Biology Magazine

Economists: The Magical Priesthood

By Cris

In this powerful interview with Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, Philip Pilkington poses the following question:

If what you say is true – and I believe the evidence is unquestionable in this regard – then economics is not a science whatsoever. It more so resembles a school of morality or even a philosophical cult. The old Greek Stoics spring to mind. They were a school of philosophy that not only taught certain ideas but demanded that their followers live these ideas in their day-to-day lives. But in economics the students aren’t even told that they’re signing up for a moral vision, a sort of religion or belief system, they’re told that they’re being initiated into an objective science. Perhaps you could reflect a little in that direction and its implications?

In his response, Varoufakis ascertains voodoo in economics:

Quite so. It is a priesthood that truly believes it is not a priesthood but, rather, a community of scientists. How do they manage to maintain this delusion? The simple answer is because their incantations involve rather advanced mathematics and their rituals are steeped in statistical tests and projections….

This is a most peculiar failure: The hapless economist uses the same tools as acclaimed physicists and astronomers. She has trained for years to speak precisely the same language as them, to understand the same advanced mathematics, to deploy most complex statistical methods which are an essential part of the scientific toolbox. It is, understandably, incredibly difficult to accept that her work is a form of higher order superstition; a religion couched in the language of mathematics and statistics. Tragically, this is precisely what it is. Come to think of it, what is it that separates science from mythology? The fact that scientific propositions are not self-referential. That, in science (unlike in mythology), when the facts clash with the theory it is too bad for the theory.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard (the famous anthropologist) once offered a brilliant insight into the social success of the priesthood within the Azande society. The question he asked is similar to yours (regarding economists): If they get it so wrong so often, how should we explain their continuing dominance? When the Azande priests and oracles failed to predict or avert disasters, why did people continue to believe them? His explanation of the Azande’s unshakeable belief in witchcraft, oracles and magic goes like this:

Azande see as well as we that the failure of their oracle to prophesy truly calls for explanation, but so entangled are they in mystical notions that they must make use of them to account for failure. The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions. Evans-Pritchard in his Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, 1937

Economics, I submit to you, is not much different. Whenever it fails to predict properly some economic phenomenon (which is more often than not), that failure is accounted for by appealing to the same mystical economic notions which failed in the first place.

It reminds me of this prayer algorithm (by LOL god), which Craig Martin describes as impervious ideology: “it can’t be dented or contradicted by any empirical data. Or, rather, incoming data is slotted into existing categories (God’s work or God’s mysterious ways), and in such a way that anomalies aren’t allowed.”

Economists: The Magical Priesthood

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By  Realizingresonance
posted on 04 March at 21:05
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I appreciate this criticism of the economics profession. As someone who does economics I think that the issues with scientific verification are deeply rooted in the nature of economic systems, which are massively complex and dynamic, and often irreducible without leaps of faith. The religious comparison does not fit strongly with my experience though. I have a slightly different take on the problems of economic epistomology that you might find interesting: