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The Market for Lemmas: Evidence That Complex Models Rarely Operate in Our World

  • Philip R. P. Coelho
  • James E. McClure

The market for models whose mathematical proofs are so lengthy and complex as to call for the delineation of intermediate steps with lemmas (Lemma 1, Lemma 2, etc.) expanded remarkably in prominent economic journals during the final four decades of the 20th century. However, Alfred Marshall, Paul Samuelson, and Donald Gordon explained that the worthiness of long chains of analytic reasoning depends critically on the stability or durability of the relations involved; in economic relations, the soundness of long chains are subject to “radioactive decay,†to use Samuelson’s phrase. Here we draw on this insight and provide evidence that: (1) there has been remarkable growth in the frequency of articles with lemmas published in some top general-interest journals; (2) a sample of 12 lemma-heavy articles in Journal of Economic Theory have resulted in very few operational statements; (3) articles that cited the lemma-heavy articles have generated few operational statements; (4) lemmas are rare among the most-cited articles that appeared in the top general interest journals; and (5) true to the point about “radioactive decay,†most-cited articles with lemmas are more likely to be on statistical/econometric analytics than economic analytics.

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Article provided by Econ Journal Watch in its journal Econ Journal Watch.

Volume (Year): 5 (2008)
Issue (Month): 1 (January)
Pages: 78-90

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Handle: RePEc:ejw:journl:v:5:y:2008:i:1:p:78-90
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  1. E. Han Kim & Adair Morse & Luigi Zingales, 2006. "What Has Mattered to Economics Since 1970," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(4), pages 189-202, Fall.
  2. In-Koo Cho & David M. Kreps, 1997. "Signaling Games and Stable Equilibria," Levine's Working Paper Archive 896, David K. Levine.
  3. Grubel, Herbert G & Boland, Lawrence A, 1986. "On the Efficient Use of Mathematics in Economics: Some Theory, Facts and Results of an Opinion Survey," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 39(3), pages 419-42.
  4. Leontief, Wassily, 1971. "Theoretical Assumptions and Nonobserved Facts," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 61(1), pages 1-7, March.
  5. Hausman, Daniel M, 1989. "Economic Methodology in a Nutshell," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 3(2), pages 115-27, Spring.
  6. Frank Hindriks, 2005. "Unobservability, tractability and the battle of assumptions," Journal of Economic Methodology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 12(3), pages 383-406.
  7. Philip R. P. Coelho & James E. McClure, 2005. "Theory versus Application: Does Complexity Crowd Out Evidence?," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 71(3), pages 556-565, January.
  8. Donald F. Gordon, 1955. "Operational Propositions in Economic Theory," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 63, pages 150.
  9. Hausman,Daniel M., 1992. "The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521425230, Junio.
  10. Daniel B. Klein & Pedro P. Romero, 2007. "Model Building versus Theorizing: The Paucity of Theory in the _Journal of Economic Theory_," Econ Journal Watch, Econ Journal Watch, vol. 4(2), pages 241-271, May.
  11. Hausman,Daniel M., 1992. "The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521415019, Junio.
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