Dispassionate Fact-mining

Absolute zero is difficult to imagine. As far as we know, it is only a theoretical possibility, measured as 0° kelvin, at which temperature all molecular movement stops, the absolute absence of heat. Its existence would theoretically be found at the very reaches of the universe, where the energy of the Big Bang has somehow completely dissipated; in other words, absolute zero cannot be achieved, but you can come close.

As far as wrongness is concerned, Adam Gurri has come as close to absolute as is possible. In his post Rhetoric and Due Diligence, Adam posits that scientists have a responsibility to gauge the rhetorical effect of their work. This request, brought forward in the cloak of the humanities, will have the unintended effect of returning us to the childhood of man, wherein we looked to a priestly religious caste to protect us from The Truth. The world has now grown up and is populated by adults, particularly the white, European variety, which has for centuries eschewed superstition and has dispassionately pursued The Truth.

Adam is particularly mistaken in his view of Scientists, egregiously assigning to them fallibility, not only in result, but also (and here, I think, is the reason we should start piling faggots around a large stake) in their motives. It is incontrovertible that Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are dispassionate, guided only by the Scientific Method, which is the cornerstone of The Truth, revealed to us by the Universe itself. Truth, then, is like a coal seam, and Scientists are only coal miners, trudging to their labor, lords of the underworld, to tirelessly mine Facts.

In the same way that a single coal seam can appear in many different parts of the world, e.g., Spain to Wales to Pennsylvania, and many methods can be applied in those various parts of the world for its extraction, so also Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are merely extracting Facts and Data in many and various ways, which they then haul to the surface for dispassionate examination and then application to The Truth, to which all Facts and Data eventually snap, be the Scientist at hand clever enough. If he is not clever enough, then another Scientist, undoubtedly, again, guided gently along the paths created by the Scientific Method, will eventually dispassionately discover how the Fact snaps to The Truth.

It may sound like a chicken-crosses-the-road joke, but the profoundly serious directive of Science is at stake: why do Scientists mine data? For the same reason miners mine coal: they are impelled to do so. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt or offended in the process; any such consequences are only the growing pains of a human civilization going through the inexorable process of cohering as one around The Truth. Some sloughing off is to be expected. Therefore, Adam’s homily on rhetoric clanks to the floor like so many iron manacles employed by the unfortunate and thoroughly representative Christian Spanish Inquisition: the humanities are not only not necessary, they are a hindrance to establishing The Truth.

Should it ever be discovered that a Scientist, especially a Social Scientist, has lost his dispassion, or has even willfully departed from the Scientific Method, anywhere along the process, beginning with descending into the Data mine, extracting Facts, examining the Facts, and then snapping the Facts to The Truth, then let the dispassionate peers of that Scientist immediately banish him from Science and force him to become ordained into the nearest amenable religious order at hand. So when Adam Gurri cries out in the wilderness, “We must acknowledge the rhetoric of scientific inquiry,” I say to him, “Save your preaching for Sundays, Friar Tuck.”

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Rhetoric is for children.

The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.

 

 

The Singular of Data

My friend Jeff told me a story in response to a comment I made. I had just mentioned the travails of kid sports, especially since I enrolled my kids in a hockey program which includes one third more ice time than last year’s program. I sighed, “All consuming, you know.”

Jeff leaned back and intoned a story about his brother-in-law, whose boys were raised on the road to become hockey stars, but they were only so close to making it into the professional ranks, and now the anxiety is upon them, as young men in the late teens and early twenties, to acquire a meaningful vocation.

I said, “Can you imagine investing that much money and that much effort (giving away so much of the family life, in effect) toward a goal which has such a small chance of realization?”

Jeff shifted in his chair and recounted the tale of a dear friend of his who was a bona-fide rock star, in his own mind. He did nothing but play his guitar and practice with his band of fellow-travelers, living up the hedonistic ideal, touring Europe and Japan every year. “If you buy him a sandwich, he’ll take it home to his mom’s basement, where he lives, and save half of it for dinner the next day.”

Jeff rarely answers any question  with a propositional statement; he’s all stories, all the time. His experience is wide and varied, so I guess he can. What makes him especially delightful is that he doesn’t tell stories to fill empty space in a conversation, he’s answering a question. One story gives the answer, and then he’s done, no stringing endless tangential episodes ad infinitum.

I saw somewhere recently (and, forgive me, I can’t remember the context) someone mention that the Affordable Care Act might be screwing over huge numbers of people, but a) those numbers are still marginal, and b) the fundamentals of ACA are forged in good policy. I take that to mean, in other words, that as long as the proper number of people are served by this public policy, those who are hurt (ground to dust, more like it) by the same public policy are data. I’m under the impression that that number doesn’t even need to rise to a majority; it just needs to meet some data-triggered threshold which satisfies its designers. All others should be able to conform, no? If not, then selection has taken its course, alas.

