Friday, May 20, 2016

A modest proposal (that doesn’t involve eating anybody’s babies –literally)

I know the title of today’s post may cause some trepidation in my most learned readers, but they can relax, as I do not intend to suggest that a viable solution for the problems of the Third World is to encourage the parents to eat their children, as ironically Mr. Swift proposed almost three hundred years ago. My proposal is aimed at the saving of some monies from the public purse, and the alleviation of much suffering and anguish between our disoriented and too much suggestible youth.

What I (modestly) propose hereby is that all the universities imparting the subjects of political science, journalism, psychology, sociology and economics be closed, and all the titles pertaining to such subject matters (be them grades, MsC’s, or PhD’s) are declared null and void. In an ideally fair and just world, I would propose that the institutions that provided such titles give the (exorbitant some times, and totally unjustifiable in any case) money they collected from their hapless alumni back to them with interest, as partial reparation for all the time they had miserably wasted purportedly learning, but truly being indoctrinated in the most fantastical, less reality based doctrines. As an immediate corollary, all the reviews and journals dealing with the aforementioned subjects (sometimes with generous subsidies from the different governments which they tend to justify and flatter, and more or less tightly affiliated with the institutions whose closure I’ve already advocated) should be closed and discontinue their pernicious publishing of unsubstantiated pabulum. Not that their almost non-existent readership would as much as notice such disappearance, as they exist mostly for the authors that slave to get their inane ideas so feebly showcased, but as a sanitary measure to stop the unconscionable consumption of paper and the minimal legitimation they provide for so many otherwise unemployable characters.

Of course, the Nobel prize committee is heartily beseeched to return to the original intent of their founder and eliminate the prize for “economic science” (instituted and funded separately by Sweden’s Central Bank at a later date), as such oxymoron has repeatedly shown to be of no benefit to the whole of society, and has rather shown in countless instances its ability to sow chaos, discord, social breakdown and general squalor and poverty.

Now, now, I can hear some gentle spirits objecting. To each one his (or her, such gentle spirits tend to be punctilious regarding gender parity and political correctness) own, and if people want to devote their lives to studies of no value, who are we to stop them and frustrate such initiatives. Well, I’ve left plenty of subjects for the otiose to pursue: English majors (or lovers of any other literary tradition), history buffs, archaeology aficionados, classical scholars, even theology students and professors can happily continue with their endeavors, join in arcane faculties and publish to their heart’s content. Why the animosity towards the objected matters, then? Well, to begin with the last disciplines I’ve mentioned have a certain humility and non-preachiness about them; you don’t find many numismatists trying to convince you of the superiority of the coins of the period he happens to be an expert on over any other minted ones; you don’t normally interact with many experts in Sanskrit poetry trying to convince you of the relevance of their knowledge for the conducting of your everyday life. But of course the arrogance and (totally unwarranted) belief in the universal applicability of their discipline is not the only irritating factor that has moved me to propose their ban. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back (the camel in this case being my patience with their continuous peddling of opinion as if it were the pure and final truth) is their ubiquity and the disorderly invasion of any media outlet by their conceits. The printed press has long been occupied territory, but nowadays even the most apparently mindless entertainment (a super hero movie, let’s say, or your day-in, day-out sitcom) is chock full of “social” commentary, “pop psych” and a cartload of economic assumptions. Time to cry stop and send the peddlers of such nonsense packing. They are free to pursue their tortured habits of thought between like-minded nerds, but let’s stop giving social recognition to their collective delirium. No titles, no careers and no subsidized journals for any of them.

As I recognize that such proposal is likely to be greeted with dismay and lack of comprehension (just a few figures: in the USA only there are almost 200,000 active psychologists and almost 150,000 employees whose work description is “economist”, although that probably is a gross understatement, given there are almost a million people studying the thing, and almost 250,000 MBA graduates per year, which dwarfs the 25,000 yearly sociology graduates…) I will devote the remainder of this post to explain why I think the current situation is a gross waste of resources and a humungous source of disutility (dang! A most economic term, see the extent to what I myself have been infected?) for all of us.

I.                     Fact and event

I will start by establishing a most basic distinction, that will come in handy afterwards when I develop my argument, a distinction that owes much to the celebrated philosopher of History R. G. Collingwood: a fact is something that can be described without any reference to the conscious being participating in (or affected by) it. For example, if I raise the hand holding my pen and open it above my desk, the pen falling and hitting the desk is a fact. There are a number of features of the fact that can be both predicted (for example, the speed at which the pen will fall, and the noise that it will produce when hitting the desk) and replicated (so anybody raising the same pen –or a similar one for what it’s worth, and letting it fall will observe exactly the same features regarding its speed, noise, etc.).

