The Glamour of Macho Epistemology

One of the central claims of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics is that there is a major disconnect between the practice of economics and how economists describe that practice. She indicts the field for embracing the ideals of reductionist modernist scientism; that is, of thinking that it is possible to develop a single scientific method that can be explained and easily understood by undergraduates, which nevertheless provides an unshakable foundation for progress in science.

I’ve taken up this argument elsewhere, but I want to focus on an interesting aspect of it here. Unlike the party line at many of the heterodox schools of economics, McCloskey does not deny that economists have made progress in the past 50-100 years. She thinks the proliferation of mathematical models and econometrics have been tremendously beneficial, in fact. She simply thinks that, by taking too narrow an interpretation of what counts as science, economists have handicapped themselves unnecessarily.

But isn’t it interesting that they could hold onto an epistemology that is completely wrong, and yet continue to make progress in practice? The divide between what is described as scientific and what economists do in practice is uncanny; why does it exist? Why does it go so largely unnoticed? Could it serve some purpose?

I am reminded of Karl Popper’s description of the towering figures of the Enlightenment—how they were seized by the notion that truth is manifest, that it is visible and recognizable if only you seek to find it. Popper argued that this is utterly wrong, yet amazingly, belief in it motivated some of the best work in science and scholarship in history.

The irony of this example is that Popper and his intellectual descendants are the primary targets of McCloskey’s book and its sequels. But could Popperian falsificationism play a similar role for economists as the doctrine of a manifest truth did for the Enlightenment thinkers?

It puts me in mind of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, though glamour is visual rather than verbal. Still, there is an image here—an image of oneself as scientist, and image of what it means to be a scientist. Glamour is an image that is more simple, more perfect than reality could ever be, and it provokes a sense of longing. It is “known to be false but felt to be true.”

The glamour of Popper’s epistemology is hard to deny. The essay in which Popper discusses the doctrine of manifest truth, “On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance,” is part of the collection called Conjectures and Refutations. Throughout the collection Popper calls for scientists to advance “bold conjectures” and then “attempted refutations.” Popper makes the aspiring scientist feel akin to the courageous warrior; not advancing timidly but boldly, sticking your own neck out for the greater good of all. In short, he makes science sound exciting—no small accomplishment.

McCloskey doesn’t deny that science often requires courage—and the rest of the virtues. What she denies is that the practice of science boils down to Popper’s very simple formula. For one thing, falsification is not so straightforward as Popper claims. People must be persuaded that a falsification has occurred, a much more spongy matter than hard-headed methodologists like to make it sound. For another, most of science is getting up to speed on other people’s accomplishments, ideas, failures, and so on. In short, it’s immersing yourself into a body of scholarship. There is simply nothing sexy about that.

What macho epistemology along the lines that Popper and other methodologists may do is spark people’s initial interest in a field. Science, like all practices, has standards of quality that are accessible only to those who have been inculcated in the norms of the community of practice. Before that inculcation takes place, the thing that draws people in the first place, the carrots, are external goods. That is, the promise of material rewards, or fame, or glory, or anything other than the “goods internal to the practice”, and MacIntyre would say.

What are we to make of this? Does science need a noble lie? I would not go that far. Like McCloskey, I believe in the strength of committed self-consciousness. But I also don’t think that sweeping aside shared myths and glamour is a guarantee of future success; for one thing, history has shown us that a great deal can be accomplished even while buying into some very implausible myths. For another, we all need objects of aspiration, even if complete attainment is forever out of reach.

But not all such aspirations are made equal. And there’s a strong case to be made that the methodologist mythology worshipped in economics has run out of resources for spurring further advancements. I stand with McCloskey in believing that it is high time for economics to step out of the sandbox.

Does This Kayfabe Make My Hips Look Big?

This notion of principled sincerity has me terrified, more terrified than I might be afraid of death.

This is the Riddle of the Sphinx on steroids, or too many fried shrimp, whatever the case may be. When wife asks hubby this question, the wise man knoweth to not answer the question. A wise man quickly delivers a soliloquy on a beauty that invites paramours uncounted, a smile whose radiance pales the moon, and a marital love that shames that of Penelope in the arms of Odysseus, as they tuck themselves into an extended night within the caress of the Tree of Life blessed by the gaze of the gods themselves.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd: I’m not frightened of sincerity. Anytime will do. Why should I be frightened of sincerity? There’s no reason for it. You’ve got to go some time.


