Economics and physics are two disciplines that, contrary to widespread perceptions, have significant common agendas. Shame, then, that the professionals don't do more to recognize the fact.
After hearing a talk on the application of physics to the social sciences, a physicist in a notoriously traditional department was heard to mutter that it was all very well but it wasn't ‘real physics’. It was an article of faith to him that many-body theories in physics could not be applied to animate objects.
Now that it seems clear that bacteria, locusts and even road traffic undergo types of dynamic phase transition, this objection is hard to sustain. But the idea that physics can tell us something about a human system as complex as the economy — that there exists a kind of econophysics — seems harder to swallow.
Would-be econophysicists can therefore find themselves damned from both directions: physicists don't think of the field as physics, whereas economists don't recognize it as their discipline either. Acceptance by the economics community seems a particularly long way off: even fully fledged economists are ostracized by the mainstream if they do not embrace the tenets of ‘neoclassical’ economic theory, no matter how untenable its principles — identical, utility-maximizing economic agents operating in an equilibrium market — now seem.
The refusal of the economic mainstream to engage with econophysics is lamentable and makes it difficult for physicists to recognize and learn from their mistakes. But it is going to be a fact of life for some time to come. Nevertheless, there is now a body of respected economists who acknowledge the potential value of ideas and tools taken from other sciences, including physics, and who are receptive to the efforts of physicists.
As the News Feature on page 686 illustrates, this opportunity to build links with receptive economists should not be squandered by a lack of quality control in econophysics. Current standards in the field are extremely variable; there is sometimes a sense that physicists are content to find a vaguely plausible way of mapping some economic question onto a familiar physics-based model, to characterize its behaviour and plot a phase diagram, and leave the matter at that.
This is not particularly good physics; it is certainly poor social science; and it may prove irrelevant to the questions that really matter in understanding economic behaviour. Journals that are willing to publish econophysics must be more vigilant and thorough in their review procedures, and be willing to seek out sympathetically minded economists (who do exist) for advice.
But as some econophysicists argue, it will be hard to improve standards while their efforts are necessarily a sideline tolerated only as long as they also work on ‘real’ physics (for example, there is not a single chair of econophysics anywhere in the world). This encourages not only the perception but also the reality of a certain dilettantism in the field.
Economics cannot be something for physicists to dabble with. Indeed, the challenge it poses is in some ways even more daunting than that facing physicists who wish to work on biological problems — at least in biology there is a core body of knowledge that, however complex, represents more or less a consensus view. In economics it seems likely that the fundamental principles have yet to be defined, whatever neoclassical theorists say. That is why no single textbook will bring physicists up to speed, and why they have some serious homework to do. They need to be given time to do it.
Econophysics has yet to assemble the critical mass needed to be self-sustaining. If it is not to become extinct, it needs to be made a more attractive career option than it currently is.