Why science works best on the inanimate [2010]

by Dominic Blackwell

There is an interesting article by Faisal Islam in the current issue of Prospect magazine about quatitative easing. The subject is fascinating from an economic and political perspective. However, here I would like to focus here on a particular strange aspect of the whole business, namely that economists and politicians disagree about what it means to say that QE has worked and thus whether it has.

Something gets fuzzy when you start trying to evaluate effects on intelligent subjects. Sociology, economics and more practically many aspects of government policy, are riddled with examples where people respond to policies or experimental conditions in human and unpredictable ways. The complexity of conscious human beings who can act both rationally and irationally makes it seem to me that controlled conditions are difficult to impossible to create.

The easy contrast to this situation is with the ‘hard sciences’. Physicists don’t have to worry about atoms rebelling agiainst an imposed magnetic field or refusing to participate in gravity. However you can stil do proper science with much more complex systems. Life is much better today because of the advances of medical science in treating disease with a sophisticated range of interventions. People when treated as bundles of cells can be profitably studied and predictiable treatments can be developed.

However, on crossing the threshold between mind and body things get harder. When you look at the difficulties in definitions in Psychiatry you see that treating mental illness is a different thing indeed. While it is clear that there is real suffering caused to people by mental illnesses and there are certainly treatments which work well for some people, this is a different world from drugs which simply affect pain receptors or blood clotting.

So, when you get to something as imponderable as economics I think you have lost the right to describe what you are doing as science. Economics is both interesting and crucially important to peoples lives. But it cannot be done under controlled conditions and clear predictions cannot be made. Thus despite the volume of maths involved, economics belongs with poltical and moral philosophy and history rather than physics or chemisty.

When studying people as people you may have opinions and you may have evidence but you must remember that the end result is not science and the public should not treat it as such.

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