# How is economics even a science, rather than just politics?

"Take from the rich and give to the poor," says the Left-wing politician who stands to benefit from the votes of poor voters they bribe with government benefits. "Take from noone, and allow the Invisible Hand to decide the winners and losers," says the Right-wing politician who stands to benefit from the donations of wealthy businessmen. Fundamentally, both are making economic statements, in order to reinforce their own wealth and power.

In essence, to my eyes, economics seems to simply be a machine for generating excuses by the wealthy and powerful to do whatever they want to do in order to increase their wealthy and power, or for those who lack wealth and power to generate excuses to do whatever they want to do in order to take wealth and power from those who already possess them. Many Marxists and other Left-wing types fall into the latter camp at first, until they succeed in doing so at which point they rapidly tend to join the former camp (witness, for instance, examples such as the leadership of the US Democrat party, the Australian Labor Party, the British Labour Party, etc).

You can see this in the primary political spectrum used in common speech: the "left/right" political spectrum between Marx on one side, and pro-business liberalism and libertarianism on the other.

However, people call it a "science", and that seems distinctly strange to me. How can it be independent from the corruption of money and power, when those are the exact things that it is supposed to be studying? How can you call them "scientists", when they're just puppets of the politicians, paid to parrot the party line?

• I think you are confusing economics with politicians talking about economic policy or the economy. Mar 17, 2021 at 9:58
• Nevertheless, you are entitled to your opinion; I am also rather skeptical about the economic discipline. Luckily no one is forcing either of us to post on this forum, we are free to do better things with our time! Mar 17, 2021 at 9:59
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– 1muflon1
Mar 17, 2021 at 10:39
• @Steve, why didn’t epidemiologists see Covid-19 coming precisely in 2020? Mar 17, 2021 at 11:01
• @Steve So are you arguing that epidemiology is not a science? Because that takes us from "Is economics a science" to "what is science and can it exist today". Mar 17, 2021 at 11:28

The question of whether Economics is a science has no straightforward answer simply because the question "what is Science" has no straightforward answer either. This question is referred to as the "demarcation problem" (related to "boundary work/ problem") in the Philosophy of Science and is still an unsettled question in the Philosophy of Science.

A commonly used rule-of-thumb for identifying a scientific theory is to see if it is "empirically falsifiable"-- does it impose restrictions on what we can observe in the data. If those restrictions are violated in reality, then, the theory is falsified. On the other hand, if the theory does not offer any such restrictions, the theory is equivalent to saying "anything is possible" (although not in an obvious use of language of course) and then the theory is not scientific. This view of science, although not completely un-controversial, is often used by scientists as a rule of thumb, as can be seen in the Feynman lectures in Physics or even textbooks in Psychology. This idea was famously and vigorously developed and promoted by Karl Popper.

Coming to Economics, most Economic theories provide such falsifiable restrictions: even the most basic axioms of rationality such as the independence of irrelevant alternatives impose empirically testable restrictions on data. Adding more conditions, as is very often done, adds even more restrictions. A lot of the predictions have been tested not only on humans, but also on animals. Economics has an entire subfield devoted to the development of stattistical tools to test hypotheses and to tease out other interpretations from empirical data. Many theories have empirical evidence backing them, others have already been refuted by data. Economists have then in many cases developed newer theories to explain the anomalies, and in other cases, are still in search of newer theories to explain anomalies that cannot be explained.

A lot of theories have stood up to empirical scrutiny and thus enjoy widespread endorsement or consensus among Economists. Other ideas which have mixed or no evidence do not enjoy that consensus. This is pretty much how any science is done and can be seen even though there is no strict definition of science.

Another part of your question seems to be questioning whether economists can engage in scientific enquiry because economic findings are highly consequential for political debates. This is a valid concern and Economics is of course influenced by the researchers' political beliefs, social biases and experiences. This is however not qualitatively different from other fields, such as Biology or Climate Science, the findings of which have also been politicised. In the past, this could have been a major problem even in Physics or Chemistry, where several findings were considered heresy. Social and ethical considerations still haunt fields like genetics and Artificial Intelligence. In short, any field that has a significant influence on society will be politicised and be affected by politics. The power of Economists over policy-makers inevitably makes Economics prone to this. But as discussed above, Economists have generated valuable scientific knowledge despite (or maybe even due to) the political importance of its findings, just like Biology or Climate Science has. There is of course a need to always remain vigilant and work for dispassionate science however.