On the other hand, an event is a set of facts as perceived by some conscious agent (or by a number of them). So for example when Caesar crossed the Rubicon (whether he said alea jacta est or not is immaterial for us at this point) and thus set in motion the end of the triumvirate and the final demise of the Roman republic (which he would not live to see in full). According to Collingwood, the craft of the historian is to explain events by understanding (which for him necessarily implied being able to relive as faithfully as possible) the mind and inner life of the people participating in them. Knowing some facts (like what kind of equipment Caesar’s legionaries were carrying, or how many of them there were) may help to explain events, may even be a necessary condition, but is never a sufficient one (as important as the number of legionaries were for Collingwood Caesar’s mood, his upbringing, the kind of ideas he was taught about being a proper man and military leader, his understanding of his duties towards his soldiers and the rest of his countrymen, etc.)

II.                   What is science?

I’ve been accused sometimes (no kidding!) of having a too reductionist understanding of Science, that allowed only for natural sciences to spire to such lofty category, and I have to thank Collingwood again for widening my horizon. According to Collingwood, science is just a discipline that aspires to expand human knowledge, and for doing that, is willing to ask questions that have not been answered yet, to provide tentative answers, and to share with others the data used to arrive at such tentative answers.

That definition is wider than the one I started with when thinking about these hefty issues (coming directly from Aristotle, who defined science as ”the ordered discourse about what is necessary”, which excluded any subject that could be considered contingent, although the possibility of something contingent really existent is up for discussion) and, by focusing on the process of how science is developed (by honestly sharing the evidence the scientist has amassed and subjecting it to his peer’s criticism and inquiry), seemed to me to reflect better the real nature of the activity, regardless of what the original question was about.

III.                 How science advances

However, I would dare to suggest that may be Collingwood’s definition is a bit too wide, as if not properly complemented would allow for some disciplines that are currently considered distinctly un-scientific to be admitted back in the respectable fold of venerable Scientia. Thus, an astrologer willing to share his astral charts or a homeopatist willing to discuss his (baseless, according to our judgment) principles would be involved in legitimate, honest-to-God science. It could be argued that they are not really open to discuss them, as they are impervious to any evidence offered against their set of beliefs, no matter how conclusive it may appear to us (but then again, that raises the uncomfortable question of how solid are the foundations of our own sets of beliefs, in which I don’t want to go yet), so as they are not subjecting their findings to criticism in good faith (not willing to give the contending opinions a honest assessment), but such argument on its own is vulnerable to a charge of partiality (indeed, it could be reversed, and defenders of such balderdash routinely direct the same skeptical argument of arbitrary definition of what constitute self-evident truths against believers in more traditional sciences). I would thus dare to complement Collingwood’s courageous definition with the requirement that the discipline in question needs to have a universally accepted criteria of truth. There is no point in subjecting the answers you have elaborated to the critical inquiry of your peers if you have decided beforehand that nothing they may say will dissuade you of its truth, and the best antidote to such obstinacy is to agree beforehand about what constitutes a valid refutation.

That’s the role that the “experimental method” has played for the natural sciences (to the point that it is also known, not surprisingly, as “scientific method”). I think certain statement is true in certain discipline, you think it is not, so we work out what predictions can be derived from such statement, and verify under controlled conditions (aka an “experiment”) if such predictions obtain in the actual world. If they do my statement is validated, and we both agree it was (as far as we can tell) true. If they don’t, it has been “falsated” (proved false) and I have to revisit the theory that led me to it.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I do think it is pretty simple and straightforward indeed, and the history of the last three hundred years (starting in the West, and nowadays universally extended) seems to attest that it has enabled us to gain an unprecedented mastery over the natural world. Or, to be more precise, over the world of inanimate objects. So much so that it has been very much conflated with Science (with capital “S” itself) and we have heard unbelievable amounts of nonsense equating scientific respectability with the ability to conduct “experiments”, and exhorting humanistic disciplines to become “more scientific” by devising and conducting more of them, idiotic as they may be. And oh, my God, have they heeded the exhortations! Led by some of the disciplines I accuse (Economics, Sociology and Psychology are the most egregious violators) each has tried to outdo the other and buttress their scientific bona fides by imagining the most hare-brained experiences, extracting from them the most fantastic (and less grounded) consequences. In the process they have not only made fools of themselves (hence the “irreproducibility crisis” that funnily enough affects mostly psychology, but not high energy physics: unsurprisingly, most psychology experiments are bunk ) but they have sullied the whole scientific enterprise, to the extent that people from a humanistic background now question the validity of the purest (and better ascertained) disciplines (like Pickering did in Constructing Quarks and Latour in Laboratory Life) and maintain that they are not “discovering” anything at all, but “constructing” (or better yet, “socially constructing”) what they purportedly find.

