Economists and biology


Jason Collins


March 22, 2011

Mike the Mad Biologist has posted this piece on economists’ understanding of biology. He pulls apart some statements by Russ Roberts and suggests that if economists are going to use biology as a model for the economics discipline, they should try to understand it first.

Naturally, I agree with this. Apart from preventing the mangling of biological concepts when using a biological analogy, there is a lot in biology that could benefit economics.

However, Mike then moves to one of his favourite topics, which is the use of “stupid … natural history facts” in biology and their seeming absence in economics. As he states when comparing economics and biology, “the really key difference is that biology has accepted modes of confronting theories and, importantly, discarding them”.

I agree that economics has more models floating around for which there does not seem to be  factual support. But I am not sure that there is a general lack of empirical work in economics. This hits on one of Russ Robert’s favourite issues, which is the use of complex statistical techniques to empirically validate theories. Statistics can be as misused as theoretical models. Take the back-and-forth on “more guns, less crime” or the impact of legalised abortion on crime. The debate is now predominantly about data and neither side has conceded. As Roberts usually asks, how many economists have changed their mind on the basis of an empirical study? I don’t know of many.

On the flip side, did Dawkins or Gould (or their respective supporters) ever concede to the other side that they were wrong and substantially change their world view?

So why does biology discard theories out of sync with the facts more readily than economics? I can only suggest that economics is more prone to personal bias. The issue government spending tends to elicit a stronger response than whether a particular gene is pleiotropic. Many evolutionary biologists have strong views on economics (as a read of Mike’s blog will show), while most economists probably aren’t overly concerned about evolutionary biology. Perhaps we should ask how many evolutionary biologists have fundamentally changed their economic or political views in the face of data?

Update: Some follow up on whether biologists can admit they are wrong by Razib Khan.

Update 2: And Mike the Mad Biologist with some further thoughts.