In Arthur Conan Doyle's short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia", Sherlock Holmes states: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
Many years ago when I was first teaching undergraduates (and the Dragnet movie with Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd was fresh in the minds of my young students, and the TV series with Jack Webb was perhaps still in the imagination of older students) I used to refer to the position articulate by the character of Sherlock Holmes in the quote above as "Dragnet epistemology." In that version of detective's quest to solve the crime, Joe Friday used to exhort his witnesses with the phrase "Just the facts, Ma'am." I would then try to illustrate the problem of "Just the facts" theory of knowledge by reference to the Japanese movie Rashomon and the issue of multiple perspectives.
As the years have gone by my references to Dragnet and Rashomon have become old and stale, and thus are no longer useful to my audience. Now I simply use the metaphor of the eyeglasses that I wear and the idea that my eyesight is so poor that without my set of eyeglasses I could not make out the person in the back of the room. Those eyeglasses are like economic theory -- without the aid of economic theory the social world is a blur and an unrecognizable collection of data points, but once I put economic theory to work the social world is brought into sharp relief.
But the point I am trying to make is not a denial of the role of empirical analysis, let alone the necessity to learn the facts of the matter. There are in the social sciences WHAT questions and WHY questions. Answering WHAT questions thoroughly is a necessary component of any empirical social scientist. However, I would like to suggest that our task as social scientists is decidely different than the task that either Holmes or Friday face in doing their detective jobs. They actually do not need to worry about answering WHY questions, their job is completed once they come to know WHAT happened. But our job as social scientists is only beginning once we know WHAT, we then must be ready to explain WHY WHAT happened, in fact happened. We must enter the WHY AXIS (as Gneezy and List term it) of explanation in terms of incentives that human actors face in order to make progress in understanding human behavior and the structure of the social world in which we live.
I often tell PhD students when they come to ask me to chair their dissertations that they should be prepared to answer at least 3 questions on the topic of their choice: (1) WHAT has everyone said about that topic and WHAT is wrong with it; (2) WHAT alternative explanation of WHY WHAT happened happened are you going to propose; and (3) WHY is your fixing of our understanding of WHAT happened so important. If a student can do that in their thesis, I explain, they will have been able to sell their work to intellectual historians, general political economists, and empirical social scientists and historians. This is how, I suggest, Austrian economics can come to be viewed an essential element of a progressive research program in political economy within the academic community.
Holmes (and Friday) can be content with WHAT questions, but the social scientist and especially the economist can never be so content unless they can also answer the WHY questions, and that requires a theory by which the meaning of facts is interpreted.