I can only (once more) express my distaste by such intellectually dishonest shenanigans, a lot of them founded on a misreading of Kuhn (his Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably deserve the title of “most misused and misquoted writing of the whole Western Canon”). Sadly, for the completeness of my argument it will be necessary to delve a bit deeper in why the criticism of “true” science coming from these particular quarter is unwarranted.  

IV.                A brief aside on the experimental method

Most people do not grasp the extent of the intertwining between modern physics and modern mathematics, and how puzzling that is. The fact that nature herself teaches us how to model not just the phenomena we observe, but every conceivable kind of phenomenon, and how we keep on finding new and unexpected instances of such phenomena is for me a ceaseless source of amazement. But instead of waxing rhapsodic, let’s talk a bit about models, and their legitimate use. A model is a simplification of some aspect of nature that we want to study, and that simplification normally is expressed in mathematical “language”. What that means is that it picks out some features of the aspect that are “measurable” (capable of being expressed in number) and establishes some relationship between those features. An example may help understand it better: if I want to know where Saturn will be in certain date, I make a model of the Solar system, and describe with mathematical formulas the relevant parameters (like how many planets there are, how heavy they are, their relative positions at a certain moment in time how much does the sun weight, etc.) which then I can verify. The number of parameters is finite (it may be very simple and reduced if I do not require a great precision, and it gets more and more complex as I try to reduce the uncertainty associated with such lack of precision) and there are two very interesting features of a good model that have to be highlighted:

·         Even if the mathematical model does not have an analytic solution (if there is no known formula for “finding” procedurally the value of a certain parameter given the values of all the rest) it always has the next best thing: the possibility of being approximated by a series that a) always is solvable and b) can reach as much precision as we want (the discrepancy between the value of the series and the value of the unknown expression is “bounded”, and by performing additional calculations –by extending the number of terms of the series- we can make that bound as small as we want)

·         The model is self-contained, and does not depend on any external variable that can affect it in a non-linear way. In our case, we know that gravity is the only force that influences appreciably the position and speed of the solar bodies, and that as it diminishes reasonably quickly (with the square of the distance) it stops being significant beyond certain distances, so taking into account only the most massive bodies of the system we can be fairly certain that we will reach a solution precise enough. Most crucially, we know that we can discard “everything” outside the model with the confidence that it will not distort the results: the phase of Earth’s moon: irrelevant; the position of the constellation of Taurus: irrelevant; the eye color of whoever runs the model: irrelevant; the amount of people dying of hunger in Ethiopia: irrelevant… and so on and so on

Now I want to direct my readers’ attention to the difference with the models constructed in the social sciences: are the models able to obtain a “convergent” solution? Dunno, as the equations that are used to represent the relationship between the observed variables are themselves an approximation already. No way to say then what discrepancy there might be between what the model predicts and what will actually be observed, or to make that discrepancy smaller by performing additional calculations.  Are the models self-contained and reasonably free of the influence of parameters not considered in them? Hardly, indeed controlling for potentially confounding factors is one of the greatest challenges in such “experiments”, and it can always be claimed (and frequently is, as recently highlighted by the responses of the original experimenters to Nosek findings that I mentioned in the above linked post) that the lack of replication is due to the fact that some important parameter (not originally recognized as such) has not been considered and adequately reproduced. But if such is the case (if they can only be truly reproduced when done with the same people in the same circumstances) then the predictive power of such experiments is close to zero, they can never be truly falsated, and they do not constitute a valid criteria of truth.

It should be clear by now that those disciplines that have staked their credibility on the over-Collingwoodian availability of such criteria of truth modeled on the experimental method are a) in deep trouble and b) willing to let the shit hit the fan and defend themselves saying that their problems really affect every human systematized search of truth, and arguing that good ol’ natural sciences are as contingent and impossible to falsate as themselves.

V.                  Construction vs. discovery

Rather than question some of the most glowing achievements of the human spirit (Quantum Electro Dynamics, for example) let’s gain some perspective here. As I mentioned in passing before, the doubters happen to come predominantly from humanistic disciplines, that for the last hundred years have seen all their attempts to build a solid, well founded, epistemically valid set of widely agreed truths demolished once and again by the stubborn reality failing to conform to their theoretical constructions (be it human behavior –psychology- or society’s evolution –sociology and political science- or the way people produce and distribute goods and services –economy). What is the common thread of such diverse fields? They all deal with (or are affected by) conscious beings… Hhmmmm, may be consciousness itself has something to do with their failure? What have we said before about some classification that happened to distinguish between conscious beings being present or not? Aha! What we said is that it was advisable to separate facts from events.