Furthermore, Economics has a not-so-impressive representation of women and people of colour in the community (see a and b) and this most likely affects which questions are studied and how. Unequal representation plagues most STEM fields too (see c), but arguably the effect of this disparity can be high in Economics because of the subject-matter. There is thus a need to reform the existing academiic structures, allowing for greater representation of different groups, but this does not mean that Economics in its entirety lacks scientific validity because of this, and the field has successfully generated a lot of scientific knowledge as discussed above. Also, in many subfields, such as Development Economics, which specifically focuses on developing countries and eradicating poverty, the representation of people from the Global South, PoC and women is much larger for example.

• I have added references for the underrepresentation claims, thanks Mar 17, 2021 at 12:14
• I have edited the answer to add a more appropriate term for the distinction of science and non-science (demarcation problem) but kept the original term I used too for reference (boundary work/ problem, which may be slightly loaded) Mar 17, 2021 at 14:55

## TL;DR:

Economics is not politics by definition. Whether economics is science depends on what view on demarcation of science you adopt but most of the economics will pass virtually any commonly used criteria in philosophy of science and there is no doubt it passes the mainstream demarcations such as the Popperian one.

## Economics is:

The most common definition of economics comes from Lionel Robbins (1935, p. 16):

“the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses”

Economics can be further split into two main branches (see Mankiw Principles of Economics, pp 27):

• positive economics: Positive economics describes how things are. It describes mechanisms and relationships and scientific laws.

For example, positive economic statement is: "Nominal GDP of the Netherlands in 2020 is \\$886 billion" or "there is positive relationship between inflation and output in the short-run", or "labor supply elasticity with respect to income tax is -0.2".

Positive statements can still be right or wrong but this is judged based on empirical evidence. These are analogous to statements from physics like, "sun is center of solar system", "Milky Way galaxy has spiral shape".

If there is any disagreement on matters of positive economics it is only to the extent we are unable to measure something precisely.

For a well known analogy from physics; there used to be disagreement in physics about nature of solar system (e.g. heliocentrism vs geocentrism) but the disagreement was not political it was created by the fact that we were not able to measure position of Earth and movement of planets and Sun and Moon accurately enough to determine which of the two models is wrong.

Economics, in same way as physics or biology applies scientific method to test positive statements.

• normative economics : Which actually asks questions of what ought to be? But these questions are based on pre-existing philosophies and seeing what conclusions one can apply for them given results from positive economics.

For example, according to Rawlsian ethics public policy should aim for max-min principle. That is according to Rawlsian ethics public policy should maximizing the wellfare of the poorest members of society.

Based on the above max-min criterion one can derive the optimal tax schedule that should be applied to income of each individual. That optimal tax schedule derivation can be checked and it can be tested by experimentation in real life and so on.

Examples of normative economics statements thus are: "If you adopt utilitarian social welfare function the optimal top marginal tax rate ought to be 70%" or "If you adopt charitable conservative social welfare function optimal top marginal tax rate ought to be 80%," or "if you want to reduce CO2 emissions by $$x$$ metric tons there ought to be $$y\%$$ carbon tax".

Normative economics does not question ideology/beliefs it takes them as given. An analogue to policy economist doing normative economics research is engineer building a bridge. Someone has to make decision to order that bridge should be built. That decision might be politically motivated communist party might demand bridge to be constructed 'for the people' businessman might order construction of bridges for their trucks, senator might want to build bridge to please their constituency. Engineer just tells you how much cement will you need, how wide the bridge needs to be for stability, how it needs to be assembled so it does not break.

## How is the above science?

What is and isn't science is the famous demarcation problem from the field of philosophy. Economics.SE is not place for Philosophy Q/A, so I will treat this part only very briefly. There are various views on demarcation of science, economics would be categorized as a science under most of them (but not all, but that holds for any field even physics).

Discussion of all views on demarcation of science would be beyond scope of Economics.SE so I will focus on the mainstream Popperian view of demarcation of science (but as mentioned Economics would clear virtually all established views for more info on that have look at Ross Philosophy of Economics, or Hausman Philosophy of Economics: An Anthology).

Under the Popperian view what you are doing is science if it is falsifiable. According to Popper statements or systems of statements can be scientific only if they can possibly be disproven by empirical verification.

So statements:

• "labor supply elasticity with respect to income tax is -0.2" is science/scientific statement because the statement could be disproven by evidence which would show that labor supply elasticity with respect to income tax is not -0.2.