Well, until the time comes.

If the Mrs. keeps packing away the fried shrimp, the time for sincerity may present itself, and the kayfabe must end. The delivery of sincerity is, of course, crucial. But let’s say that our hero has mastered his rhetoric, is overcome by love and concern for his wife’s health, and he says something like, “My love, thou art and ever shalt be the most beautiful creature in my sight, unworthy as I may be…” and, since I do not have such mastery over my own rhetoric, I wouldn’t know how to tell my wife, in all sincerity driven by love, that she has grown too fat for her own good. Because she’s not. And never will be. At least she’ll never hear such from me. Because she won’t ever be too fat. And I mean that.

Sincerity needs a relationship, a healthy relationship, a relationship of trust, which relies on trustworthiness. Trustworthiness rests on a primal understanding that sincerity brings something that is a lot like dying, and an understanding that a little dying is absolutely necessary for personal growth and societal growth, beginning with the family unit. Emotionally speaking, little boys and girls must die in order for men and women to emerge. One who is trustworthy may raise the blade, perhaps one who has had the blade jammed into his own psyche and knows how to wield it prudently. Little girls and boys love kayfabe; women and men love sincerity. And so we dance, men with girls, women with boys, back and forth, up and down, taking turns with the blade.

Otherwise, the little girl dressed in a woman’s clothing may stuff fried shrimp into her gaping piehole until she literally dies. Does her husband trust her enough to let him be man enough to tell her to stop eating? Has he done the labor of establishing himself as trustworthy, trustworthy enough to answer the question which must not be answered?

Likewise friends, neighbors, countrymen.

Huckleberry Finnsincerity

Nowhere in fiction is kayfabe more accessibly examined than in Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s jaunt down Heraclitus’ daydream starts with a sobering deception: slaughtering a pig so that everyone believes he is murdered. The entire story thus progresses as an exploration of the human need for show, for the show, for insincerity.

Huck dresses as a girl to extract information; he witnesses the justice of the peace shoot a drunk in cold blood, in full view of the townsfolk, who do nothing in response; the duke and the dauphin parlay a risque scam all the way down the river until they are caught, whence they are ridden out on a rail, tarred and feathered; the kayfabe of the professional gamblers on the shipwrecked steamboat (or is that in Life on the Mississippi? It’s a theme of Twain’s work that keeps popping up); Tom Sawyer’s arrival and choreographing of the release of Jim–

About Jim: that relationship is in and of itself an exploration of insincerity for the sake of survival, of intimacy revealing human truth, interpreting the kayfabe all up and down the shores of Mississippi’s America. The theme Mark Twain may be expressing and developing is that we desperately need insincerity in order to function as human beings. Many of us present ourselves to the world naked but for some threadbare loincloth self-woven, and we know that the same is true for many others. We are ashamed of ourselves, and, as an act of mercy, we allow our neighbors to obscure their own shame. It is a way of sheltering each other from righteous and self-righteous jeremiads.

Sincerity thrusts hard and true, and is necessary, in its time, but costly.

The human longing for insincerity fulfills a need to create a scapegoat, to burden someone of us with accumulated corporate shame in order to annihilate it. Once the deception has become great enough and harmful enough, the crowds unleash a kind of wrath which is out of proportion with respect to the crime. Compare and contrast the shooting of the drunk to the lynching of the duke and dauphin. One also recalls the story, somewhere in real life, of a murderer who was released from prison on a technicality (who told this story?): the townsfolk loved him because he was genial enough, and neighborly, but he had a nasty habit of parking illegally; thus, they tolerated him no longer, meting out justice against him. Once the slate is wiped clean of our collective shame, we can return to the kayfabe, enjoying and cataloging the outrages as they accumulate once again.

Wisdom, Cynicism, Glamour, and Wit: Wouldn’t You Like a Bit of it?

Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.

Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:

  1. Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
  2. Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
  3. Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.

I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate. 

I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.

To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.