As facts just happen, regardless of anybody being around to contemplate, influence, admire, applaud, bemoan or regret them, it is entirely correct to describe the endeavor of identifying them, isolating the parameters that they exhibit and whose evolution can be predicted and modelling such evolution through mathematical formulas as “discovery”. Events, on the other hand, require the participation of people, their assent or resistance. It is people’s actions (in an Arendtian sense) which shapes them, and thus can never be explained without reference to such people that makes them happen. And it is not enough to make such reference treating people as mindless constructs, because then we never can tell for sure if we are not leaving out something that can be of enormous consequences (and invalidate the model entirely). Events are properly “constructed”, and to “understand” them, to “explain” them to others we have to make our own consciousness resonate with them, we have to go to the same mental processes (or to ones as similar as possible) as those who originally lived them and made them happen.

We can then conclude that the “successful” sciences, the ones where we can see clear and undisputable progress (because they have a consistent criteria of truth, that is accepted by all practitioners, do not believe the nonsense about “incommensurable” scientific paradigms, every paradigm, and every scientific statement within such paradigms, is fully comparable and commensurable with any other) happen to describe facts, and that the unsuccessful ones, the ones whose practitioners are regularly complaining that the floor under their feet is shifting, that they don’t know what’s true any more, that the most agreed upon foundations of their craft seem to be up for grabs are the ones that happen to try to describe events.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the experimental method is valid for modeling and ascertaining the truth of facts, as has been proved once and again by the confirmation of the predictions that such models allowed to produce. Such method, however, is not valid for modeling and ascertaining the truth of events. But our whole educational/ publishing/ credentialing system is built on the faulty premise of blurring such distinction, and has been stubbornly pushing poor unsuspecting souls to use the wrong methodology in what, unsurprisingly, has been a most fruitless endeavor. Experiment! Experiment! And then, experiment some more! We have been telling countless undergraduates, and doctoral, and post-doctoral students and to their teachers alike. Only thus will you be able to pass your exams! Only thus will you be able to publish in the prestigious journals that will in the end determine the degree of success of your academic career! Only thus will you earn the respect of your peers and land the substantial grants we foolishly bestow upon such luminaries!

Nobody seems to have noticed that such “experiments”, in the course of the last century and a half, have produced nothing of social value, nothing that has stood just the test of a few decades, nothing that has either deepened our understanding of ourselves or our ability to improve our condition. But they have hopelessly tainted the disciplines that so enthusiastically have endorsed them, to the point that nothing can be expected of them at this point but their stubborn continuation along a path that should be abundantly clear by now that leads nowhere. So let’s close the schools and dismiss the schoolmasters, let the lovers of truth with an interest in such subjects go back to the tranquility of their homes, and let them start reconstructing their discourse, to see if a few years from now they can come up with something better. 


  1. Santi, I think you have gone maybe too far in your however modest proposal :). I agree with you that many of these disciplines are packed with individuals that use faulty (or even non-existing) science, even in the wide meaning provided by Collingwood. But I also think that these disciplines, when properly used, help us understand better our world and make better decisions, even if we consider them scientific or not. So, why should we stop teaching them? Should we stop teaching Ethics? I don't think so. What we should probably do is teach not only the discipline, but also its limits.
    However, I think that this very interesting topic deserves at least a glass of Talisker...

    1. Heh, heh, I could chicken out of this one saying "dude, it was satire, as in the original Swift writing", but I'll rather bite the hook. I'm 100% with you in how valuable those disciplines are, and how they help us understand our world better. Heck, of late I myself read 5 sociology books (and 3 economics) for each one of "proper" philosophy (I used to add 1-2 psychology in between, but just couldn't put up with the sheer idioacy any more, so had to let that one). All I say is the way they are taught is counterproductive to their own development. They have to be re-thought from the ground up, something they considered in the late eighties-nineties of the last century, when most of them went through a lot of soul-searching (and seemed for a brief moment on the verge of accepting that it was perfectly legitimate for them to have different methodologies and different truth criteria than natural sciences) that finally ended in nothing (well, in nothing different from their abject surrender to "scientism" in the worst sense).
      So I stick to my guns: close all the universities and send the teachers home. Invalidate the degrees and stop funding the "research" programs. Discontinue the reviews (at elast, don't subsidize them) and disband the associations. Indeed, ethics constitute a good example, as far as I know there is no degree in ethics, no title of "ethicist" and no badge of honor in claiming to be one (as well it shouldn't, I recall a recent survey, in Aeon I think, that showed that purported ethicists were more prone to lying, cheating and not calling their moms weekly over the phone... bad people overall)