Complexity in Economics (and Political Science)

I’m fascinated by Beinhocker’s “The Origin of Wealth” and his use of complexity science in economics.  He demonstrates how the challenges of today can no longer be studied sufficiently using past reductionist scientific approaches.  Instead, we need a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to the questions of today – how does life originate, how do economies function and self-organize, where does consciousness come from, and so on.

Beinhocker also provides a strong critique of many of the shortcomings of traditional economics.  Without going into the details, it’s about building ever-increasingly complicated mathematical models built around assumptions that bear no grounding in reality.  In particular, the idea of equilibrium models in economics is fundamentally flawed as the economy is rarely anywhere near equilibrium.  I know that some dyed-in-the wool economists may disagree with some of this, and my point is not to engage in this wrestling match.  Rather, I find it disappointing to see political scientists falling into the same tar pit.

A preview of the latest issue of AJPS readily shows the wonderful mathematics and modeling sophistication of “cutting edge” political science.  But too many of the articles struggle with two issues.  First, they are built around many of the same shoddy assumptions of the economists.  It seems to be a crazy game where the political scientists (and I presume many of the other social sciences) are chasing the mathematical economists.  They, in turn, are chasing the physicists.  But the physicists that they are chasing are from 100 years ago, and the physical scientists have since moved on.  Second, the pursuit of mathematics as the end goal has changed the types of questions frequently being addressed by political scientists.  No longer is the question of central importance.  Instead, the question must be one that enables equations that can be readily solved.  Peruse the research questions in many of the mainstream political science journals and see if they are 1) interesting and 2) of relevance to society or to practitioners.  I think that too often the answer is NO and NO.

I don’t mean to denigrate all publications, but, damn, the field as a whole needs to step up.

One response to this post.

  1. Amen brother! “I don’t mean to denigrate all publications, but, damn, the field as a whole needs to step up.” Nice!! 🙂 Time for political science to get back to politics.


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