Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics

CeDEx 2020-16: Is Economics An Experimental Science? A Textbook Perspective


Traditionally, students of economics have often been told that it is a non-experimental science. Using a quantitative and qualitative analysis of introductory economics textbooks, we track the historical evolution of this rhetoric from 1970 to the present day. We find that anti-experimental rhetoric was dominant and largely unchanged prior to the turn of the 21st century. Since then, there has been a growing trend towards textbooks making positive statements about the role of experimentation in economics. Remarks that experiments are impossible in economics have been (almost) eliminated only this decade, evidencing a sluggish change in rhetoric. We outline the evolution of statements over revised editions of influential textbooks and show that, while most have become considerably more supportive of experimental economics, there is substantial variation over when this happened. Interviews with key textbook authors confirm the historical trend of increased enthusiasm towards experiments, and suggest they are now accepted within the economic mainstream. Our results hold important implications for the research methodology of our science and how it is understood by current and former students.

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Saileshsingh Gunessee and Tom Lane


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Posted on Tuesday 13th October 2020

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