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Hayek on Scientistic Hubris

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Burton Malkiel rightly applauds Emanuel Derman’s message, in the latter’s Models Behaving Badly, that the mathematical methods that are so successful in the physical sciences are typically useless – or even downright dangerous – in the social sciences (“Physics Envy,” Dec. 14).

F.A. Hayek early on warned social scientists not to succumb to this “physics envy” (which he called “scientism”).  To this day, Hayek’s reputation suffers undeserved contempt because too many economists fail to appreciate the wisdom of his warning that the pertinent phenomena dealt with by the social sciences are too numerous, changing, and complex for their detailed interconnections to be successfully described – and for their specific quantitative values to be successfully predicted through time – by mathematical models.

As Hayek explained in his Nobel lecture, here alluding specifically to post-WWII macroeconomic modeling: “It seems to me that this failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences – an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error.  It is an approach which has come to be described as the “scientistic” attitude – an attitude which, as I defined it some thirty years ago, ‘is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.'”

Donald J. Boudreaux


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