Following up from an interesting germ of an argument between Dan Olner and “Frank” in the comments to this article
I dislike it very much when people defend climatology from a point of view of credentials. Despite perceptions from some quarters, I am interested in engaging challenges to the legitimacy of physical climatology.
I am forced to this position by my severe doubts about economics as a discipline and as an academic culture.
Let me concede that there must be some substance, some value to economics. Nevertheless, it is my claim that the comparison between the disciplines is worth undertaking, and that economics comes up the loser by a wide margin.
This is doubly important. First of all, though both physical climatology and economics are frequently called into doubt, clear thought in both disciplines is a requirement for progress toward a sustainable future. From an engineer’s perspective, climate is a key part of the system under control, and economics is a key part of the controller. Without a good model of the system and a good design for the controller, it seems increasingly likely that the whole system will spin out of control.
Secondly, even leaving “green” issues off the table, economics makes grandiose claims to be the science of collective behavior, or even the science of collective happiness. Yet it dismisses any philosophically interesting aspects of these questions in favor of counting dollar-denominated transactions. Nevertheless, it claims for itself a unique position among the sciences, as the crux, the central weighing mechanism, for all public decision-making.
Oddly, one hears the same claim of hubris directed at climate science. If in fact things are as we climatologists claim, after all, this will have an enormous impact on all aspects of human behavior, even of procreation. Of course it is obvious to anyone (except perhaps an economist) that there are limits to growth in some sense imposed by our physical environment, so whether climate science is right or not, clearly there is some physical constraint that will trap us sooner or later. But it does matter that we get it right. If CO2 accumulation really is harmless, there is more time and there are fewer immediate constraints on what we do.
And so, I insist that the question is legitimate.
I also would not be one to throw away ALL of economics. Some of it is clear enough. And it would be good if our severest critics were more clear about what they think we are getting wrong as well. But the most severe critics of anything tend to be those furthest from it. I have tried to avoid dismissing economics, even as I disagree most strongly with what is often presented to me as economic consensus.
One place where climate science wins is in its connection to other disciplines. Indeed, climate science is either a client or a provider or both to most other disciplines. Economics is an island unto itself. Climate also understands the nature of regimes (this approximation for low Rossby number, this one for high Reynolds number, etc.) and how the right analysis tool for one situation is completely useless in another. Economists still seem to be trying to find the One Ring to Rule them All, despite the fact that the complexities of human preferences are buried underneath their abstractions. Both of these things disturb me and somehow don’t seem to bother others.
But above all, it bothers me that economics poses as a pure science when it is actually best construed as a particularly crude form of engineering. We should not be predicting what we do. We should be deciding what we do, and using economics as a tool to get us to the future, rather than as a measurement device that tells us by how much we are certainly going to fail.