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Lotta Lemmata: A Sour Harvest


  • Philip R. P. Coelho

    () (Department of Economics, Ball State University)

  • James E. McClure

    () (Department of Economics, Ball State University)


We quantify the increasing use of complex mathematics and show that the increase is unique to economics in the social sciences. Over half a century ago Donald F. Gordon hypothesized that mathematics was most likely to be useful in manipulating long chains of relationships, but these were the cases where the theory was least likely to valid. Time particularly bedevils the long chains because the ceteris paribus assumption requires the stability of all links. We find that the rate of hypothesis testing in articles citing mathematically complex articles is less than two percent, and summarize a variety of tests and other evidence supporting the Gordon hypothesis. We suggest that a major factor in the rise in mathematical complexity may be the decline in comments, replies, and rejoinders debating earlier publications; the decline has been rapid as editors have become increasingly “hostile” toward perspectives other than the ones they had previously published. We conclude by emphasizing that: 1) prominent journals in economics are devoting more space to mathematically complex articles despite their inconsequential operational harvest; 2) both the “appropriate” balance between mathematical complexity and operationalism, and the relative merits of “stylized facts” versus observational reality should be considered as a factor in editorial decision-making; finally 3) the vital importance of academic debate that addresses empirical verification, the appropriateness of model formulation, and the crucial matters of history and circumstance which are the measures of all research in the social sciences.

Suggested Citation

  • Philip R. P. Coelho & James E. McClure, 2010. "Lotta Lemmata: A Sour Harvest," Working Papers 201006, Ball State University, Department of Economics, revised Mar 2010.
  • Handle: RePEc:bsu:wpaper:201006

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    4. Barron, John M & Umbeck, John R, 1984. "The Effects of Different Contractual Arrangements: The Case of Retail Gasoline Markets," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(2), pages 313-328, October.
    5. Nelson, Phillip, 1970. "Information and Consumer Behavior," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 78(2), pages 311-329, March-Apr.
    6. Michael Spence, 1973. "Job Market Signaling," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 87(3), pages 355-374.
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