Michael Shermer is promoting a new book, The Believing Brain: How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. The argument is that our brains evolved to first determine beliefs, and then find the evidence to justify those beliefs. This is why people have strongly held convictions about religion and politics, despite the inability to determine what is the “true” religion or the “right” political position. Instead, according to Shermer, it is only science that can lead us to truth. Only science can distinguish between truth and belief.
In fact, though, Shermer’s argument is just another example of a dissembled belief posing as a truth. Most importantly, his image of how science works is misinformed. While the scientific method sounds nice, it is not an accurate description of how scientists actually go about doing their research because science is not done in a social vacuum. Were he to take the time to study how scientists did their work within a research community, he would realize the uselessness of trying to establish a demarcation criteria between “science” and “non-science.” And this is not to discredit science by any means, but only to point out the importance of remembering the limitations of what we know. Scientists have human brains too.
Another incorrect implicit assumption of the book is that there exists some independent “truth,” and that this truth is clearly distinguishable from belief. Rather, in science, a belief becomes a “truth” when a widespread consensus is reached. This “truth” can change when the question again becomes open for debate. In the words of C. S. Pearce, one of the most important (and yet little read) American philosophers, there is no truth but only the “fixation of belief”:
The sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and what we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. “The Fixation of Belief” (1877)
And this in 1877! You’d think we would have made progress since then, but people like Shermer are keeping our ideas about science stuck in the 19th century.
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According to the NYTimes, leaders of the American Economics Association are considering adopting a code of ethics [ht:dr]. Sam Wells offers pertinent advice in a sermon about the relationship between theology and science at a university. (If this is a topic that interests you, the sermon is a must read!) What the AEA can learn from is the characterization of what Wells calls a humble science:
The only trustworthy science is a humble science, which acknowledges the tentativeness of the known and the vast extent of the unknown.
And having a university with humble sciences means that:
…students and faculty can enjoy and benefit from the different methodologies of the respective disciplines, valuing each for what only it can do, while relishing the interaction and the challenge of the moments when the disciplines overlap and spark fascinating parallels and tensions.
Economics is certainly not a humble science, as it marches into other social sciences boasting superiority of its techniques and makes sweeping claims that ignore the “tentativeness of what is known” (what Great Moderation?). Just about anyone who has spent time with economists can attest to the fact that they believe economics is the king of the social sciences and that economics has little or nothing to learn from the other social sciences or the humanities. Economics today just might be the antithesis of a humble science.
If the AEA’s code of ethics included the encouragement of making economics a humble science, we would no doubt be in a better place. A more humble economics would seriously consider criticisms from other disciplines, as its practitioner would have more appreciation for the contributions of other disciplines. A more humble economics would also be more willing to reevaluate its premises and methods when serious deficiencies emerge.
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I recently came across a quotation from Marxist historian JD Bernal‘s 1939 work, The Social Function of Science, which is often regarded as one of the earliest works in the field of the sociology of science.
We now see that though capitalism was essential to the early development of science, giving it, for the first time, a practical value, the human importance transcends in every way that of capitalism, and, indeed, the full development of science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.
Bernal was interested not only in science, but also on the impact of science on the world, and the relationship between industry and scientific research. I think these questions are important for scientists (both natural and social) to continue to ask. Today, the pharmaceutical industry is a clear example; the drugs that are researched and developed will be those that will be able to provide the highest returns, meaning that they treat people with money, even if there are other drugs that could improve more lives and to a greater degree in the third world.
And this is also related to the production of economic knowledge. As the American university becomes more of an embodiment of capitalism, the type of economic knowledge produced will tend to serve the interests of capitalists. Economic theories that challenge that status quo have struggled to find acceptance in universities, and the effects are obvious in policy realm as well. The financial bailouts and other policies of the Fed and Treasury are backed by neoclassical theory; certainly an economic theory emphasized the poor would prescribe very different policies.
As universities become more capitalist, they will seek to eliminate theories that challenge them. These changes will then undermine the university’s ability to understand and serve the poor in our society. Hence there does seem to be continued relevance of Bernal’s claim that “science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.”
[The above structure of Photosystem I, from Petra Fromme’s lab at ASU, was determined using X-ray crystallography, a technique pioneered by Bernal]
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There are hardly any (mainstream) economist that will disagree with the claim that perfectly competitive markets lead to the most efficient outcomes. These markets should have no barriers to entry, nor be dominated by any agent or group of agents.
Mainstream economists are also eager to encroach on other fields of study, especially to do the other “lesser” social sciences better than the other social scientists. It would seem, then, only appropriate that they should eagerly apply their ideas to the study of knowledge. A neoclassical perspective on knowledge encourages what many have called a “marketplace of ideas.” This marketplace should have an abundance of competing hypothesis, all critically examined, to produce the best knowledge for our society. And there should be no dominant practitioners, who might exert excessive market power and find us in an inefficient market (of knowledge). Inefficient knowledge would mean that we would not have the best science possible.
But in the current state of economics, there are enormous barriers to entry and the “marketplace of ideas” is hardly competitive. Neoclassical practitioners keep the gate of the profession by controlling the economics departments at the top research universities and the “top” economic journals. Mainstream economists do not take any competing hypothesis critically because they do not even understand the basic ideas of any heterodox economic program, nor do they care to.
This exclusory attitude towards competing hypothesis is contradictory to the tenets of neoclassical economic theory. Any hypothesis that competes with neoclassical economic theory is dismissed as “not economics.” It should then come as no surprise, even the logical conclusion, to the neoclassical economist that the current market for economic knowledge is inefficient. And our society cannot possibly have the best economic science. We can do better.
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