposium than Thomas Mayer, Donald McCloskey, David Colander, Roger Backhouse and Henry Woo, given their high profile in debates on this issue.

Following the symposium are a selection of articles with wide appeal. Of particular interest are Kevin Hoover's examination of the nature of economic inference in the aftermath of the Lucas critique, and Tony Lawson asks "Why are so many economists so opposed to methodology?" The reviews include Robert Solow's assessment of Mayer's Truth versus Precision, Kevin Hoover's review of Bruce Caldwell's Philosophy and Method and Thomas Mayer on Terence Hutchinson's Changing Aims in Economics.

Economists are not usually noted for poetry but McCloskey, in his latest book, has captured one aspect of the present malaise in economics beautifully: "The young upwardly mobile indoctrinated economist (a YUMMIE ) always votes at his party's call, and never thinks of thinking for himself at all."

Such behaviour tends to produce geographical pockets of like-minded economists who, having followed Adam Smith's advice and specialised, then forget the second part of Smith's message which is: "engage in trade". It is to be hoped that the JEM can help to facilitate a more broad-based intellectual trade and that the high standard set in the first issue can be maintained.

Brian Snowdon is a principal lecturer in economics, University of Northumbria.

The Journal of Economic Methodology

Editor - Victor Mok
ISBN - ISSN 1350 178X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £28.00 (indiv.), £55.00 (inst.)

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