On empiricism and falsification

March 18, 2024
Angus Deaton, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015, has written a fascinating essay about his changing views on economics. I thought the following quote has great relevance to ecology: "The credibility revolution in econometrics was an understandable reaction to the identification of causal mechanisms by assertion, often controversial and sometimes incredible. But the currently approved methods, randomized controlled trials, differences in differences, or regression discontinuity designs, have the effect of focusing attention on local effects, and away from potentially important but slow-acting mechanisms that operate with long and variable lags. Historians, who understand about contingency and about multiple and multidirectional causality, often do a better job than economists of identifying important mechanisms that are plausible, interesting, and worth thinking about, even if they do not meet the inferential standards of contemporary applied economics." It is always easier to enumerate how inference can go wrong and it can pay quick dividends for careers. It is much harder to move forward the complex problems that emerge in whole systems as they require a multitude of approaches and data sources pursued iteratively over long periods.