Some Personal Reflections on Contemporary Economic and Scientific Indoctrination

I thought that the discussion in this clip from about 7.40 on was extremely interesting. Watson discusses how introductory textbooks — particularly Greg Mankiw’s — ask students to suspend their disbelief in the models that they are being taught. The idea, as Watson says, is to start getting them more and more comfortable with the formal framework — what Mankiw calls “thinking like an economist”.

This, I think, is precisely what an education in mainstream economics is really all about. In a piece I wrote entitled The Ideology to End All Ideologies I wrote,

Marginalism, and consequently modern microeconomics, is all about the ordering of one’s behaviour. It is, like any rigid metaphysical system of morals handed down from on high, about organising one’s desire. What marginalism seeks to do, at a very basic level, is to give a person a rigid worldview that is completely metaphysical and unreal in nature from which they can derive a manner in which they should act and behave.

That is precisely what Watson is referring to in the above clip — and that is precisely what Mankiw means when he asks students to suspend disbelief and start “thinking like an economist”.

What Mankiw and others do is very similar to what Scholastic theologians used to do in the Middle Ages. They would teach doctrines that did not seem at face to have very much to do with reality. But they would cover for this by invoking the supposed fact that these doctrines were a source of Truth because they came from some sort of Divine Beyond. Now that the appeal to Divinity has lost its edge the economists, our modern day theologians, make appeals to something called Science.

In the Western world most of us have been taught from birth — in school but also on television and in popular media — that Science is something sacrosanct and has an access to something called Truth. The effect this has on the vast majority of people is that anything that is labelled ‘science’ — and anything that appears to have certain characteristic formal properties (mostly mathematical) — is then thought of as having some sort of authority.

This shuts down critical thinking just as quickly as any appeal to Divinity in the Middle Ages — for the faith in and reverence for this thing called Science is just as strong today as was the faith in and reverence for Divinity in times past.

The psychology behind this needs to be studied in more detail. Here I can only really give an example from my own life and experience.

I recall when I was about maybe 15 or 16 years old. I was raised Roman Catholic but had not believed in those doctrines for at least 3 or 4 years. When I was in my mid-teens, however, certain questions about who I was and how I should behave and how the world should be organised came to the fore in my mind. I remember thinking clearly that Science must be the answer.

At the time this seemed so obvious as to not beg any questions but now that I look back on it I think that it was the product of years of indoctrination — indoctrination that was far more pervasive and far more penetrating than anything that had come out of the Catholic Church. Science was everywhere. It was in every newspaper article, on every television show and it was always portrayed as having access to some sort of Truth.

(I should also say that I think that the moral structure handed down by the Catholic Church — one which Science does not even pretend to provide — probably has more bearing on how I view politics, human psychology, social problems and proper conduct than anything that Science has ever provided me with. And I would even dare to say, given that Science tries to avoid value judgements, that the same is probably true for the vast majority of people born in this century or last — despite whatever Creation myths they may tell themselves about how they generated their morality ex nihilo or derived them from principles of Science or Enlightenment…).

In my teenage mind I just knew that Science must have answers to my questions. Of course, I did not know what these answers were. For example, it sounds rather nice that science could facilitate the organisation of society — and in my 15 year old mind that was an Absolute Truth — but what that actually means is now, I must admit, very very unclear. I suppose it meant something like “applying the principles of science to social problems will yield results”. But that simply begs the questions as to what these ‘principles of science’ actually are.

It is out of this void that nonsense emerges. I can see that quite clearly now. It is out of an almost identical impulse that Samuelson wrote his famous textbook. And it is just one or two steps from there to Mankiw asking us to “think like economists”.

The rather ironic thing about this is that I think most scientists would quickly suspect that there is something fishy about economics. I think that this is because it lays bare the claim to social authority they have in rather naked form. Mainstream economics is so perverse in its reasoning that it would make most scientists recoil in horror. But the unfortunate fact is that they get their authority from the very same source as the economists.

Yes, modern mainstream economics is far less true — with a small ‘t’ — than, say, certain physical laws that are used daily to tackle engineering problems. But nevertheless those who expound these physical laws do not, as many suppose, have access to any Truths — with capital ‘Ts’. Indeed, many of the physical laws that science actually utilises today are open to doubt or even falsified at the higher levels of the discipline.

