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Teaching evidence-based economics

From the Royal Economic Society by Michael Joffe:

Since the crisis of 2008, there has been much discussion of the future of economics, and especially the future of its teaching.

Several themes have emerged that apparently command wide support in many quarters, including prospective employers of economics graduates. Among these is a group of inter-related topics that could be seen as addressing the need to pay more attention to reality:

• better connection with the real world, including familiarity with economic history;

• ability to handle data, and knowledge of data sources;

• ability to synthesise evidence, and more broadly an emphasis on the application of economics.

Drawing these themes together, they can be expressed as the importance of a solid grounding in evidence. This includes some understanding of the way that it is obtained, as well as possession of substantive knowledge. It also encompasses evidence both descriptively on the main features of the economy and how they change over time, and mechanistically on what brings about those features and changes, i.e. how the economic system works.

Underpinning this approach is the fundamental principle that everything that is taught should be defensible in factual terms. Not that it is necessarily ‘true’, as that would greatly limit the scope of the discussion, but rather that there is evidence for and (probably also) against. The corollary is,things that are known to be untrue should not be presented as fact. It may seem odd to emphasise this, but it is motivated by the observation that some elements in the standard curriculum, and in textbooks, are incompatible with the evidence. Not merely oversimplified; false. I return to this issue below.

Plurality of types of evidence 

In the past twenty years, economics has seen a huge growth in empirical research. Much of this is on practical issues, such as the influence of class size on educational attainment, and of educational investment on future earnings. These are important policy questions. In teaching, however, one needs to prioritise. The types of evidence that are most relevant are (a) those relating to the broad features of the economy, both descriptively and mechanistically; and (b) evidential support for (or against) the major economic theories, e.g. each of the components of theGeneral Theory.

Evidence can be of many kinds, and different types of course have different requirements. Business schools need an emphasis distinct from that of economics courses (and may currently be better in this respect). For economics, data handling has featured prominently in the discussions; in addition, it is important for students to have an appreciation of where data come from, and how this may affect their quality — the strengths and weaknesses of key datasets. In substantive analyses attention should be directed more at what is driving the data, causally, than on quantification of estimates.

There are important sources of evidence other than statistical data, for example surveys, qualitative as well as quantitative.Evidence need not consist only of generalisations; specific events and case studies can also be instructive. So can descriptive studies, including on how particular sub-systems of the economy work. Secure knowledge comes from bringing different approaches together, and if necessary addressing any inconsistencies.

Behavioural economics is now part of the mainstream. This signifies a shift in emphasis towards how things actually happen, away from a focus on how they might happen in an ideal world. If one of the frequent criticisms of the curriculum is that it needs to move closer to reality, this is a good opportunity for teaching (and modelling) to be founded on real behaviour patterns, and on acknowledging that causation in economics involves multiple causation not determinism. Behavioural postulates based on imaginary axioms may be able to generate precise predictions, but this is of little value if these are wrong — accuracy should take precedence over precision.

Economic history is substantively important. It is the indispensable record of how economies actually behave, the particular structures they have, and how they change. In addition, economic historians pay a great deal of attention to the above-mentioned issues such as data quality, and the discipline encompasses specific events and narrative as well as quantitative methods and consideration of general historical processes. Importantly, the comparative method is very strong, and provides insight — although not necessarily decisive conclusions — into the process of long-term change.It is very important not to be centred on the experience of only one country, e.g. the UK or the US (or even both), but to have a broader global perspective. This gives a sense not only of what happened in a particular economy at a particular time, but also of what did not happen.

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