What’s Wrong with Economic Models?

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John Kay’s thought-provoking essay The Map is Not the Territory: An Essay on the State of Economics argues that economists have been led astray by excessive reliance on formal models derived from assumptions that bear too little similarity to the world we live in.

And it is surely true that at least at times, disastrous decisions have been made through reliance on models that proved to be incorrect. Some of the statistical models used by financial institutions to value derivative securities based on mortgages just before the recent financial crisis provide a case in point.

But I do not believe that the route to sounder economic reasoning will involve an abandonment of economists’ penchant for reasoning with the use of models. Models allow the internal consistency of a proposed argument to be checked with greater precision; they allow more finely-grained differentiation among alternative hypotheses, and they allow longer and more subtle chains of reasoning to be deployed without both author and reader becoming hopelessly tangled in them. Nor do I believe it is true that economists who are more given to the use of formal mathematical analysis are generally more dogmatic in their conclusions than those who customarily rely upon more informal styles of argument. Often, reasoning from formal models makes it easier to see how strong are the assumptions required for an argument to be valid, and how different one’s conclusions may be depending on modest changes in specific assumptions. And whether or not any given practitioner of economic modeling is inclined to honestly assess the fragility of his conclusions, the use of a model to justify those conclusions makes it easy for others to see what assumptions have been relied upon, and hence to challenge them. As a result, the resort to argumentation based on models facilitates the general project of critical inquiry that represents, in my view, our best hope for some eventual approach toward truth.