One of my favorite shows on TV is Rick and Morty. The show’s titular characters are Rick, an alcoholic, cynical, mad-scientist type and his grandson, Morty. The show has many great moments, but one of my favorites is after Rick makes a particularly nasty mistake. His reaction is pretty stoic:
“Ok…Well, sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”
What I like about this quote, particularly in the context it is given, is the reminder to all scientists that we are, ultimately, working off of guess work, theory, and observations. It’s not as precise as we’d like. What’s more, his throw-away line at the end (“A lot of people don’t get that,”) is a jab at laymen (and even some scientists) who look towards the sciences to provide clear-cut answers and policies. But the reality is there is still so much uncertainty, so much more to know, and the world is not often precise.
Rick’s attitude regarding the hard sciences can easily be applied (perhaps to even a greater degree) to social sciences like economics. In fact, his attitude is identical to that of F.A. Hayek in describing what he called “the pretense of knowledge,” the idea that things can be directed by someone(s) with appropriate amounts of knowledge. Furthermore, Rick’s chide that “a lot of people don’t get that,” could have been spoken by Hayek himself, especially to those who believe “precise mathematical models” are necessary and sufficient.
Economics is very much more art than science sometimes. Those who look to us economists to prove clean-cut solutions to the world will be sorely disappointed, and those economists to believe they can direct the world accurately are not much more than snake-oil salesmen. Economics can offer guidance, but to expect more is to open one’s self up to disappointment.
As an aside, this is one of the few moments in the show where Rick admits he’s wrong. Rick considers himself a genius, often above reproach. He is very much mathematically-driven (at one point, telling his grandkids “You’re both pieces of shit, and I can prove it mathematically,”) but even he admits there is limit to what math can tell us.