Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Sometimes there just isn't a scientific theory

One of the hopes of creationists battling the nefarious forces of evolution is this: that once evolution is "debunked" or "disproved", there will be only its obvious counterpart left standing. Creationism, in some form. But, alas, no---their hope is in vain. If someone manages to "disprove" evolution (how?), what we will be left with is nothing. Not Young Earth Creationism, not Intelligent Design, just...nothing. Yep, the Empty Theory. That's because creationism is not a second-best scientific alternative to evolution. It's not a scientific theory. We don't have a second-best alternative to the overall theoretical framework of evolution.

Get it? There are some things for which we have no theory. Perhaps (though I dislike assuming this), there are possibly even things for which we can't have a theory for purely analytic reasons. Free Will, for example. Sometimes there just isn't a scientific theory.

So it is with some frustration-tinged amusement that I watch the econo-folks at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative attempt to, um, rationalize away the criticism of rational actor/homo economicus thinking in mainstream economics. Recall that the criticism of the rational actor type of modeling is that it uses a rather constricted robots-in-a-maze autonomous agent modeling to substitute for a robust understanding of why people do what they do. Mike Moffatt defends it by proposing...a rather constricted robots-in-a-maze autonomous agent sort of modeling based in abstract preferences whose inter-relationships are hopelessly trivial and cannot possibly bear any resemblance to how people arrange preferences in the real world. (Entirely leaving aside how value-laden these models are constructed in practice...)

But this is just par for the course.

What tickled me the most, though, was when my old babble econ sparring partner Stephen Gordon wrote plaintively in comments: "...And thrown away in favour of what, precisely?"

As I answered, nothing. Thrown away in favour of nothing. Sometimes there just isn't a scientific theory. Sometimes when a theory is shown to be, if not analytically incoherent, totally inadequate to the task, there is not an alternative waiting in the wings. It's merely that the entire line of thinking must come to a standstill to be dusted off until better days, or, as in the case of astrology, never, outside of newspaper back pages.

The relevance of all of this is amply and repeatedly illustrated during this endless worldwide financial crisis. Take a look at this horrific Financial Times op-ed piece by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (say it fast ten times; to read it past the pay wall use the title in your favorite search engine; h/t Yves Smith). Now look at this rebuttal.

Will austerity bring back the confidence fairy? Who knows? Is the flu caused by unfavourable astrological influences? Who kno---oh. Mighty Science does know the answer to that one, and no, it ain't the stars. Seriously. That's how premature the field of economics seems to be in anything that relates to the policies that govern our daily lives.

And, to be sure, this is all about expectations and rational actors. Are our social programs scaring off the skittish little investors? Whose back needs to feel the lash next to assuage the delicate fee-fees of bond ninjas?

Or could it be that the economists themselves are, in a Gödelishly self-referential manner, muddying the waters by opining at all? Perhaps the intractability of this problem stems from the problem itself? Perhaps there really is, for logical reasons alone, no reliable answer to these sorts of questions.

But, dictu mirabile, it turns out that decades of policies that were explicitly and openly designed to put and keep relative wealth in the hands of the relatively wealthy, actually happen to do that. Whoda thunk it?

What's that? *tilts head to listen to austerity pixie* Mainstream economic policy-opining is actually an exercise in rationalizing the rationalizations that handwave away further rationalizations against ascribing moral-political agency? How can this be...?


Bleatmop said...

From what my friends tell me, who are well verse in quantum mechanics, the latest thinking is that not only do we not have free will, but that free will is impossible. Looking at the wiki page for free will, there seems to be many competing theories on this, where Hawking thinks free will is possible Schrödinger think free will is impossible.

k'in said...

Is the opposite of reward punishment? Or is it no reward? Is the opposite of love hate? Or is it in difference?

The key aspect of JM Keynes General Theory isn't the prime the pump stuff..it's that people do what they do based on their expectations.

Lots of people were keen to take out mortgages when interest rates were north of 20% back in the early 1980's. "Rational" is subjective.

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why economists advocate a free market of many competing actors on one hand, and the concentration of economic power on the other. If corporate taxes were higher, more wealth would be in the hands of more people, to the benefit of non-yacht/caviar free markets. More people would have the opportunity to enter business (and the free market) themselves. What real economic benefit is there in giant piles of money in Switzerland?

Beijing York said...

Economics is more philosophy than science. If they were the latter, there would be far more testing of presumptions, including free market capitalism, to see if they actually work and how they work. From an arm chair perspective, I think it works for the very wealthy brilliantly.

Post a Comment