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Milton Friedman on method in economics

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Can’t remember how (H/T to someone), but recently came across this paper by Milton Friedman from 1966, entitled ‘The Methodology of Positive Economics’. It says pretty much everything I could ever want to say on the subject, and so much more. Here are a few fantastic excerpts:

Viewed as a language, theory has no substantive content; it is a set of tautologies. Its function is to serve as a filing system for organizing empirical material and facilitating our understanding of it; and the criteria by which it is to be judged are those appropriate to a filing system. Are, the categories clearly and precisely defined? Are they exhaustive? Do we know where to file each individual, item, or is there considerable ambiguity? Is the system of headings and subheadings so designed that we can quickly find an item we want, or must we hunt from place to place? Are the items we shall want to consider jointly filed together? Does the filing system avoid elaborate cross-references?

The answers to these questions depend partly on logical, partly on factual, considerations. The canons of formal logic alone can show whether a particular language is complete and consistent, that is, whether propositions in the language are “right” or “wrong.” Factual evidence alone can show whether the categories of the “analytical filing system” have a meaningful empirical counterpart, that is, whether they are useful in analyzing a particular class of concrete problems.

Or this

Viewed as a body of substantive hypotheses, theory is to be judged by its predictive power for the class of phenomena which it is intended to “explain.” Only factual evidence can show whether it is “right” or “wrong” or, better, tentatively “accepted” as valid or “rejected.” As I shall argue at greater length below, the only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of its predictions with experience.

And, finally, this

One confusion that has been particularly rife and has done much damage is confusion about the role of “assumptions” in economic analysis.  A meaningful scientific hypothesis or theory typically asserts that certain forces are, and other forces are not, important in understanding a particular class of phenomena.  It is frequently convenient to present such a hypothesis by stating that the phenomena it is desired to predict behave in the world of observation as if they occurred in a hypothetical and highly simplified world containing only the forces that the hypothesis asserts to be important.  In general, there is more than one way to formulate such a description – more than one set of “assumptions” in terms of which the theory can be presented.  The choice among such alternative assumptions is made on the grounds of the resulting economy, clarity, and precision in presenting the hypothesis; their capacity to bring indirect evidence to bear on the validity of the hypothesis by suggesting some of its implications that can be readily checked with observation or by bringing out its connection with other hypotheses dealing with related phenomena; and similar considerations.

Such a theory cannot be tested by comparing its “assumptions” directly with “reality.”  Indeed, there is no meaningful way in which this can be done.  Complete “realism” is clearly unattainable, and the question whether a theory is realistic “enough” can be settled only by seeing whether it yields predictions that are good enough for the purpose in hand or that are better than predictions from alternative theories.  Yet the belief that a theory can be tested by the realism of its assumptions independently of the accuracy of its predictions is widespread and the source of much of the perennial criticism of economic theory as unrealistic.  Such criticism is largely irrelevant, and, in consequence, most attempts to reform economic theory that it has stimulated have been unsuccessful.

If you had told me three years ago I would be approvingly quoting Milton Friedman, I would have likely laughed out loud. If you haven’t yet, go read the paper. It’s brilliant.

Categories: Economics
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  2. August 20, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds
    me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this.

    I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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