You shouldn’t swing a dead cat, but if you did, you’d hit an economist doing data. Wolfers wrote:

“…...modern microeconomists are more likely to spend their days knee-deep in large-scale data sets describing the real-world decisions made by millions of people, and less likely to be mired in Greek-letter abstractions.”

Knee-deep usually goes with shit, while mired with bog. I’ll pick bog over shit, but suspect that that was not Wolfers’ intent.

The recent paper by Chang and Li about the difficulty of replicating empirical papers  does rather take the wind out of the empirical sails. One cannot help but wonder about the replicability of replicability studies. No doubt, a paper on the subject will be forthcoming.

Noah Smith on his blog wrote:

So the supply of both good and mediocre empirics has increased, but only the supply of mediocre theory has increased. And demand for good papers – in the form of top-journal publications – is basically constant. The natural result is that empirical papers are crowding out theory papers.

Even if one accepts the last sentence, the first can only be conjecture.  One might very well think that the supply of mediocre empirical papers is caused entirely by an increase in the supply of mediocre theory papers whose deficiencies are  glossed over with a patina of empirics. Interestingly, when reviewers could find nothing nice to say about Piketty’s theories they praised his data instead. Its like praising the author of a false theorem by saying while the proof is wrong, it is long.

The whole business has the feel of  tulip mania. Empirical papers as abundant as weeds. Analytics startups as plentiful as hedge funds. Analytics degree programs spreading like herpes. Positively Gradgrindian.

“THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.”

In empirical econ classes around the world I imagine (because I’ve never been in one) Gradgrindian figures laying down the law:

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

I have nothing against facts. I am quite partial to some.  But, they do not speak for themselves without an underlying theory.