Posted by: Dirk | May 12, 2014

Wren-Lewis and Lawson on methodology

Why should I worry about that? It’s what all those heterodox people do – lots of ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ that are totally incomprehensible! Unlike those guys, I get on with doing real economics. After all, doctors do not spend large amounts of their time worrying about the methodology of medicine. So why should economists?

Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University takes on heterodox economists about the issue of methodology. He attacks Tony Lawson from Cambridge University:

This reluctance by economists to investigate their own methodology has a consequence which is the main subject of this post. It occurred to me when I recently re-read a methodology paper entitled “Two Responses to the Failings of Modern Economics: the Instrumentalist and the Realist” by Tony Lawson. The paper, written in 2001, starts on the first page with “There is little doubt that the modern discipline of economics is in a state of some disarray.” This is a strong claim. For example, I have previously written that the influence of economists within the UK government at that time may have been at an all time high, and as this account (pdf) shows, economics remains very influential within the civil service. Where is the evidence for the claim about disarray?

Since I just met Tony Lawson in Cambridge last week, let me comment on this dispute from the sidelines (I met Tony Lawson for the first time last week, and I am not part of his working group). Nevertheless, I know a little bit about their view of the world. What Wren-Lewis and Lawson do disagree on is what economics is and what it should be. Wren-Lewis is not aware that Lawson thinks that neo-classical economics is not a science. Here is the definition of the term science from Oxford Dictionaries:

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment:

Wren-Lewis expresses his sympathy for a paper by Milton Friedman on methodology:

The classic example of an economist writing about methodology is Friedman’s Essays in Positive Economics. This puts forward an instrumentalist view: the idea that realism of assumptions do not matter, it is results that count.

Given the above definition of science Wren-Lewis cannot seriously claim that doing something in which “realism of assumptions do not matter, it is results that count” should be called a science. By his definition, playing football would be a science. Influence with the (UK) government cannot be a claim to being a science either, since many rich people through lobbyists (and also directly through funding parties) wage a lot of influence. So, Tony Lawson got a point asking what it is exactly that economists think they are doing, if they are not doing science. For instance, what was it that economists used their influence for in the last two decades (in the UK and elsewhere)?
Last but not least it is not correct to claim that “doctors do not spend large amounts of their time worrying about the methodology of medicine”. (This sentence only makes sense if you interpret ‘large amounts’ as relative.) Blood letting was a standard procedure in the middle ages, and, yes, doctors considered themselves scientists. The practice nevertheless came to an end, mostly because of the rise of something called “empirical studies” that changed the way doctors “did” medicine (

By the late 1800s new treatments and technologies had largely edged out bloodletting, and studies by prominent physicians began to discredit the practice. Today it remains a conventional therapy for a very small number of conditions.

Oh, and by the way, medicine as a scientific discipline has been aware of asymmetric information problems that have plagued “economics” – or more honest: political economy – for centuries. About two and a half millenia ago, they came up with this (my highlighting):

I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher’s sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws, and no others.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.



  1. Please read my post properly before commenting on it.

    1) The opening paragraph that you quote was a view I attacked – I said economists should be more interested in methodology

    2) The post also argued that Friedman (and by implication most economists) were not instrumentalists – which is why economics can claim to be a science.

    So anyone who reads the above, please read what I actually wrote!

  2. Sorry, Simon. After reading your comments I think I misunderstood your post.

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