In a recent article that first appeared in the Financial Times on April 15th 2015, the British leading economist John Key, discusses the reform of the economics curriculum, stressing his “desire to reform [the discipline] from inside rather than join the gang who plan to attack the Winter Palace”. The core of his reasoning, re-launched by the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) in a widely debated Facebook post, concerns the fact that “no one would cross a bridge built by a heterodox engineer.”
This misleading argument is based on the tacit assumption that economics is in itself a scientific discipline, or at least that it is solidly grounded on scientific disciplines (just like physics and chemistry in the case of engineering). This is largely incorrect in the case of economics, and stems from the illusion that grounding a discipline in mathematics (as is the case with present-day economics) it is a sufficient condition to certify its scientific status.
A crucial element for an approach to be considered scientific is its falsifiability. That is, the possibility to verify its conclusions independently and experimentally: a condition that is dramatically absent in present day economics. As the physics Nobel prize Richard Feynman used to say “it doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
Science proceeds in this way, and for this very reason advances in science are rare and revolutionary, and scientific investigation paradigms extremely solid. Of course the perils of the pensée unique are great in any intellectual activity, but it is completely unjustified and all the more dangerous, particularly in those human studies such as economics, philosophy or psychoanalysis – which are (still) lacking in some sort of scientific basis.
The absence of solid scientific paradigms forces these disciplines to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox attitudes: have you ever heard of a heterodox physicist? There are of course physicists that disagree with one other, but scientific disciplines have developed antibodies (although not sufficiently in some areas) against the pensée unique. The last 50 years of mainstream thinking show that economics is unable to create its antibodies against the pensée unique
(and thus to reform from inside its curriculum), possibly because of the absence of a solid scientific paradigm.
Moreover, it is particularly disturbing that the those now claiming to want to “reform from inside” the economics curriculum are the same “scientists” that were unable to predict the 2008 economic crisis, in most cases denying the very possibility of the crisis itself: no one would build a house in an area declared safe by a geologist who has theorised the non-existence of earthquakes. Irrespective of his/her being orthodox or heterodox. Period.