Friday, March 16, 2012

Organic Chemistry

Not modern organic chemistry, but the original meaning of the phrase. Living things include extremely complicated molecules which are hard to synthesize. The original hypothesis called "organic" was that this is impossible. The claim was that atoms and molecules followed different laws of motion if the were parts of living things. This hypothesis was holistic -- the idea was that particles can't be understood unless you know of what they are parts. The alternative is that particles obey universal laws so you can understand what they do knowing only which universe they are in. Another way of putting it is that the original organic chemists believed in a force different from gravity and electromagnetism which only pushed things inside living things around. They called it, well mostly some German word which is translated as "vital force".

As an aside, many passages from long ago which we tend to read as metaphors were meant more literally than it we tend to imagine ( that sentence is. So hedged that it tends to be meaningless).

Then this German organic chemist synthesized urea and was pissed. Big deal you say, since you do that every day, but he synthsized it in a test tube. I guess it tooK a while, but this convinced chemists that the original organic chemistry hypothesis was all a big misstake. It is now mostly forgotten, but a view which dominated a field for a while is really genuinely gone, discarded on the ash heap of intellectual history.

The word organic with its holistic conotations survived in the social sciences.

Disclaimer:I really had no idea that I was going to write the last sentence of this post when I wrote the first.

I mention old organic chemistry just to note that the tree of knowledge has, or has had, branches which bear no fruit (that one has been pruned). Regular readers can guess that I am thinking of contemporary economic theory, and in particular, about the effort in the past 39 years to provide microfoundations for macroeconomics. An analogy is clear -- the claim that this simply can't be done is like old organic chemistry. It is the claim that whole economies can only be understood as wholes. This is not the analogy I have in mind. No one claims that macro can't ever be micro founded. The harshest critics of the effort to microfound macro think that the problem is partly shortcuts to easy but false links from micro to macro (like the representative consumer) but mostly that standard micro theory is psychology and in particular very bad psychology based on assertions about individual behavior which have been tested and rejected by the data.

No the analogy I have i mind is that the 39 year long effort might be a fruitless branch like organic chemistry. The difference is that there seems to be no empirical failure (like urea) which causes the adherants of the school to question their basic core hypotheses. So I think that recent research in macro theory (definitely including my own current research projects) isn't worth piss.

5 comments:

PokerStars Review said...

thanks for the information
I will use it in my chemistry paper

Anonymous said...

Economics is the admirable endeavor of taking something non-scientific (human interaction and decision-making, in all its complexity), and applying scientific principles and a scientific approach.

Where too many economists go off the rails is assuming that economics IS a science, like physics or chemistry. But it isn't. The same inputs can actually produce two different outputs two different times. Yes. things tend to drift over time towards equilibria, but the times when we need economics the most is when things are out of whack (like now).

However, instead of being useful the economists spend time arguing over whose model is better / right / wrong. Considering that the only real experiment that can be carried out in economics is the real world, and circumstances are always different, it's impossible to actually prove ANYTHING. Yet the hubris of models fails to recognize that.

Economics could use a bit of humility.

marketfowl said...

If only Republican voters could be tricked into understanding your essay.

Kaleberg said...

Economics as practiced these days is not a science. It uses a lot of mathematics, but it ignores basic accounting principles. This is like trying to do physics without accepting that 2+2=4. It also makes arguments about "rational actors", but assumes they all share a frame of reference. This is like trying to do physics without the Galilean transform.

I tend to rely on Keynesian economics for my investment decisions. That was my father's approach, and it worked well for him and works well for me. It's much less mystical than most economics and relies on accounting principles and aggregates multiple frames of reference. If you follow economics, you can recognize bubbles rather easily, are never surprised when tax cuts don't increase economic growth, understand that industry requires industrial policy and have noticed that Republicans are the big borrow and spend party while Democrats tend to be quite frugal.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @1:58 PM
"Economics is the admirable endeavor of taking something non-scientific (human interaction and decision-making, in all its complexity), and applying scientific principles and a scientific approach."


Science is a method, not a thing*, so it doesn't really make sense to describe something as "non-scientific". Human interaction and decision making are ultimately governed by the same laws as physics as chemistry, yes they are extremely complicated but there is no fundamental barrier that puts them beyond the reach of the scientific method.
*Though you could describe the knowledge gained with the scientific method as a thing I guess

Anonymous @1:58 PM
"The same inputs can actually produce two different outputs two different times."


Well I'm pretty sure this is true in quantum physics, but it isn't significant in economics. If absolutely every factor were the same, the outcome would be the same. The only reason it might seem otherwise is because there is such a massive amount of possible variables, no two situations are the same.

Anonymous @1:58 PM
"However, instead of being useful the economists spend time arguing over whose model is better / right / wrong. Considering that the only real experiment that can be carried out in economics is the real world, and circumstances are always different, it's impossible to actually prove ANYTHING. Yet the hubris of models fails to recognize that.

Economics could use a bit of humility."


You are chastising economists but without giving any sensible way to proceed. Economists realize that models don't perfectly represent the world. You say "instead" of arguing about models, but fail to follow up and say what the "instead" is. Argumentation about models does use data from the real world, if data from the real world seems to invalidate/support an implication of a model, then that will be used in argument against it/for it.