Amid the lyrically vicious repartee at the dinner party that concludes Edward St. Aubyn’s novel “Never Mind,” one guest, commenting on the practice of psychoanalysis, remarks, “If we are controlled by forces we do not understand, the term for that state of affairs is ignorance. What I object to is that we turn ignorance into an inner landscape and pretend that this allegorical enterprise … amounts to a science.” I was captivated by the remark because I thought it equally applies to much of what passes for the science of economics.

Why, when and how much do people buy and save?

Why, when and how much do businesses invest and hire workers?

How, when and how much do government taxes and regulations alter these decisions?

For all these questions, what we don’t understand far outweighs what we do. Are consumer’s rational? Is investment driven by “animal spirits?” In what “inner landscape” is “fair share” self-evidently meaningful?

What is the allegory that makes clear the meaning of “equality of opportunity” in a world of failing schools, cheating teachers and ever-declining skills in reading, writing and ciphering?

In science, guesses at answers are formulated as empirically disprovable hypotheses, and practitioners gather, share and draw conclusions from evidence relevant to the questions asked. Can any object move faster than the speed of light? No. But then, yes! Whoops, we did the measurements incorrectly.

The problem with economics as a science is partly that it’s all but impossible to conduct a reproducible experiment, but, more importantly, that there are too many people with vested interests in the answers.

Too many of the supposedly “objective” scientists have skin in the game, both by the fact that they’re often paid by those who want a particular answer, and, more insidiously, by the fact that they have a particular formulation of the “landscape” to defend. Are they Keynesian or Hayekian? As psychoanalysts were Freudian or Jungian.

And therein lies the astuteness of Aubyn’s clever iconoclast. If we turn ignorance into an allegorical enterprise based on pre-existing beliefs to which we can appeal and around whose precepts we can shape our evidence, we are practicing not science but politics.

It is not science, but marketing, to gather evidence on income inequality for the purpose of “selling” a particular tax policy because it will appeal to a sense of fair play believed to be widespread among the electorate. Will a “Buffett Rule” tax on millionaires and billionaires reduce income inequality? That depends on how you define income. Gathering evidence on widespread business distaste for government regulation is the same thing. Many have opinions, but there are no scientifically settled answers.

It is unavoidable that political operatives identify and locate such widespread beliefs (now there’s a science) and craft messages to appeal to them. That’s what they’re paid to do.

What’s unfortunate is that their work is too easily treated as empirically valid economic science when it is not. And this treatment, however well it may serve politicians, does a disservice to the very idea of science. It does an even greater disservice to the goals of intelligent, evidence-based public policy and a prosperous increasingly inclusive economy.

The only effective antidote to ignorance is knowledge. And the only way to knowledge is learning — evidence-based, just- the-facts, ma’am, empirical, I’m-from-Missouri, show-me research. And the only way to get those facts is to move past fear, to admit courageously that what we desperately hope is true, may, in fact, be false and to believe that we will ultimately be better facing the truth than forever being disappointed in our wishes.

The success of our experiment in democracy — like the success of science — depends on a common willingness to learn, to move beyond pre-existing beliefs, our “inner landscapes,” to embrace a reality that always proves to be far more complicated than we had thought.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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