Mathematics is the key and the gateway to the sciences. Roger Bacon said these words some 750 years ago. They are as true today as they were then. But what is also important is wisdom: knowing what you don’t know and knowing the characteristics of what you are studying.
A few days ago, I was at the horse barn for my weekly horseback riding lesson. My trainer and I were discussing different cues among horses (some horses are more responsive to human physical commands, some more so to voice commands. Some will lope on a small command, and some need a hard command, etc). She said that there is no book on how to rise a horse, no formula one can follow, it can only be learned though practice and it differs from horse to horse.
There is a certain science to riding a horse. There are techniques and training methods. There is experimentation. But it is hardly as precise as, say, chemistry or biology (aka the hard sciences).
Horseback riding, like economics, is a social science. We are dealing with living, breathing, creatures with free will. There’s an element of randomness that comes into play.
Recognizing this randomness is what separates a good economist from a bad one, a good social scientist from a bad one. Unfortunately, many economists forget this lesson. They’re focused on their “precise mathematical models” (to use Noah Smith’s term), and forget the logic of thinking like an economist.
Models and experiments are very important. They help shape our thoughts, and theories must be rigorously tested time and time again. But social sciences, especially economics, is about looking for the unknown. How many people who would have gotten jobs now can’t because of a minimum wage hike? How much slower is economic growth because of new regulations? How else would have funds been used if World War 2 not occurred? Evaluating things while looking through the “broken window fallacy” lens is important. That is why opportunity cost is one of the first things young economists are taught (and seemingly the first thing they forget).
This is not a right-wing-left wing thing, or a free market-command market thing, or an Austrian-Keynesian thing. Economists on both sides make the mistake of becoming obsessed with models and mathematics and forgetting the basic economic lessons.
There’s a difference between knowing mathematics and knowing economics. Many economists are competent with the former and not the latter.