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Methodological confusions and the science wars in economics


The “science wars” are a contentious, ongoing series of debates about the nature of knowledge and the proper role of the scientific method. The participants take many forms, but always central to the controversy are postmodern ideas that challenge commonly accepted understandings of the objectivity of data, science, and sometimes even reality. In this paper, we consider the relevance of these debates for the practice of economics. Ultimately we propose that these debates present two opportunities and a significant challenge to the discipline of economics. The opportunities are: 1) to incorporate post-positivist philosophy of science as a way to better interpret the meanings that become attached to institutions, which is particularly important for studies of political hierarchy and oppression, and 2) to do better empirical work by robustly incorporating interpretation into the gathering and analysis of data. The challenge is to do this work without abandoning economic theory itself, preserving the critically important insights of the universal logic of human choice while abandoning the illusion of a single best scientific method.

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  1. (Ashman 2001) and (Parsons 2003) are two accessible volumes which draw on scholars on both sides.

  2. Also called the Sokal Affair.

  3. See: (Lavoie 2011, 92 fn 2) for Lavoie’s original influences in the growth of knowledge literatures.

  4. See: (Boettke et al. 2004) for an extended treatment of the relationship between the pragmatist tradition and Austrian economics.

  5. See: (Lavoie 2011, 96 fn 7) for the list of Lavoie’s original hermeneutic influences.

  6. To which he added a footnote: “Disregard of this requirement is, in my view, the only serious flaw in the otherwise excellent essay (Friedman 1953)” (Machlup 1955, 17 n 42). For more on the relationship between (Machlup 1955) and the Austrian tradition, see: (Rothbard 1957), (Zanotti and Cachanosky 2015), and (Langlois and Koppl 1991).

  7. Like Lavoie later, Lachmann’s radicalism would prompt charges of nihilism and historicism. (Lavoie 1986) defends Lachmann by reinterpreting Mises in a Lachmannian light (Prychitko 1994; Storr 2017).

  8. See: Martin 2015, 24.


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The authors wish to think Peter Boettke, Bruce Caldwell, Virgil Henry Storr, and the participants in the Austrian School of Economics Workshop at the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies at the University of Alberta. They provided many valuable comments and suggestions. All remaining errors are our own.

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Lemke, J., Kroencke, J. Methodological confusions and the science wars in economics. Rev Austrian Econ 33, 87–106 (2020).

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