Glamour and the First Step to Wisdom

In the beginning, there were the nonreflective peoples. In this week’s Umlaut piece, I quote Oakeshott discussing this crowd:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

For these people, the ways of their community seem as much a part of nature as the fact that apples fall from trees and predators eat prey. But then over time various communities have come to see these norms as mere convention, something more malleable than gravity or animal instinct. And, for many, something more artificial, a sham.

The Cynics in ancient Greece were given their name (“dog-like”) because they imitated animals in order to get closer to nature. Diogenes famously threw away his cup when he observed an animal drinking from a puddle. From their peculiar vantage point they denounced convention as a system made up of one part arbitrary rules and one part hypocrisy.

From the Cynics I would like to return to Sam, who believes something like cynicism is necessary for growing up:

Adam calls this “cynical”, but I’m not sure that captures the spirit of the thing. Cynicism is marked by a notable lack of faith. In this case, it’s a lack of faith in the deep nature of humanity. I claim that since human nature is indelibly stamped with the Marky Mark of Hypocrisy, the cynical position is to surrender to hopelessness, to descend into a gemebund lament where fantasies about catching kids running through fields of rye abound. It’s my impression that adult readers rightfully view the young Mr. Caulfield with generous dollops of pity and contempt.

Contrast the immature cries of “hypocrite” with the more placid reflections of Joyce’s Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan, who in the opening lines of Ulysses began his morning shave with a ritual roundly mocking the deep pomp of his patently ludicrous culture. Caulfield pines for sincerity, Mulligan is adult enough to know better.

Being an adult in this scenario means giving up on the aspiration for sincerity, or at least for expecting sincerity from the world.

But my question was precisely whether giving up either the aspiration for or the expectation of sincerity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the question was not posed with the intention of demonstrating the mechanism by which politics always arrives at systematic hypocrisy; no, the question was posed because I believe we need to aspire to and expect sincerity, or we will fester in hypocrisy.

On the same day that Sam wrote his post, Virginia Postrel’s response to my father’s take on her book on glamour went up on Cato Unbound. Reading it, it seemed to me that Postrel’s glamour was precisely was Sam seemed to be declaiming here.

Glamour is another sort of magic, a trick in which the audience knowingly suspends disbelief. It’s an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true.” Glamour presents an idealized picture, in which flaws, distractions, costs, and complications are hidden. Courtship and love are never as easy as a Fred and Ginger routine, a beach vacation never as unmarred by delays and difficulties as a travel brochure. Military comradeship is real, but the “glamour of battle” edits out the boredom and blood. Glamour, like legitimacy, survives only behind a “well-wrought veil” that reveals only partial truths.

This brings with it many benefits, but also many serious dangers:

Glamour’s greatest dangers, I’ve argued, lie in forgetting what is left out and demanding that the real world conform to the image. “Without a backstage, the quest for grace threatens to turn tyrannical, subordinating the complexities and flux of life to a unitary and artificial ideal,” I write in The Power of Glamour.

This is what I think: there’s a messy reality in which sacred sincerity and profane kayfabe are inextricably intertwined; sometimes you get one or the other but often they are hard to disentangle. Sometimes it’s simply that you get a truly sincere person in a situation where it seems preposterous that they would be. Sometimes it’s that someone is playing the part expected of them but in the sincere desire to do some good. But I do think that both sincerity and such part-playing exist in abundance.

I think Sam looks at the Holden Caulfields of the world outside of fiction and believes they are in the grip of a glamour that may be appreciated for its beauty but is ultimately childish. What I would like to suggest is that Cynicism is also a glamour; a glamour that promises a simple, hard, manly Realism, a Realism of grown-ups rather than the naiveté of children.

And I think that part of being an adult is not embracing Cynicism, but instead understanding that there is a natural tension here but not an all-or-nothing scenario where sincerity and play-acting are concerned. As Postrel puts it:

The nihilistic glamorization of revolt is indeed dangerous, and I certainly have no easy answer to it. But as I contemplate the parallels between Gurri’s political nihilists and the perpetually enraged readers of Jezebel it occurs to me that a widespread understanding of glamour might teach us to live more easily with the tension between aspirational ideals and real-world achievement—to recognize and accept what glamour conceals without losing the insights and inspiration it supplies.

Adulthood is lived in self-conscious awareness of that tension, not in seeking to replace the glamour of childhood with a glamour of adulthood.