Economics and the laboratory : some philosophical and methodological problems facing experimental economics
Laboratory experimentation was once considered impossible or irrelevant in economics. Recently, however, economic science has gone through a real ‘laboratory revolution’, and experimental economics is now a most lively subfield of the discipline. The methodological advantages and disadvantages of controlled experimentation constitute the main subject of this thesis. After a survey of the literature on experiments in philosophy and economics (chapter one), the problem of testing normative theories of rationality is tackled (chapter two). This philosophical issue was at the centre of a famous controversy in decision theory (the ‘Allais controversy’), during which a methodology of normative falsification was first articulated and used to assess experimental results. In the third chapter, the methodological advantages of controlled experimentation are illustrated and discussed with examples taken from the experiments on the so-called ‘preference reversal’ phenomenon. Laboratory testing allows to establish with a high degree of certainty that certain phenomena lie behind the experimental data, by means of independent testing, elimination of alternative hypotheses, and the use of different instruments of observation. The fourth chapter is devoted to a conceptual analysis of the problem of ‘parallelism’. This is the problem of inferring from the occurrence of a phenomenon in the laboratory, to its (possible) instantiation also in non-laboratory environments. Experimental economists have discussed parallelism at length, and their views are presented and criticised. Eventually, it is argued that parallelism is a factual matter and as such can only be established on empirical grounds. The fifth chapter provides an example of how one can argue for parallelism, focusing on the case of experimentation on the ‘winner’s curse’ phenomenon. The role of experiments as ‘mediators’ between theoretical models and their target domain of application is illustrated, and the structure of parallelism arguments analysed in detail. Finally, in the last chapter, economic experiments are compared to simulations, in order to highlight their specific characteristics.