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Economists and The Physics Envy

Ever thought of two important and significant tough disciplines envying one another? Sounds hypothetical, right? But that’s what everything sounds like in these two disciplines, both are heavily based on “assumptions” but yet both of them help the universe in their own unique ways. They are none-other-than, drumroll please, physics and economics. One lets you explore the universe outside Earth by using a rocket, the other lets you know how much that might cost so that you can judiciously plan out your expedition. Both work hand in hand with one another. But still, one envy’s the other. It’s said that economists envy physicists for their mathematical precision. What is this all about, let’s find out.

Physics investigates a variety of topics and approaches in ways that other sciences do not. If we want to have effective science policies, we must first understand those distinctions. Physics has long been held up as the gold standard for what science should be. It has long been hoped and expected that if enough time, resources, and talent were invested in the sciences concerned with other phenomena—in particular, the life sciences and behavioural and social sciences—the kind of deep, broad, and precise knowledge attained in the physical sciences could be replicated in the life sciences and behavioural and social sciences.

The incredible triumph of physics is undeniable. It has shed new light on the physical universe's basic structure and operation, allowing people to use that knowledge for the development of technology that has aided in the creation of the contemporary world. But, to what extent are quantification and mathematization required or sufficient for physics' extraordinary achievements? They are unquestionably linked. Quantification is a key factor in physics' capacity to describe things with such precision and anticipate their outcomes.

The mathematical framework of its theories not only gives its explanations and predictions incredible sharpness but also allows for more productive deduction and calculation than any other science. And the mathematical framework of its theories not only gives its explanations and predictions incredible sharpness but also allows for more productive deduction and calculation than any other science.

However, this mathematical precision of physics is often termed by many as 'physics envy'. Physics envy can be described in a layman’s language as the jealousy of mathematical precision that physicists have. There are many other disciplines that use mathematics as its integral part and physics is one of them. Along with that, another discipline that is mathematics centric, or has its foundation and basis of proof as mathematics, is Economics, and no one is more jealous of their fellow physics scholars for their mathematical precision other than “ The Economists”.

Economists, political scientists, and sociologists have long been plagued with physics envy, an intellectual inferiority complex. They frequently believe that their disciplines should be on par with the "real" sciences, and they consciously model their work after them, employing physics and chemistry-inspired vocabulary ("theory," "experiment," "law").

This may appear to be a worthy goal. Many social scientists believe that science has a method that should be followed if one wishes to be scientific. The approach demands you to create a theoretical model, infer a testable hypothesis from it, and then test the hypothesis against the rest of the world. The theoretical model holds if the hypothesis is confirmed; if the hypothesis is not proven, the theoretical model does not hold. Many people believe that if your profession doesn't use this strategy, known as hypothetico deductivism, it isn't scientific.

There is a famous question on the internet, “Is it good or terrible that professional athletes earn 400 times as much as nurses?”, and "Is string theory a dead end?". Each question entails a deep examination of the discipline in question. Even if you responded yes to the first question, you'd only have an opinion on the future of string theory if you've studied physics.

This irritates economists, who question why everyone feels free to participate in economic arguments rather than leaving them to professionals, as they do in physics or medicine. What economists rarely confess is that they typically knew an answer to the question before they began their research on a variety of topics. Scientists should make conclusions after conducting research and weighing the data, but in economics, conclusions might come early, with economists gravitating toward a thesis that suits their moral worldview.

There are no universal and unchanging laws of economics, unlike in physics. You can’t make gravity disappear at your will. However, as the recurrence of speculative bubbles demonstrates, animal spirits can be released, causing human behaviour and prices to defy economic gravity. Shift the social context – or, in economic terms, the incentive structure – and people's behaviour will change to fit the new framework. That social nature of human beings makes any laws of behaviour uncertain and contextual is something that physics envy can't describe. In fact, the name "social science" is possibly the most oxymoronic of all.

Wassily Leontief, a Nobel winner, warned against the tendency in economics towards what was later dubbed "physics envy" in the early 1970s when the neoclassical renaissance was just getting started.

Greenspan helped to generate a speculative bubble that nearly devastated the world economy during that decade, while the Soviet Union's failed reform, cut its life expectancy by seven years. Many economists, including Sachs, defend themselves by claiming that their advice was ignored; poor politics trumped smart economics.

However, this merely proves Leontief's position. Economies are socially constructed constructions. Politics is inextricably linked to this. People are far more interested in economic issues than in physics arguments precisely because they have such a tremendous impact on them. At the start of the century, economists went through data sets seeking patterns — economics from 30,000 feet (sometimes, literally). They might have been able to predict how politics would affect their models if they had followed Leontief's guidance and spent more time on the ground getting to know their topics.

The recent backlash against economists is understandable given this willful blindness. As a result, many economists have begun to do more grunt work with their data, while also engaging in public arguments about the practicality of their profession. Less science, more social interaction. That sounds like a recipe for an economy that could save the experts.

Well, physics envy isn’t the only thing that bothers economists, their subject not even being accepted as “science” or “social science” is also something that hurts them. To adopt a metaphor from philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map is if people find it useful to get somewhere, not whether it is checked arbitrarily at random spots. Things in economics may be considered arbitrary, but yeah, it has mathematical backing and has its own beauty to exist.


Written by Abhivyakti Mishra (

Edited by Mehak Vohra


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