What tools do economists use that other scientists don't?

When I read Freakonomics, I saw many references to the “tools” of economics being brought to bear on various aspects of everyday life. I now understand that there has been a profusion of such studies since Levitt more or less burst on the public scene in about 2002. But as I look at the results of those studies - yes, in the popular press, not in their original forms - I think that what they’re doing is basic science. They try to find correlations between two features of society by setting up natural experiments in which they control for other variables. My question is Why is that considered to be economics? What tools do they use that, say, wildlife biologists, or anthropologists for that matter, don’t use? Why do they refer to their process as “using the tools from economics”? Why don’t they just call it science?
Thanks, dopers.
xo, C.

I have asked my brother (who has a PhD in Macroeconomics from MIT) this question. The answer is long and complicated but it can be summed up as: imagination and excuses.

They mostly call them statistics. When you ask them why they are examining the 5th derivative of a function for something but for something else they used the 3rd, the answers don’t come in words that normal humans can understand.

Sorry I don’t have a more enlightening answer, but as I see it, the best amongst them make predictions that hit or miss as much as you would by choosing randomly. They do have excellent explanations as to why their predictions didn’t pan out, though.

Science is a process (method), not a tool.

The tools of science would depend on the particular science: Microscopes, particle accelerators, lab rats, etc. The tools of Economics are primarily accounting and statistical data.

To answer your question though, economics is a science by definition.

I’m aware that science is a process. But I don’t believe this is a semantic argument. I want to know what “tools” economists use that are not conventionally associated with basic science. Accounting is a process, no? And data are simply raw materials. What does Levitt mean when he refers to using the tools of economics to draw conclusions? When I read that material, I find that he is finding correlations, elimitating variables, and determining some degree of causation. Again, to me, that sounds like using the tool/processes of science. We’d call that taking a scientific approach. So how is economics, or his research, any different? That’s my question.

I think it’s a great question! I also think **Sapo ** had a great answer!

My impression is that economics is not properly defined by its tools, but by its domain of inquiry–how decisions are made about the allocation of limited resources. Repeated study of such questions has resulted in some methods, such as supply and demand models, that are the kind of things Levitt is referring to. But a demand curve is ultimately just the correlation between price and consumption. It is a little annoying when economists take credit for inventing the field of statistics…The tools of economics are essentially the tools of social science. The tools of social science differ from the tools of science in that the what hard science studies is often invariant (e.g. boiling point of water at sea level) and social sciences, studying people, will always have variance in the population and sample being studied. That means the statistical approaches used in hard sciences are more focused on eliminating measurement error and in the social sciences on working around random error. Admittedly, the above paints with something of a broad brush.

But it is a semantic argument.

It’s not that economics has invented new math any more than auto mechanics have invented new wrenches. But the tools used by auto mechanics are specific to their uses and are distinct from the tools used by plumbers in their work. They may both use wrenches, but they are likely to be distinct wrenches used in distinct ways on distinct problems.

Similarly, economists use distinct types of statistical analyses that are likely to be different from those of social sciences or even from English professors. (There is a technical literature on Shakespeare, for example, that looks at the words he uses in considerable detail. None of the anti-Stratfordians, to my knowledge, use these technical tools or even seem to be aware of them, which is why their championing of Oxford or Marlowe for “who wrote Shakespeare” tends to be dismissed out of hand. They aren’t using the tools of technical English analysis.)

The tools of economics are the particular techniques that economists have found to work best to answer the particular questions that they ask. These are not separate from science, but in context it makes good semantic sense to talk about the tools of economics.

Whether the results are meaningful is a completely different question. I could use the tools of auto mechanics or plumbers and not get anything other than a leaky car that doesn’t start. But good tools are distinct to professions and it’s not confusing or misstating to call them so.

Econometrics, which I only know as much as my daughter complained about when she took it at the U of C, seems like it is basically statistics. One tool not mentioned here is modeling. Economics modeling, best as I can tell, is more like meteorological modeling than anything else - too many variables to really handle, and a lot rests on the assumptions built in. The meteorologists get faster feedback, though, and they don’t have politicians interfering in their experiments.

Well, it may very well be semantics, and as much as I respect and usually defer to your views, Map, I think it is misstating the case when an economist refers to his use of, say, Pearson’s coefficient of correlation, and call it a tool of economics. To use your example, the wrench that a plumber uses is, in fact, different from one that an auto mechanic uses. A stilson wrench is a tool of plumbing. And, maybe you could say that a screwdriver is a tool of carpentry when a carpenter uses it, but I think it would be misstating it to say that.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that a kit of scredriver, plane, level, hammer and nails would no doubt be considered “the tools of carpentry.” None the less, to me there’s something misleading about his use of the term. It makes it sound like economics has some mysterious set of analytical and procedural components that other sciences do not. And on a third hand, maybe I’m just revealing my own ignorance.

But statistics is used by other sciences - for example, without statistics, biology would really be in the dark ages. Heck, there’s even a whole field called Biostatistics.