A new article by Louis Larue Journal of Economic Methodology He defends what he calls “rational pluralism”. Larue argues that pluralism offers epistemological advantages, because the contestation and debate that pluralism provokes can help us refine our theories and discover important truths. But he also claims that “pluralism has its limits” and that “we should only accept those theories and methods that can be justified by their community with reasons that other communities can accept.”
The epistemological benefits of pluralism arise because pluralism creates situations in which researchers working from different paradigms challenge each other. This is crucial in situations of epistemological uncertainty, because a heterodox theory that turns out to be correct can challenge a false dominant theory. Competition within the marketplace of ideas makes it possible to correct errors in a way that would not occur in situations where the mainstream approach is dominant. However, Larue argues that pluralism has epistemological advantages even if we know that the dominant approach is correct:
“What if one side has the right? Let’s now assume (for the sake of argument) that we have a good theory that clearly meets all scientific requirements. I argue that this is nevertheless not a sufficient reason to ignore competing theories or methods. For these alternative theories can help us refine established scientific theories. As Longino (2004, p. 138) argues, it is still worth exhausting all possible options to be sure to settle on the right theory.” (p. 5)
Larue illustrates this point with a few more examples. An example of how methodological individualists like myself (and most economists) can benefit from engaging in research programs that do not rely on methodological individualism:
“Let me give another example. Suppose we agree that methodological individualism is the ‘good’ method for the social sciences, including economics. Systematic individualism is the view that ‘all social phenomena (their formation and their change) are in principle explicable only in terms of individuals – their characteristics, goals, beliefs’ (Elster, 1982, p. 453). Does it follow that we should ignore theories that reject key methodological assumptions? no Competition theory can nevertheless play a fruitful role. They can be useful if they lead economists to study questions and problems that they might not otherwise study. For example, the fact that Marx’s work is filled with Hegelian thought has not prevented analytical Marxists, such as Romer (1982) or Elster (1985), from analyzing his work with the tools of rational choice theory. Marx may have been wrong in many ways, and Roemer and Elster both agree. Nevertheless, analyzing his theory has allowed the development of a rich and fruitful literature, which may not share all of Marx’s methodological or ideological commitments, but which may not have existed without Marx (for a similar conclusion, see Elster, 2011a).”
EconLog readers may be more skeptical of engaging with Karl Marx, even through the methodological individualist lens employed by Romer and Elster. I would encourage such skeptical readers to read Michael Munger Independent review Article on Public Choice Theory and Complementary Topics in the Works of Marx. I’ll also point to my own Econolog post about how Austrian economists quarreled with Marxists about imperialism. Even if Marxists were completely wrong about imperialism, their work challenged Austrians such as Mises and Schumpeter to offer a different interpretation of these phenomena. Pluralism makes room for such challenges.
If pluralism has this cognitive advantage, do we simply declare that anything goes? Should all theories and methods, no matter how marginal, be welcome in our economics departments? No, argues Larue. He suggests “some criteria for limiting the scope of pluralism” (p. 7). What is this limit? Larue proposed two criteria.
“Pluralism has its limits. These limits relate to the justifications that economists can give in defense of their preferred methods or theories. More specifically, I argue that an economic method or theory is justified (that is, can be included in the pluralistic scientific realm) if it fulfills two conditions. (1) First, there should be a community of practitioners who share this method/theory. (2) Second, this community should be able to defend its methodological choices with reasons acceptable to other communities.” (p. 7)
How does Larue justify this criterion? He points to the epistemological advantage that a community of scholars (even heterodox scholars) provides by promoting some agreed method.
“I would define a community as a group of economists whose theories and methods are committed to the same core assumptions (see Caldwell, 1988; Dow, 2004, pp. 277–280). The existence of a community has generally been praised for enabling internal peer critique, or what Longino (2004, p. 134) calls ‘narrow critique’, an important and controversial condition of scientific rigor and a first test of pluralism (see also Borgerson, 2011 ; Longino, 1990, 2002). Inclusion in a community also provides each individual economist with a reassuring environment, made up of well-defined methodological principles and the meaning of shared beliefs and ideas about the world (Dow, 2004, p. 288). Contrary to what some of its opponents might think, pluralism need not plunge economists into uncertainty. Within their communities, they can use a unified framework and not necessarily have to deal with complex methodological decisions. Nevertheless, they should recognize that this cannot be the only framework and that other competing theories are also acceptable (De Langhe, 2010). So the scientific community has to play a dual role. First, by stimulating internal criticism, they provide the first test on pluralism. Second, by providing a stable methodological framework for researchers, they can also help guarantee that their members’ work satisfies some standard of rigor and create an epistemological advantage that is well regarded in the community. Although this is not enough. Each community should be able to justify its preferred methods and theories with reasons acceptable to other communities, under the assumption that each community is open to hearing these arguments and accepts them as potentially binding” (p. 7).
Scholarly communities, even those built around a heterodox approach, provide environments for scientific training, debate, and quality control. These heterogeneous scientific communities then contribute arguments and research that can be contested by mainstream scholars. Although compromise may not occur, LaRue argues that productive dialogue can occur through appeals to shared cognitive values.
“Kuhn (1977, p. 357) originally listed five such values (accuracy, consistency, simplicity, effectiveness, and breadth of scope) but wrote that the list was probably longer than that. He also acknowledges that these values may be in conflict (for example, simplicity may limit the scope of a theory). His point was that different theorists may differ on many important points, but generally all share the same commitment to these epistemological values.”
In this respect, heterodox economists, we Austrians or Marxists at GMU and post-Keynesians at the New School differ from lonely cranks. We engage within the scientific community, both our own heterogeneous community and the larger scientific community whose epistemic values we appeal to.
Laureate’s defense of rational pluralism works well as a social process in science that emphasizes the role of contestation in scientific discovery. This includes the excellent book by Roger Copple Expert failure and Michael Polanyi’s classic “The Republic of Science.”
I’m also reminded of Peter Boett, Chris Coyne and Pete Leeson’s article “Earw(h)ig: I Can’t Hear You Because Your Ideas Are Outdated.” Contrary to the Whig theory of intellectual history, which argues that the best ideas of the past are incorporated into the present scientific core, Boettke, Leeson, and Coyne argue that “the market of ideas, while no doubt subject to scientific competition, is not free from the distortions of incentives and signals that economic guides scientists. As a result, flawed ideas can dominate the profession, while useful ideas are tossed to the proverbial sidewalks of intellectual affairs.” Looking back at older ideas is therefore not merely an interesting exercise in intellectual history, it can be a way of finding paths not taken, insights of past theorists that mainstream economists have not yet fully grasped.
Science is a social process, where flawed, fallible people make arguments and try to better understand the world. Pluralism and competition are a key part of how this process works. Science thrives on polycentricity and competition between different research groups, not on the dominance of mainstream consensus or the murky, murky waters of dogma.
Nathan P. Goodman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Economics at New York University. His research interests include defense and peace economics, self-governance, public choice, institutional analysis, and Austrian economics.