Friday, September 23, 2011

Opera, Einstein, and Why Economics Is Not a Real Science


Congratulations (maybe) to the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus) team for their (possibly) revolutionary finding that a few neutrinos were able to defy Einstein and travel from Geneva to central Italy faster than the speed of light.  If true, it will require a revision of basic physics that borders on science fiction.

I heard through the grapevine, however, that some senior scientists with this project did not give permission for their names to be on the article setting out the results, including one of the individuals who helped conceive and organize Opera from the start.  They are passing up the opportunity to be connected to a historic breakthrough in their field.  Why?

The answer is that, with such an extraordinary anomaly, there is a risk of error.  Mismeasuring the distance within the apparatus by 12 meters, for instance, would reverse the results.  Above all—and this is why economists should be interested—a physicist would suffer a huge, possibly irreparable blow to his or her career by being attached to a claim that is later found to be wrong.  Type I error (false positives) are taken very seriously.  The logic of this extreme asymmetry, so much weight on Type I, so much less on Type II, is explained in this earlier EconoSpeak post.

It’s rather different in economics, isn’t it?  If someone shows you have made a false claim in a published article, you can write a gracious response thanking the critic and go on. More likely, you will double down and spin out more studies defending your original argument.  Either way, if you’re wrong it’s no big deal.  Lots of the top economists in the professional firmament have been wrong at one time or another (or even all the time), and it hasn’t set them back.  Meanwhile, physics evolves over time toward ever-closer approximation of the real universe, while economics accumulates error along with insight.

UPDATE: Note that these neutrinos made their trip through the rugged terrain of the Alps and Apennines at an "impossible" speed.  I think they should be checked for doping, and if they turn up positive they should be disqualified.

13 comments:

Shag from Brookline said...

This closing:

" ... while economics accumulates error along with insight."

brings to mind that economists' hindsight can be far from 20-20.

Marcf said...

This is one of my favorite themes and I have a slightly different view. I have degrees in mathematics and theoretical physics. Spent some time studying biology .Did software for a living and today am deep in econ/finance research. What I have learnt is that econ is a science but a science of the living and a science of network. It is more the domain of "systems analysis" which usually means many actors and feedback loops. Some of these feedback loops induce non-linear behavior which quickly becomes unsolvable. So the picture that emerges is slowly one of 'complex system' which is usually better studied from a holistic approach than a purely deductive one. The steps are deductive (too much money in the system will induce asset inflation which will increase return on capital which will increase demand for leverage which will increase money in the system) Such a link can be the understood in the context of "minsky cycles" once one adds 'servicing debt' and the dynamics of such a system under shocks. From the study I have done the system of monetary creation is unstable. I speak more about that here: http://www.thedelphicfuture.org/2010/09/problem-with-economics.html

Ryan C. said...

While I do agree that some scientists reputations can be damaged by new findings that prove to be false, this certainly isn't one of them. These scientist have quickly published their results inviting, almost begging, other physicists to make sense of these radical findings which translate into, "We hope we are wrong or modern physics as we know it is back to square one."

Peter Dorman said...

Ryan, note that some prominent members of the research team refused to put their names on this blockbuster finding, even though they were full participants (or more) in the work. I cannot imagine something like this occurring in economics. Incidentally, this does not mean I endorse their reticence -- I just note the professional culture from which it arises.

Jack said...

Maybe the difference is that often there is a market value attached to economic theory which is losely related to economic research, but there is little determinable market value to research results in the natural sciences. In othe words, how many physicists are employed by major financial businesses and paid in denominations of $100,000?

When ideas can be used to generate wealth it becomes the value of the idea that takes precedence over the validity of that idea. Therefore, those ideas are never right or wrong, but rather a matter of scientific opinion and not subject to rejection of the null hypothesis.

Sandwichman said...

My experience is that when economists are shown to be wrong, they simply ignore it and repeat the argument, explanation or factoid that was shown to be wrong.

John M said...

I know your update was meant as a joke. But I still thought I'd mention that for neutrinos, that "rugged terrain" is a practically perfect vacuum.

Shag from Brookline said...

I have been told that neutrinos can enter and pass through the earth and be detected as they exit.

Jack said...

Are neutrinos the name of a new and healthy breakfast cereal from General Mills? The point of the post was not the neutrino activity. The point is that there is a cavernous gap between the dissemination of scientific facts and the theories (in this case convenient and personally rewarding beliefs or ideas) of economists who attach themselves to the corporate world. There's gold in them there caverns. Someone inn the field ought to research the financial connections between hired economists, whether endowed chairs or board chairs, and the corporate world. It would make very interesting reading. What statistical approach would you take to measuring the correlation between remuneration and distortion of fact and theory?

Jazzbumpa said...

To Jack's point, though SOME economists MIGHT approach the study of economics in a scientific way, economics is not, never was, and never will be a science.

It is inextricably joined at the hip with its OTHER evil twin: politics.

Science is about truth, and ever deepening understanding of the universe. Economics was invented in the late 1700's as a means of bestowing justification on a status quo that favored a privileged elite. Many economists today - the entire Chicago school, G. Mason U. hacks, Austrians, and misc. libertarians still pursue it in exactly that light.

JzB

Barkley Rosser said...

Jack,

There are plenty of physicists on Wall Street, with some of them making a lot of money. The most famous quants, such as Emmanual Derman, were originally physicists, and a lot of people doing econophysics are making big bucks with their hedge funds.

Jack said...

Barkley
That a physicist with knowledge of scientific measurement is cashing in as an arbitrage player is not relevant to the question of the influence of economists on economic policy in politics.
An expert in the measurement of a moving target isn't likely to share that expertise with others in a money game. In fact it may pay for such an individual to provide misleading calculations and theories to their own advantage. Remember, "never give a sucker an even break."

AJSwtlk said...

Quants are a large part of the problem.

http://fed-aerated.blogspot.com/search?q=quants