• "if you want to reduce CO2 emissions by $$x$$ metric tons there ought to be $$y\%$$ carbon tax" - is a scientific statement because we could find by empirical observation that $$y%$$ carbon tax does not yield reduction of emissions by $$x$$ metric tons.

• "Take from the rich and give to the poor" - is not a science. No amount of empirical observation can disprove statement: "Take from the rich and give to the poor". You can make infinite number of experiments, have god like omniscience and be aware of all facts, but nothing can show that statement is false. That statements is unfalsiable. It is expression of value/ideology/political view but not science.

• "Take from none, and allow the Invisible Hand to decide the winners and losers," is again not science. No amount of empirical observation can falsify that statement. Even if there would be crystal clear evidence that laissez faire improves all aspects of life or that it leads to poverty or ruin cannot disprove that statement.

• "we should increase taxes by 10%" - is not science as nothing again can refute that statement. No matter of empirical observation on disadvantages of taxation or on other hand benefit of public spending funded by taxation can ever disprove that statement.

• "people should not smoke" - again expression of value not scientific statement

• "smoking causes cancer" - this would be in the domain of science (although not economics in this case but I wanted to throw one more down to earth example).

## Politics is:

Has many definitions in literature, for example David Easton who is very renown political scientist defines in his book the Political System, an Inquiry Into the State of Political Science politics as:

the authoritative allocation of values for a society.

different political scientists might offer different definition because the term is broad, but:

1. None of the definitions I ever heard overlaps with definition of economics.
2. In your post you make clear that what you mean by politics are political statements like: "Take from the rich and give to the poor" which are rather statements of value, ideology or ethics.

## Conclusion

Economics is a science under widely used demarcation criteria of science and it is quite distinct from politics.

This does not mean that there are no economists who are also interested in politics, or that there are unprofessional economists who will not make clear when they are talking about science and when they are professing their ideology. In every field there are malpractitioners. Additionally, even the best economists might occasionally slip up the same way as even the best surgeon can make a mistake during surgery.

Lastly, politicians like to create conflicts because conflicts are the heart of politics. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies by Freeden et al:

Politics—in democratic societies—is based on general agreement on certain key concepts like democracy, freedom, solidarity, welfare, progress, etc., but on deep disagreement when it comes to giving substance and content to these concepts. Politics is thus based on both agreement and disagreement. Without agreement there is no political cohesion and framing of the political process but only fragmentation. Without disagreement there is no politics (Koselleck 1979, 1988 [1959]). Without disagreement there is only administration of consensus. Politics in democratic societies is not about consensus but about conflict and the search for compromises, for positions of compatibility of the incompatible.

Politicians will routinely create conflicts in society even about established facts/science (e.g. climate, age of Earth, Evolution etc ). These conflicts are at their core often unscientific, they are either conflict of values or if not conflict of values than just opposition to what other side of the aisle is saying just for sake of opposition since without disagreement there cannot be any politics. These conflicts will virtually never have anything to do with science whatsoever, but without doubt many unscrupulous politicians will often (mis)cite science in order to appear more authoritative and fool people into thinking that is relevant for their squabbles about value judgements. In reality it is not, value judgements cannot be refuted one can only show they are consistent with one or other system of ethics and one might try to persuade opponent to tweak their ethical system but there is no science that can falsify or provide credence to any ethical proposition whatsoever.

• "disagreement in physics about nature of solar system (e.g. heliocentrism vs geocentrism) but the disagreement was not political" - I'm afraid that claim is totally misrepresentative of the historical facts (perhaps even wilfully so, given that you and I have discussed this on a previous occasion). It is true that in ancient times both models were tenable, but in the middle ages there was nevertheless strong political opposition to heliocentrism, a strength of opposition that was completely unscientific: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair Mar 18, 2021 at 9:39
• As the answer clearly states: " there used to be disagreement in physics". Physics is by definition: "Physics is the branch of science that deals with the structure of matter and how the fundamental constituents of the universe interact." I was clearly clarifying that there was discussion in physics, the Roman Catholic Inquisition was hardly an institution that engaged in the "the branch of science that deals with the structure of matter and how the fundamental constituents of the universe interact." As my last paragraph makes crystal clear politicians routinely question science
– 1muflon1
Mar 18, 2021 at 9:50
• 1muflon1, it's not clear what you mean by this distinction. The field of "physics" was not then established, but the broader field of what was then called "natural philosophy" was most definitely a field of study in which the Catholic church was engaged. The point is that when evidence to decide the appropriate planetary model did emerge, the institution and its acolytes attempted to suppress the truth, whilst simultaneously representing themselves as the guardians and arbiters of truth in that field. Your answer is downright misrepresentative of those events. Mar 18, 2021 at 11:31
• I should be clear also, the reason why the Catholic church considered heliocentrism to be a heresy, was not so much because it directly impugned its supernatural tenets (obviously the church still stands even now), it was for much more Earthly reasons that it showed authorities and a variety of thinkers to be absolutely wrong, and thus embarrassed the basis of their claims to power and status. Pertinently, there is absolutely no reason to believe the practitioners of modern science have any different proclivities in this respect. Mar 18, 2021 at 11:50
• Regardless of whether the field of physics was defined in past or not one can apply the definition retroactively. For example, the concept of instrumentalism and positivism is new and emerged only recently, that does not mean one cannot go retroactively back to ancient thinkers and classify them as instrumentalist or positivist thinkers. In the same way definition of physics can be retroactively applied to works of Galileo or Ptolemy but not to acts of inquisition
– 1muflon1
Mar 18, 2021 at 12:45

