Experimental philosophy, experimental economics

Interesting article at Prospect Magazine called Philosophy’s Great Experiment, about the rise of ‘experimental philosophy’. Doubly interesting to me, because it could equally well be talking about experimental economics, albeit a few years too late. Or about “neuroeconomics“; the philosophers in the article are using fMRI machines to look for patterns of neuronal activity when subjects are presented with philosophical problems”, just like the researcher who does the same for resource allocation – economics – problems. But here’s the rub:

Some philosophers quietly dismiss the movement as a cynical step by researchers to appear cutting edge and to tap into scientists’ funding.

Indeed, it’s easy to feel this way about the kind of experiments in which economists step on psychologists’ toes. The drive toward empiricism in philosophy that the article talks about seems to be symptomatic of social sciences’ and humanities’ desire to be taken “seriously” as science.
And as we know, that means we need something falsifiable or verifiable. “There is no article in Prospect Magazine called Philosophy’s Great Experiment” is falsifiable, because I can find such an article and falsify the statement. “There is at least one article in Prospect Magazine called Philosophy’s Great Experiment” is verifiable, because I can find such an article and verify the statement. 
In experimental economics, often it seems (at least to this observer) that we’re replicating, or at least mirroring, psychology experiments. Unfortunately, the economics experiment is much less likely to be “scientific”, not because of the method or the issue at hand, but because of the specific question. This is precisely what Lawrence Boland discusses in the paper “On the futility of criticizing the neoclassical maximization hypothesis” (pdf), which I read as a welcome withering put-down to all of those who claim to “disprove rationality“, etc etc. He says:
Properly stated, the neoclassical premise is: ‘For all decision makers there is something they maximize’… The person who assumed the premise is true can respond: ‘You claim you have found a consumer who is not a maximizer but how do you know there is not something which he is maximizing?’

For experimental economists and experimental philosophers alike, the challenge is to pose a scientific question; without that, no method will save us. “Are people ethical?”, for example, is equally a dead end as “are people rational?”. 


Found at Environmental Economics: a new book called “Environmental Economics, Experimental Methods” has just surfaced, a happy example of (at very least) broadly innovative methods in economics (the experimental part) being wedded to policy questions outside the popularly perceived scope of economics. The book describes a variety of laboratory experiments whose results are relevant to environmental policy. The contents are here (pdf).

The experimental revolution must really have arrived for a book like this to exist. The whole problem of inferring causality in the complexity of the world is an acute problem that science has always tried to solve, one that the social sciences naturally have particular difficulty with. In economics, from this common difficulty came abstract theorizing, econometric inference from real data, and, latterly, randomized trials (aspiring to be cousin to the same in medicine) and laboratory experiments (aspiring to be cousin to the same in psychology).

A simple characterization of the difference between those last two might be this: the randomized trial method tries to isolate the effect of one thing on another, while the experimental school is entwined with the behavioral economists who seek to isolate the way people act. Clearly this steps on some psychological toes; our method is certainly pretty similar, with the possible exception that we’re . We usually get people to sit at consumers and make decisions about what to do while they’re interacting (usually anonymously) with other people in the experiment.

I think it’s pretty amazing that experimental economics has exploded so quickly to generate a whole (big) book applying its results to a niche like environmental economics. Whatever you make of the experimental field, it’s surely a pleasure to see an expansion in the range of scientific methods economists are employing. Logic, math, statistics; now trials and experiments.

On a completely unrelated note, I love this post, from Environmental Economics, about explaining your job as an economist.

“‘Oh really, what do you teach?’…
‘Economics.’ The glazed look…
‘Oh so you’re in the business school?'”

I bet misunderstanding about what economics is can be even more annoying for an environmental economist than it is for the rest of us…