Do I need maths to be an economist?

20th February, 2010

Dear Economist,
I am currently studying for my A-levels, including economics, but chose not to study maths. As my time is a scarce resource, I felt it would be more worthwhile to allocate an equal amount of time to each of my subjects, thus getting better grades in them, rather than dedicating most of my time to maths and sacrificing my other grades. However, I now find that I need an A-level in maths to study economics at a top UK university. Did I make the right decision? If not, could you put in a word for me at Oxford?
Tom, Co. Durham

Dear Tom,

I am not sure which decision you wish me to evaluate: the decision to pick your A-levels without decent advice, or the decision to pursue a mathematical subject with no mathematical talent. Neither looks smart. You have theorised on the basis of neat concepts without any real-world knowledge – in some ways, ideal preparation to be an economist.

Yet this could yet work out well for you. Ap Dijksterhuis, an economic psychologist, has studied how people make complex decisions. In one experiment he gave people fiddly hypothetical choices, giving some plenty of time to concentrate, while he distracted others before suddenly asking them to choose. He found that such complex decisions seem to be best made subconsciously.

Choosing a course to study at university is a decision with many variables. You have all but closed off economics without even thinking about it. Perhaps that’s for the best. Studying economics without maths is like studying literature when you can’t read without moving your lips – not impossible, but difficult.

As for Oxford, you could always try. Several of my classmates read philosophy, politics and economics without maths. At least one of them now calls himself an economist.

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