It’s not that I’m against science, God forbid; it’s that I’m against its magisterial application in all aspects of the human experience. Public policy, public morality, public religiosity (for lack of a better word), public everything falls under the hegemony of science, as though science were some sort of impersonal absolute extracted by innumerable university studies from an easily-accessible material world. Science, in this manifestation, never serves; it is always master.

Okay, I yield the point: “ground to dust” is too much; there are worse things on this earth than ACA. Nevertheless, I will not yield the larger outcry, namely that this sentiment is a resistance to the notion that in our story-less data-gathering, individuals are being sorted in a grand perversity of science-wielding masters so that they lose their individuality, and thus their ability to serve on another. We don’t learn to serve each other by means of data; we learn by means of experience, which is brought forward through civilization through stories, wherein are the ties of myriad strands of data.

Queen Elizabeth was finally convinced that the monopolies, though they appeared to buy consolidation of her throne, were costing her far more than an open market would. The data had always been there, but the stories hadn’t trickled up to the throne.

Science is Persuasion

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Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

Continue reading “Science is Persuasion”

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.

Scientific Government

What would it mean to have a “scientific” government? Does it mean that you rely on the government to make scientific determinations on matters not related to governance? That would be a mistake. Science is a process that only incrementally crawls towards truth, and at given times is (later revealed to be) frequently wrong on matters of consensus opinion. Add the distortions that political incentives introduce to reasoned decision-making, and you’ll often get dogmatic pronouncements without the necessary caveats and disclosures of unknowns.

However, part of my support for Ordoliberalism is based on the idea of scientific governance in the sense of “let’s do experimental governing and see what happens.” In my previous post I alluded to governing “not always without missteps or uncertain outcomes”. What I was trying to pack into this little parenthetical was a disclaimer regarding the limits of knowledge, but also the willingness to proceed anyway with humility, tolerance for risk, and willingness to change our minds (and policies) in the future. At one time there was widespread belief that communism was a more efficient means of running an economy than the combination of free markets and rule of law that you see in Common Law jurisdictions. And some countries ran a large (and terribly horrible) experiment based on that hypothesis. The hypothesis proved to be wrong.

When I say that Ordoliberalism holds the promise of better government, I don’t mean that I (or anyone else) knows what the optimal policy mix is with a great deal of certainty (if such a thing can even be said to exist). What I mean is that we can approach governance the same way we approach chemistry or any other science. Government should be seen as a field of social science, one with discipline, humility, admission of ignorance, and the willingness to be wrong on occasion. Because government effects the real lives and property of real people, we should of course try to keep these experiments as small and local as possible, and correctly quickly when (not if) people start getting hurt.

Is this ideal achievable? I think it is, on a small scale. Getting a population of people to volunteer to be guinea pigs will always be hard, but it’s a lot easier on the scale of towns and counties than States and Federal Republics. This is one of the reasons I agree with the teachings of subsidiarity – the more laboratories of democracy we have running experiments concurrently, the more quickly we grow the public good of governing knowledge.

The one way ratchet of responding to children (and cats).

Adam found a great study that might indicate that kids’ “stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior.”

There’s a cynical way to look at this. First, three things about my perspective: 1) The mode of thinking I’m about describe came from my time as a preschool teacher, 2) I don’t have kids, 3) The technique does, however, seem to work on my cat.

It’s possible that kids (and perhaps cats) merely crave attention and feedback. The stories of punishment are stories of a behavior that received attention (fame as being the boy/girl that got eaten by wild animals or the boy/girl that had a freakish nose-talent and was made of wood!?). The lesson a kid could take from those stories of punishment might be merely that lying makes you the object of attention. The Washington story on the other hand teaches the same lesson but with a virtuous trigger behavior, x behavior—being a sap that hates trees but can’t bark a fib—earns you attention (even, gasp, the presidency!).

So what we end up with is a one way ratchet. Give child attention, behavior at time of attention will be amplified. Reward negative behavior with punishment-attention and you get more negative behavior; reward positive behavior with praise-attention and you get more positive behavior.

But wait, you are saying dear reader, Peter, your cynicism and cat manipulation have blinded you to the actual results of the study! The punishment stories did not encourage lying… punishment stories simply had no effect on behavior. I submit further cynicism in my defense. Perhaps the baseline (the control of no stories) that most kids operate on is that lying will gain you attention. And perhaps they’ve already been so saturated with this world-view that a couple of punishment stories won’t change much. The virtue story on the other hand is something new for these kids, and it momentarily spurs a change in the child’s understanding of what behavior will lead to the researcher rewarding them with attention.

My conclusion would be the same as Adam’s, we need more stories about virtue. But the reasons for that conclusion are a bit more Pavlovian. Now I’m going back to my cat-training (she “prays” like this on command):

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