Triumph of the empiricist

Are economists turning their backs on hard math?

Published October 24, 2006 6:51PM (EDT)

Math is dead. Long live empirical reality. Globalization and the Environment points us to a discussion of whether "high math" is experiencing a decline in favor in the economics profession.

The discussion is taking place at EconLog, a bastion of libertarian economics, so suspicious minds might first wonder whether there is some kind of underlying political subtext. Are libertarians, by nature, more empirical, more obsessed with quantifiable numbers? When they see a decline in the prominence of theory, are they just seeing what they want to see?

It's a hard question to answer, because in a shocking display of carelessness most uncharacteristic of empirically minded economists, there is absolutely no data given to support the proposition that math is in decline. It's simply assumed to be true. But where are the numbers? Where is the careful toting up of peer-reviewed journal articles, demonstrating a quantitatively measurable decrease in equations per inch of published-articles? Where is the breakdown of tenured faculty into high math and low empirical camps? I'll grant you, there is one reference to the Clark medal having gone "recently" to empirical economists, but that is hardly rigorous.

I have to say I'm a little disappointed because, believe me, as a mathematically challenged blogger, I would love to believe that impenetrable gobbledygook is on the wane. But show me the data!

That being said, Matt Cole at Globalization and the Environment does offer an interesting addendum to the discussion. Empiricism, he says, is more popular than ever because access to data has never been so cheap or easy. "There has been a significant increase in the availability of data on the Web. Even 10 years ago you'd have to pay or subscribe for many datasets. Now most data by institutions such as the World Bank is freely available online."

Cole's observation is just another data point to consider when mulling the question of what the Internet means for news gathering and journalism. Freely available information is undercutting traditional journalistic business models, but freely available information also means there is more data available -- which could imply the possibility of higher quality news -- for everyone to report on.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Economics Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy