The study of knowledge, what we know and how we know it is called epistemology. Philosophy in general has been pretty modest about the subject. It is not difficult to find a philosopher in their later years, after a lifetime of study suggesting we don’t know much. Yet too much metaphysical post-modern theory can use clever or obscure thinking to blind us to some practical realities. Having your legs cut off in a train accident hurts. Legs, while made of atoms, should not be confused with some doubts within the quantum mechanical theory about how matter behaves. Since most of the very people who study what we know and how we know what we know tend toward understatement that leaves a little crack in which those who place on emphasis on unjustified beliefs to posit some strange propositions. The choice is between making a home of shaky ground or that where it is more rational. It seems like it would be a contradiction, nevertheless the ignorant, the purveyors of unjustified beliefs are the ones who are most inclined to just know. Charles Darwin put in well when he said, ” Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Introduction to The Descent of Man, 1871)”. The contradiction most likely exists for reason rooted in immaturity and fear (fantasy worlds of beliefs can be very comforting). As philosophy and the natural sciences struggle with facts and truth – the struggle for more degrees of certainty along with new knowledge, one of the social sciences in particular has long been in need of catching up to the realities of the world. Of the three social sciences which is most likely to have at least a mild allergy to rational empiricism? Nudge thyself – Economists have more to learn from the natural sciences if they are to claim a realistic model of human behavior
You’ve come to a canteen for lunch: at one end of the counter, you see juicy fat burgers sizzling on a grill and, at the other end, healthy-looking salads. After a little hesitation, you choose the burger. “Cheese and bacon with that?” Well, why not?
Classical economists, perhaps uniquely among members of the human race, would assume you made your decision fully aware of the implications of your actions, that you weighed up those implications and came to the conclusion that, all things considered, the cheese and bacon burger is the better choice. But I for one am rarely so rational and frequently rue my failure to take the healthy option. Considering there are more than a billion people worldwide who are overweight, I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Some economists have realised this and, given the failure of classical models to predict the financial crisis, their young discipline of behavioural economics is now enjoying something of a heyday. They are convinced that accurate models and good policymaking require accurate approximations of real-life human behaviour. They therefore try to take into account our most predictable foibles, such as a tendency to short-term thinking. Economists’ knowledge of these foibles comes from other disciplines – psychology mostly – so they are always playing catch-up. But ever more research on the depths of our irrationality suggests they are still way, way behind.
While this trend might present the thinnest ray of hope I would not bet on some national or world-wide epiphany in the near future. Even most Democratic policy makers are still in love with the Chicago school of economics, though not the purists that the far right are. As most of Europe is also still on the austerity bandwagon. The U.S. and much of the world has a large corner to turn before anyone is ready to accept markets and people do not act rationally, especially in the short-term.
The “nudge” phenomenon is probably more common in Europe than here. Though we are likely to see more of it. It is simply a way to influence the public to do things in their own self interests, not by taking away choices, but slightly manipulating the way choices are made. If that sounds ominous just think about your local grocery store and the way it is laid out. Products are where they are to encourage profitable buying behavior. That is not necessarily healthy buying. Rearrange some stock and you have people buying more whole grains than bleached out grains. Buying more fruit than hamburger. You can still have the kind of high fat diet that the far Right prefers if you like. Though as a consumer you’re presented with featured choices that are healthier. Political correctness aside, fat people cost the nation a lot of money in health care costs. So nudging is not simply a little game without consequences. Nudging is relatively benign behavior. So much so that liberals and conservatives are rather pleased with themselves on finding something on which they generally agree. It might not be enough. It relies to a large extent on incorporating self-evident rational behavior by markets and the general public.
(Robert) Trivers’ Deceit and Self-Deception(Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others) is the most original and important of these works. In it, he attempts to construct a grand theory of deception, arguing that we continually paint a distorted picture of the world so that we might more easily get our way with others. So we inflate our achievements, play down our failings and rationalise away our mistakes.)
[ ]…The book is vast in scope, covering every aspect of our lives from sex to religion, family to war. But Trivers reserves particular ire for the failings of economic theory: it “acts like a science and quacks like one” he writes, but it is not one. Its key ideas are naive and circular: it assumes we make our choices as rational utility maximisers, for example. And what is utility? It is whatever we, in fact, choose. There is no room in such a theory for me to plan to buy a salad, then persuade myself when faced with the cheeseburger that it is the superior option (“just this once”) only to regret it later. “Yet,” he rages, “such is the detachment of this ‘science’ from reality that these contradictions arouse notice only when the entire world is hurtling into an economic depression based on corporate greed wedded to false economic theory.”
Trivers might be on shaky ground when in brings in some evolutionary psychology. Though one can discard the background noise and focus on the insight. Humans are adept at lying to themselves. Today I was going to have the lean broiled chicken and a little fruit, but I’ll get the half pound cheese burger and get on the tread mill when I get home. Some people manage to live their entire lives with that kind of behavior, what Trivers calls “split selves”. Where one part of you is having a grand old time fooling the other part. Since this behavior is so common it is at least worth considering it might be a deeply ingrained evolved behavior. Of course we do the same splitting when it comes to markets. In the U.S. it is unwritten law not to be eternally optimistic about economic growth. No wonder Wall Street felt deep in its black heart they could create a kind of ponzi scheme and some kind of miracle was just around the next trading day, or the next or the next. It also follows that just as the big cheese burger induced bulge around the middle can be self-lied away, so can the collapse of the perfect rational market with a big lie. A lie so audacious that if lies could be natural wonders of the world this one would easily make the top ten.
to be continued….
Two memes that need to end. One is who was the world’s first computer programmer, Weaving the computer age.
With this post I’m going to lose whatever reputation I might have with all the feminist and politically correct denizens of the blogahedron. Why, because I intend to explode one of the greatest myths in the history of the computer. It is universally claimed that Ada Lady Lovelace was the world’s first programmer, the US Department of Defence even named a computer programme after her to celebrate this fact; this claim is total rubbish. Already in the 19th century Babbage’s son pointed out that the credit given to Lovelace for her memoir on his fathers Analytical engine was due to his father and not to her. Lovelace has the role of a populariser, deliberately exploited by Babbage to help him in his never ending search for financing of his computer projects. The programme that Lovelace describes for generating Bernoulli numbers was created by Babbage and not by her.
He suggest that the first real programmer was French silk weaver, Joseph Maria Jacquard, 7th July 1752. Which does open up at l;east some discussion on exactly what constitutes programming language. The other meme is the role of PERF( Police Executives’ Research Forum) in somehow coordinating or endorsing the type of violence used against OWS. I linked to an article previously that finds PERF guilty. Which is part of an internet meme that seems to have spiraled out of control. I apologize to readers for not doing my homework on that one – Crooks and Liars: The Shocking Truth About Naomi Wolf’s Factless Assertions..Piggy-backing on the PERF meme is that somehow the Department of Homeland Security coordinated some of the violent crackdowns. As of this writing the evidence for that is also lacking. Individual mayors and police departments seemed to be suing excessive violence for their own misguided and stunningly expensive reasons.