The use and abuse of economics by politicians does not invalidate economics as a science. Full stop.

Consider politicians (including In Russia, China, Europe) who play global politics by promoting, gifting and politicizing their vaccines. Or politicians that politicize mask wearing. Or politicians that politicize climate change to support the fossil fuel industry. Does it mean that epidemiology or climate science is not a real science?

Modern economics follows the scientific method. So it is a science. It is also taught in universities.

Further, we know it’s a science because economists from different political persuasions agree on a great deal. There is more agreement than the media would have you believe. For example, both Krugman and Mankiw support a pigouvian tax on carbon, but they could not be farther from each other politically.

Any scientific field is built on first disagreeing and contesting to make sure only true ideas are adopted into the mainstream. Spending 10 minutes in any academic economics seminar will make that abundantly clear. So there will be disagreement. However, other sciences like physics have the luxury of hashing out their disagreements in peace, away from the public view.

The fact that economics does not have this luxury and politicians can abuse the field for their own purposes by exploiting the natural scientific disagreement does NOT mean, economics is not a science.

• To be fair, the nature or content of the "scientific method" is itself politically contentious, and physics (like economics) is not free of accusations that it is political. For those who mount serious criticisms against economics, the claim is not just that public politicians misuse economics (selecting what suits politically, and rejecting what doesn't), but that different kinds of economic research and theorising are differentially funded and promoted according to the perceived usefulness of the answers to the rich and powerful. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:02
• Differential funding affects every field. E.g. there has been incredibly skewed funding in food science downplaying the risks of sugar and smoking for years. The fact that there is a higher benefit to skewing economics funding than there is for other fields does not invalidate economics as a science per se. Economics in and of itself remains a vitally important scientific field. The solution is not to say its not a science and throw our hands up, but rather increase public funding. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:09
• On the "scientific method" being contentious: "Other fields not being free of accusation that is is political" is exactly my point. If other fields with political interventions are considered scientific, then so should economics. Of course, if you are saying that there is no scientific method and science does not exist, because anything can be political, then sure. If science does not exist, then economics is not a science, but that is a moot point. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:12
• if the funding of so-called science is being systematically skewed precisely for the purpose of influencing the conclusions that the field of study reaches, then you would have to seriously question whether it is engaged in science at all - at least in the broader sense of science being something in which the public should have confidence. Nobody suggests ending economic study - what many do suggest is that we can currently take very little on trust from its practitioners. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:32
• Economics practitioners and economics scientists are two very different things. I will leave it at that. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:37

Human actions are attributed either to expressions of human will or to natural events independent of human will. Actions and votes are either expressions of human will or attributed to natural events. A natural process cannot take action or cast a vote in the same sense that we recognize when an action is taken, or vote is cast, by a moral agent. So whether the vote is up or down in response to my answer here it proves my points below. "By their deeds you shall know them".

The recognition of an economic process evokes the experience of the desires, plans, intentions, and actions of moral agents in society. The recognition of a political process also evokes the experience of the desires, plans, intentions, and actions of moral agents in society. An economic agent has an independent will. This will can be in harmony or conflict with the will of one or more other economic agents. Therefore the social science (knowledge) of economics is enmeshed with the social science (knowledge) of politics. If an economic agent could survive alone in the wilderness, like a bear, then as a cub he or she would still experience the politics of being dependent on the mother bear to learn how to survive in nature.

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– 1muflon1
Mar 27, 2021 at 11:34