ECONOMICS AS A SCIENCE
Although the content and character of economics cannot be described briefly, numerous writers have attempted that. An especially useless, though once popular, example is: «Economics is what economists do.»Similarly, a notable economist of the last century Alfred Marshall called economics «a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.» Lionel Robbins in the 1930s described economics as «the science of choice among scarce means to accomplish unlimited ends.»During much of modern history, especially in the nineteenth century, economics was called simply «the science of wealth.» Less seriously, George Bernard Shaw was credited in the early 1900s with the witticism that «economics is the science whose practitioners, even if all were laid end to end, would not reach agreement.»We may make better progress by comparing economics with other subjects. Like every other discipline that attempts to explain observed facts (e.g., physics, astronomy, meteorology), economics comprises a vast collection of descriptive material organized around a central core of theoretical principles. The manner in which theoretical principles are formulated and used in applications varies greatly from one science to another. Like psychology, economics draws much of its theoretical core from intuition, casual observation, and «common knowledge about human nature.» Like astronomy, economics is largely nonexperimental. Like meteorology, economics is relatively inexact, as is weather forecasting. Like particle physics and molecular biology, economics deals with an array of closely interrelated phenomena (as do sociology and social psychology). Like such disciplines as art, fantasy writing, mathematics, metaphysics, cosmology, and the like, economics attracts different people for different reasons: «One person’s meat is another person’s poison.» Though all disciplines differ, all are remarkably similar in one respect: all are meant to convey an interesting, persuasive, and intellectually satisfying story about selected aspects of experience. As Einstein once put it: «Science is the attempt to make the chaotic diversity of our sense-experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought.»Economics deals with data on income, employment, expenditure, interest rates, prices and individual activities of production, consumption, transportation, and trade. Economics deals directly with only a tiny fraction of the whole spectrum of human behavior, and so the range of problems considered by economists is relatively narrow. Contrary to popular opinion, economics does not normally include such things as personal finance, ways to start a small business, etc.; in relation to everyday life, the economist is more like an astronomer than a weatherforecaster, more like a physical chemist than a pharmacist, more like a professor of hydrodynamics than a plumber.
In principle almost any conceivable problem, from marriage, suicide, capital punishment, and religious observance to tooth brushing, drug abuse, extramarital affairs, and mall shopping, might serve (and, in the case of each of these examples has served) as an object for some economist’s attention. There is, after all, no clear division between «economic» and «noneconomic» phenomena. In practice, however, economists have generally found it expedient to leave the physical and life sciences to those groups that first claimed them, though not always. In recent years economists have invaded territory once claimed exclusively by political scientists and sociologists, not to mention territories claimed by physical anthropologists, experimental psychologists, and paleontologists.