Economists Are More Like Storytellers Than Scientists – Don’t Let The Nobel For ‘Economic Sciences’ Fool You

When you listen to an economist, chances are you’ll hear a lot of statistics.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s speech at the National Association for Business Economics on Oct. 6 is a case in point. In the first two minutes alone he referred to a dizzying range of economic indicators: growth, unemployment rate, personal consumption expenditures inflation, labor force participation, productivity gains, real wage gains and so on.

But if you watch the speech, you may notice that he rarely cites the actual numbers. That’s because Powell, and economists generally, tend to be more interested in the direction in which the numbers are going rather than the numbers themselves. Is unemployment high or low? Is the Dow up or down? Is GDP growth trending upward or downward?

In other words, Powell is telling you a story. And although economists have historically wanted their field to be associated with the so-called hard sciences – a conjuring act exemplified by the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences – I’ve come to see it as having a lot more in common with literature, especially novels, than physics or chemistry.

As a literary scholar researching economics and its history, I have found that being aware of the similarities between economists and novelists helps us to better evaluate the claims they make. Both are telling stories. Understanding that empowers us to judge the credibility of what they’re saying for ourselves.

Fact and fiction

The notion that economics shares a lot with fiction may seem counterintuitive. That feeling is not incidental.

Ever since the inception of economics in the late 1800s, economists have sought to associate their discipline with the very opposite of fiction: the natural sciences. Unlike economics, which deals with human relationships, the hard sciences study phenomena in the natural world. As such, a claim by a natural scientist reflects a different kind of truth than one by an economist. For example, the law of gravity describes an immutable physical fact; the law of supply and demand describes a relationship between people.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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