Blackboard Economics
 
Oil on Canvas Board
9" x 12" (x3)
2004
 
Economists are often accused of chalk and talk – for failing to engage with the real world. Indeed Deirdre McCloskey (1994), the famous gender crossing Economic Historian and Methodologist, has relentlessly argued against blackboard economics.
 
Nothing about the world can be proven on a blackboard. This, of course, is obvious. Blackboard economics – that is, armchair ivory tower theorizing about the world – can come up with interesting theoretical hypothesis and conclusions. But blackboard economics doesn't in itself, without calibrating the theory to the facts of the world, tell you anything at all about real world economies.
 
What McCloskey objects to is what Joseph Schumpeter long ago called the Ricardian Vice, after the English economist who first practiced it: namely, “the habit of piling a heavy load of practical conclusions upon a tenuous groundwork” (Schumpeter, 1954, p. 1171). Ricardo showed that free trade was good because it exploited comparative advantage. Similarly Gary Becker ‘shows’ that families are efficient because they exploit comparative advantage.
 
In neither case does the theoretical reasoning in itself, without calculating what McCloskey calls the oomph, "show" anything of the kind. It shows that under assumption X, then Y follows. But of course it remains to be seen whether the assumptions X have oomph in the real world. That is an empirical inquiry.
 
Of course scientists must think and watch, theorize and observe. Real and progressive sciences do both. For McCloskey the trouble with blackboard proof and statistical significance is that though they look like thinking and watching, they are actually not. Blackboard theorizing without empirical purchase and statistical significance without practical significance is not real science, it is wannabe science.