A new article by Louis Larue in the Journal of Economic Methodology defends what he calls “reasonable pluralism.” Larue argues that pluralism provides epistemological benefits, as the contestation and debate that pluralism provokes can help us refine our theories and discover important truths. But he also contends that “pluralism has limits” and “we should only accept those theories and methods that can be justified by their communities with reasons that other communities can accept.”

The epistemological benefits of pluralism arise because pluralism creates conditions where researchers operating from different paradigms challenge one another. In conditions of epistemological uncertainty this is vitally important, as a heterodox theory that turns out to be correct can challenge a false dominant theory. Contestability within the marketplace of ideas makes error correction possible in a way that it would not be under conditions where the mainstream approach is hegemonic. However, Larue argues that pluralism has epistemic benefits even if we can know that the dominant approach is correct:

“What if one side has it right, though? Let us now suppose (for the sake of the argument) that we do have the good theory that fulfils plainly all scientific requirements. I argue that this is nevertheless not a sufficient reason to ignore competing theories or methods. For these alternative theories may help us refine the established scientific theory. As Longino (2004, p. 138) argues, it is still valuable to exhaust all possible alternatives so as to be sure to settle on the correct theory.” (page 5)

Larue illustrates this point further with a couple of examples. One example deals with how methodological individualists like myself (and most economists) can benefit from engaging with research programs that do not rely on methodological individualism:

“Let me take another example. Suppose we agree that methodological individualism is the ‘good’ method for the social sciences, including economics. Methodological individualism is the view that ‘all social phenomena (their structure and their change) are in principle explicable only in terms of individuals – their properties, goals, beliefs’ (Elster, 1982, p. 453). Does it follow that we should ignore theories that reject that core methodological assumption? No. Competing theories may nevertheless have a fruitful role to play. They may be useful if they lead economists to study questions and problems that they would not have studied otherwise. For instance, the fact that Marx’s work is filled with Hegelian thoughts has not prevented Analytical Marxists, such as Roemer (1982) or Elster (1985), from analyzing his work with the tools of rational choice theory. Marx might have erred in many ways, and both Roemer and Elster agree on this. Nevertheless, analyzing his theory has allowed the development of a rich and fruitful literature, which may not share all of Marx’s methodological or normative commitments, but that may not have come into existence without Marx either (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 Roemer and Elster. I would encourage such skeptical readers to read Michael Munger’s Independent Review article on the complementarities between public choice theory and Marx’s work. I would also point to my own EconLog post about how Austrian economists sparred with Marxists regarding imperialism. Even if the Marxists were wholly wrong about imperialism, their work challenged Austrians such as Mises and Schumpeter to offer a different explanation of these phenomena. Pluralism makes space for these kinds of challenges.

If pluralism has these epistemic benefits, should we simply declare that anything goes? Should all theories and methods, no matter how fringe, be welcome in our economics departments? No, argues Larue. He suggests “some criteria to limit the scope of pluralism” (pg. 7).  What are these limits? Larue offers two criteria.

“There are limits to pluralism. These limits pertain to the justification that economists can offer in defense of their choice of method or theory. More specifically, I argue that an economic method or theory is justified (that is, can be included within the pluralist scientific realm) if it fulfils two conditions. (1) First, there should be a community of practitioners sharing this method/theory. (2) Second, this community should be able to defend its methodological choices with reasons that are acceptable to other communities.” (pg. 7)

How does Larue justify these criteria? He points to the epistemological benefits that a community of scholars (even heterodox scholars) provides by promoting some set of agreed upon methods.

“I will define a community as a group of economists whose theories and methods commit to the same core assumptions (see Caldwell, 1988; Dow, 2004, pp. 277–280). The existence of a community has been generally praised for enabling internal peer criticism, or what Longino (2004, p. 134) calls ‘narrow criticism’, which is an important and uncontroversial condition of scientific rigor and a first check on pluralism (see also Borgerson, 2011; Longino, 1990, 2002). Inclusion into a community also provides each individual economist with a reassuring environment, made of well-entrenched methodological principles and shared beliefs about the world and the meaning of concepts (Dow, 2004, p. 288). Contrary to what some of its opponents might think, pluralism need not plunge economists into uncertainty. Within their community, they may make use of a unified framework and do not necessarily need to bother with complicated methodological decisions. Nevertheless, they should acknowledge that this might not be the only framework, and that other competing theories are also acceptable (De Langhe, 2010). So scientific communities have a double role to play. First, by stimulating internal criticism, they provide a first check on pluralism. Second, by providing a stable methodological framework for researchers, they can also help guarantee that the work of their members satisfies some standards of rigor and produces epistemological benefits of a kind that is well-regarded within the community. This is not enough, though. Each community should also be able to justify its choice of methods and theories with reasons that are acceptable to other communities, under the assumption that each community is open to listen to these justifications and accepts them as potentially compelling” (pg. 7).

Scholarly communities, even those built around a heterodox approach, provide an environment for scientific training, debate, and quality control. Then these heterodox scientific communities put forth arguments and research contributions that can be contested by mainstream scholars. While agreement may not be reached, Larue argues that fruitful conversation can take place through appeals to shared epistemic values.

“Kuhn (1977, p. 357) originally listed five such values (accuracy, consistency, simplicity, fruitfulness and broadness of scope) but wrote that the list is probably longer than that. He also acknowledged that there may be conflicts between these values (simplicity may restrict the scope of a theory, for instance). His point was that different theorists may diverge on a number of important issues, but generally all share the same dedication to these epistemic values.”

In these respects, heterodox economists, whether we are Austrians at GMU or Marxists and post-Keynesians at the New School, differ from lone cranks. We engage within scientific communities, both our own heterodox communities and the broader scientific community whose epistemic values we appeal to.

Larue’s defense of reasonable pluralism nicely complements works on science as a social process that emphasize the role of contestation in scientific discovery. These include Roger Koppl’s excellent book Expert Failure and Michael Polanyi’s classic “The Republic of Science.”

I’m also reminded of Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne, and Pete Leeson’s article “Earw(h)ig: I Can’t Hear You Because Your Ideas Are Old.” Contrary to the Whig theory of intellectual history, which argues that the best ideas from the past have been incorporated into the current scientific core, Boettke, Leeson, and Coyne argue that “the market for ideas, while no doubt competitive in terms of scientific rivalry, is not free of distortions in the incentives and signals that guide economic scientists. As a result, ideas that are flawed can come to dominate the profession, while useful ideas are left on the proverbial sidewalk of intellectual affairs.” Looking to older ideas is therefore not merely an interesting exercise in intellectual history, it can be a way of finding routes not taken, insights from past theorists that mainstream economists have yet to fully appreciate.

Science is a social process, in which flawed, fallible human beings make arguments and strive to better understand the world. Pluralism and contestation are one key part of how this process works. Science thrives on polycentricity and competition among different research groups, not on the hegemony of a mainstream consensus or the drab, dirty dishwater of the orthodoxy.


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.