Perhaps modern mainstream economics is in the decline today. Then again, perhaps it is not. But there will always be some other wacko, quack-science waiting to fill the gap. And whatever shape it takes it will take advantage of the pretense to Truth on which science today rests in order to declare itself the Rosetta Stone with which we can decode the Meaning of Life. People will then be asked — as they are in any cult or swindle — to suspend their belief and try to see the world through a new lens which will then come to colour every perception they receive and every interpretation they make. That is how you generate a priest caste in an era when religion has lost it’s authority.

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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3 Responses to Some Personal Reflections on Contemporary Economic and Scientific Indoctrination

  1. Some quick notes, Phil, on your enjoyable essay.

    1.I agree with your point about the Scholastics and economics as a new scholasticism. But remember also that the Scholastics believed in God as the ultimate and eternal Truth. Like Plato, they saw that the physical world as being transient, and therefore not “real”. The whole point of our modern “science” is to obtain reliable information about the physical world as determined by our sense-perceptions.

    Rather, I think of such positions you describe as Scientism, which places the physical, i.e., transient, world as the primary focus of human knowledge, since we can agree only on shared or commonly perceptual experiences. To me, science, really the scientific method, is a method through which we can obtain reliable information about our sense-perceptions and the knowledge obtained using that method. What we suffer from today, and especially in economics and the social sciences is a Scientism built on what Richard Feynman called “cargo-cult science” in which subjects are dressed up in scientific looking forms but which inherently are not subject to study using the scientific method.

    2. It seem to me that arguing about non-physical subjects is just debating about the details of abstract models, i.e., logical schemata and the truth values assigned to the variables of the schemata. “Critical thinking” thus is limited to the fine points of definitions, logical constructions, and the execution of logical operations. When the definitions are based on, or seek to model, physical entities (e.g., quantities of goods, money, etc.) this creates a problem, since the whole enterprise is built on a foundation that the physical world really doesn’t matter in the face of the eternal Truth being sought.

    3. Catholicism. I definitely sympathize with your story, Phil. I dropped away from the Church as a teen in the late ’70s, largely because “Science” seemed to have superseded the Church’s (really any religious) teachings. The “truths” provided by Science (e.g., mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.) appeared to be just as eternal as the Church’s dogma and far more consistently demonstrable compared to the bickering among the different religions. Besides, and this I think is critical, Science (as you call it) lets you do what you want precisely because it is amoral.

    (BTW, I’ve returned to the Church after my wife, one of the last of Berkeley’s Red-Diaper Babies, decided she wanted to join. Although we both can’t support every political position of the Church, we have decided there is enough to embrace as a spiritual guide in our neo-classcial paganistic world.)

    4. Science. I recall that George Orwell wrote an excellent essay about the question, “What is Science?” arguing that he could never get a cogent explanation from scientists tot that question. I think the problem is that at most “Science” refers to the body of knowledge derived from the scientific method. The extension of the definition to include any sort of organized body of knowledge is a mistake in my view, since it includes all sorts of subjects, like economics “political science” and the “social sciences”, that really don’t use the scientific method (largely because they can’t create controlled experiments, falsifiable hypotheses, or other critical aspects of the scientific method).

    Also, the sad truth, as noted by Orwell, is that most scientists are practitioners of a particular scientific discipline and largely ignorant of any other field, even in their own discipline. This point is made quite well by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society, which argues that scientists are really very highly trained and skilled technicians&emdash;The practice of scientific research has become so complex, requiring complex specialized terminology, materials, methods, etc., that it’s nearly impossible to take a global view any more and stay current in one’s own field. I’ve seen this first hand in my own academic training and experience as a patent attorney. So, for most scientists, “Science” really is just the field they work in every day; they largely ignore what goes on outside of their labs.

    I wonder how this would change if the sorts of fundamental mathematical and logical nonsense described in Steve Keen’s and Yves Smith’s books were circulated more widely. For example, I’ve often fantasized about a forming “Challenger Commission” to study the catastrophic failures of economics. At some point, a Richard Feynman-like character would start ripping in to the rank nonsense and gobbledygook of basic economics and pin the Mankiws of the field. Perhaps then the scientific community at large would arise in outrageous indignation.

