Justin Wolfers wrote recently about the level of interaction between economics and other social sciences. In particular, he wonders why economic work is not well represented in a list of the books most cited in social science research. It’s a good question: I find many of the tools and techniques developed by economists are useful in my works studying political phenomena, and I do cite economic research.
One particularly thoughtful commenter on Wolfers’ post notes that economics combines the controversy of addressing everyday issues with the general inaccessibility of chemistry. This conflict may make some people resist the conclusions of economists, ie. strong prior + incomprehensible evidence = small amount of updating.
The comment continues:
However, the inaccessibility of economics does not merely arise through inadvertence. As many jokes attest, economists are not merely unsentimental, they are ANTI-sentimental. An economist will often revel in the opportunity to rub people’s noses in the conclusion that their pre-conceptions are fluffy-headed poppycock. To many people (including some economists, I fear), economics appears to be less a social science than a religion, revealing to a chosen few the mighty counter-intuitive truths by which to pass judgment on a sinful world.
If I’m an accomplished scholar in another discipline, to what extent am I open and receptive to this kind of intellectual upbraiding?
Another commenter notes
My guess is at least part of this effect is reciprocity. Economists are famously bad when it comes to citing relevant research from the other social sciences. And I am not even talking about humanistic research: experiments from social psychology and statistical work from sociology are often ignored when economists do related (or even nearly identical) work. There is a widely held perception in the other social sciences that economists are, at best, disinterested in having interdisciplinary conversations–or, at worst, regularly tolerate cross-disciplinary plagiarism. My guess is that a culture of arrogance is the ultimate cause.
These are legitimate concerns, and there are reasonable rejoinders, but I think there is a more compelling explanation than “economists are a$$holes.”
When we develop a theory, we throw away some of the details about the world in order to make the theory simple enough to understand. This abstraction is an art: there are no hard rules and too few guidelines on how to make useful theories.
Suppose that there is only one choice: how much detail to discard. One can (grossly over-)generalize by saying that economists throw away more detail, ignoring things like irrational behavior, while other social scientists throw away less detail. By simplifying more, the economists gain the ability to apply very technical tools to generate results that are very reliable given the assumptions they made. By simplifying less, other social scientists are left with questions that more closely resemble reality but are harder to analyze.
Internal validity versus external validity. Tractability versus verisimilitude. We’ve heard this song and dance before. The implied question is something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle:
Hypothesis: (time to analyze) * (problems with applicability) >= (some constant)
Does this hold? Actually, I am optimistic that it doesn’t. Regardless, we all face choices when trying tell a story that explains something.