The desire to be more like the hard sciences has distorted economics, education, political science, psychiatry and other behavioral fields. It’s led practitioners to claim more knowledge than they can possibly have. It’s devalued a certain sort of hybrid mentality that is better suited to these realms, the mentality that has one foot in the world of science and one in the liberal arts, that involves bringing multiple vantage points to human behavior.
David Brooks has a decent op-ed out entitled “Heroes of Uncertainty”. The main point of the article is about the flaw of trying to assume that Psychology is a hard science like biology or physics. Though, this article can also apply to other behavioral fields like economics. For example take this passage:
The field of psychiatry is better in practice than it is in theory. The best psychiatrists are not austerely technical, like the official handbook’s approach; they combine technical expertise with personal knowledge. They are daring adapters, perpetually adjusting in ways more imaginative than scientific rigor.
The best psychiatrists are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments. They are combining an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being. They certainly are not inventing new diseases in order to medicalize the moderate ailments of the worried well.
Apply this to the economics field. The best economists are not the purely theoretical ones, they are the ones that deal with the real world. They do not go by the “official handbook” sort of speak, in other words, those nice neat college textbooks. They “are not coming up with abstract rules that homogenize treatments”, they are those that combine “an awareness of common patterns with an acute attention to the specific circumstances of a unique human being”.
Good economists take into consideration real world institutions, political factors, laws, etc. and try to see how the actions of humans respond to these factors. This might be common sense but just think about how many economists aren’t doing this and are instead stuck in their world of abstract principles (economic laws) and concepts and pay little attention to the actual world around them.