    Thus, my answer the question you raise about why scientists don’t raise questions about economics has less to do with Mankiw-like suspension of disbelief than a lack of interest in looking at the details of the subject. I would also argue that many scientists actually do sneer at economics as a subject and economists as thinkers. But that only leads them to ignore the problems with economics all together. The real issue should be less about economics as an academic discipline, than our reliance on economists in setting public policy. But I find that few people make that connection: They either complain about politicians and politics or they lament the failures of economists; but they don’t see the connection between the two and demand that policy reflect more “moral” priorities (e.g., defining a basic quality of life for all and taxing the public accordingly) since there is no “science” to guide policymakers.

    I’m not sure which scientific “truths” you claim to be falsified “at higher levels”. This sounds a bit like Milton Friedman’s insane defense of economics as a science. I would argue from my own experience that scientists recognize that physical “laws” are only statements that are consistently true under certain condition. For example, in some cases the “laws” are recognized as dependent on scale, such as the breakdown of Newton’s laws under relativistic or quantum conditions. But don’t be too cynical. In all cases, these “breakdowns” can be understood as special conditions of larger principles and laws that (so far anyway) have been found to hold universally (e.g., Lagrange’s Principle). And I don’t see anyone abandoning the laws of thermodynamics just yet, either.

    I think the real problem comes down to three major factors. The first is that the efforts of the Enlightenment philosophers to create what the historian Peter Gay called a “paganized Christianity”, i.e., a moral system that kept the ethical teachings of Christ but without the magic and superstition, failed in the face of the industrial revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie and Modernism. The temptation (as it were) to simply declare mankind to be just like all other animals, and then apply the supposed attribute of animals to make mankind venal and selfish, was too great. And that great leap of amoral faith gave economists their marching orders&emdash;create a logical system based on the universal law of hedonism. Then economists had the key variable they needed to maximize. (Ellul’s comments on this are very interesting.) Second, this view of life fit the designs of, and selected for, just those people who covet power and wealth; the very people who could afford to support the work of the economists. Third, the abandonment of the idea that mankind is essentially moral, coupled with the ability of the sciences (small “s”) to enable the manipulation of nature and provide ever more power to mankind, silenced the sort of critical objections from the public that would create a social force to constrain the economists and the wealthy.

    As an underview of these points, I’ll also mention the impact of these factors on higher education. By the turn of the last century, colleges and universities had largely adopted the German research model of higher education. Schools turned away from teaching students a general education that traditionally included reading the great Western philosophical and literary works as being “old fashioned”. Instead the universities moved towards an elective system that favored subjects popular with students, which usually were those subjects that lead to lucrative employment. Thus, education has been more and more utilitarian to the point of becoming mercenary. Today’s push for MOOCs is just the final act of the tragedy of replacing intellectual development with job training.

    • (1) I used to buy into the ‘scientism’ argument. I no longer do. I think it was science that gave birth to this worldview. It is not truly a perversion. It is part and parcel of the scientific revolution. See here.

      (4) I think there is such a thing as ‘Science’. It is an ideology that has replaced religion. It pretends to be a non-dogmatic worldview but it is far, far from. Thus people today will say that they “believe in science”. I think that this is not a meaningless statement provided you take it to mean “I believe that those designated ‘scientists’ have access to Truth”. The science community also adopts a posture that they have access to Truth. If you push them on it they’ll crumble and become incoherent. But that doesn’t matter. They act as if they do.

  2. About your point on (1), I think that’s true to the extent that without science there could be no “scientism”. But I also think an addtional factor was required, namely, the active rejection of any consideration of the non-physical world, i.e., the (formal) abandonment of metaphysics. I think this was as much a philosophical development as it was a position taken by scientists; over time, the two reinforeced each other. Still, I think you’ll find enough scientists who are not taken in by this positivist-materialist thinking

    My sense of history is that the success of science led philosophers to abandon areas of inquiry that didn’t fit easily into a scientific model. Once that happened, we became trapped in a positivist-materialist view that by default made scientific knowledge supreme. Sadly, many fall into the trap given the highly technical nature of scientific education and research, as I explained in my point (4).

    So, as to your response to (4), I think we’re mostly dickering over semantics. What you’re calling “Science” (capital “S”) is to my reading what I call “scientism”. From own experience in doing research and working with scientists and engineers, I feel there still is a distinction between science (small “s”) and scientism. But I agree that the vast majority fall into the scientism trap, if only because our education has abandoned the larger metaphysical questions that, I feel, we can’t ever escape.

    Cheers!

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