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.

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.