Economics and Physics

Economists have sometimes been accused of physics-envy, but that is an utterly misleading accusation. Anyone who knows modern physics will testify that physicists care about experimental evidence, about bringing their theories into conformity with the experimental evidence, and very little about rigorous theorems and analytical lemmas. What economists really suffer from is mathematics-envy.

Blaug, Mark. “Not Only an Economist: Autobiographical Reflections of a Historian of Economic Thought.” In Reflections of Eminent Economists, edited by Michael Szenberg and Lall Ramrattan, 71-94. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004, p. 90.

We economists like to think of our science as akin to physics in its mathematical rigor. Quite by accident, while pursuing some research on stochastic processes, I obtained in 1995 a detailed description of the research being done by tenured and tenure-track members of the Harvard University physics department, ranked that same year in a National Research Council survey as the top physics department in the United States. Analysis of the research

summaries indicated that ten of the 41 active faculty members were working exclusively on theoretical inquires, six on a combination of theory and experimentation, and 25 on essentially experimental projects (which, of course might have implications for theory). This set me to wondering: how does the pattern in physics compare with what one might find in my own economics speciality? To find out, I examined all the articles published in volume 12 (1994) of the International Journal of Industrial Organization – a high-quality journal in whose founding I played an indirect role. Of the 31 articles, five were exclusively empirical-statistical, one was a mixture of theory and econometrics, one was a case study, and 24 consisted of theory alone with no more than anecdotal real-world foundations. Thus, Harvard physics research and research in the eoncomics of industrial organization, at least as reflected in the not atypcial IJIO, are almost mirror images of one another – physics preponderantly empirical, industrial organization preponderatntly theoretical.

Scherer, F.M. “An Accidental Schumpeterian.” In Reflections of Eminent Economists, edited by Michael Szenberg and Lall Ramrattan, 386-399. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004, pp. 396-397.

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