“An extremist is an intellectual lunatic—allowed loose if he does not communicate violence, but without an admission ticket to ordinary discourse. There is merit in excluding the lunatic from the discourse. Occasionally the lone dissenter with the absurd view will prove to be right—Galileo with a better scheme of the universe, a Babbage with a workable computer—but if we gave each lunatic a full, meticulous hearing, we should be wasting vast time and effort.” (George J. Stigler, “The Unjoined Debate,” The Citizen and The State, 1975, 3-4)
The then future Nobel laureate, Stigler, offers a cost-benefit argument for not responding to certain kinds of objections in science. His view of science also presupposes something like a consensus status-quo. The consensus status quo helps classify which views are reasonable and which are absurd or lunatic fringe. This sort of position can be traced back at least to Hobbes' views on the "madness" involved in thinking one's view superior to the experts (and the social order they prescribe--recall here.) Stigler (as does Hobbes) presuppose the possibility that unreasonable usurpers can radically overthrow the status quo in (scientific) revolutions. Surprisingly enough, Stigler's view is articulated without a comparative cost-benefit analysis of alternative institutions of organizing science. (I return to this below.) In particular Stigler's view leaves no room for incorporating systematic dissent within one's conception of science. This is, of course, a problem familiar to us since Thomas Kuhn's way of thinking about science became popular not just in the history, sociology, and philosophy of science, but also became a template for folk's self-understanding in the sciences, and, more recently, philosophy. It is no surprise, then, that Mohan, for example, recently defends philosophy as normal science by way of a contrast with "Mad Ludwig." The drive for consensus inevitably -- so it seems -- classifies dissenters as crazy.
As I have explained more fully elsewhere, George Stigler warmly welcomed the publication of Thomas Kuhn's Structure. This is no surprise because Kuhn's vision of science chimed in so well with Stigler's and was undoubtedly facilitated because Structure also recycled -- en passant -- a useful myth about economics:
“To a very great extent the ‘term’ science is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways. Nowhere does this show more clearly than in the recurrent debates about where one or another of the contemporary social sciences is really science…they will cease to be source of concern not when a definition is found, when the groups that now doubt their own status achieve consensus about their past and present accomplishments. It may, for example, be significant that economists argue less about whether their field is a science than do practitioners of some other fields of social science.” (Kuhn, Structure, 160-1; see also pp. 10-15)
Kuhn's image of economics is the impact of the brilliant conceptual work by Stigler's intellectual friend Robbins. Robbins was not just influential in economics, but as I have documented (here and here) he also had important readers among philosophers, especially, Rawls. For while writing during the great depression (and the great debates about the proper policy response to it) Robbins insisted that:
The efforts of economists during the last hundred and fifty years have resulted in the establishment of a body of generalisations whose substantial accuracy and importance are open to question only by the ignorant or the perverse. But they have achieved no unanimity concerning the ultimate nature of the common subject-matter of these generalisations. (Robbins, An Essay on Nature and Significance of Economic Science.)
In fact, Robbins firmly promoted the idea that there was consensus among economists and that to question that consensus was perversion. Robbins re-defined economics as "the science" that would enable the "securing what agreement we can in a world in which avoidable differences of opinion are all too common." He, therefore, set out to delimit "those fields of enquiry where this kind of settlement is possible from those where it is not to be hoped for —it is worth while delimiting the neutral area of science from the more disputable area of moral and political philosophy." (Nature and Significance, 150-1 [2nd ed; 1945 (1932)]) Robbins proposed an intellectual division of labor between (i) economics, which by providing consensus on policy means, was turned into a a conflict-resolution-mechanism, and (ii) philosophy, which would discuss ends without much hope for agreement. In doing so he sealed the end of the century long reign of utilitarianism as the comprehensive philosophic science in political matters (recally my post on Rawls who discerned this).
Some other time, I return to the significance of philosophers' drive to apply the scientific consensus model to philosophy. (I will also explore the historic origins of the very idea that science delivers consensus--something that would have surprised late nineteenth century figures as Boltzmann or Hertz.) Recall that above I insisted that it is surprising that Stigler's view is articulated without a comparative cost-benefit analysis of alternative institutions of organizing science. For, in his (1964) Presential Address to his fellow economists, Stigler articulated the nature of their shared expertise as follows:
“Economists generally share the ruling values of their societies, but their professional competence…consists in understanding how an economic systems under alternative institutional frameworks. If they have anything of their own to contribute to the popular discussion of economic policy, it is some special understanding of the relationship between policies and the results of policies. The basic role of the scientist, therefore, is that of establishing the costs and benefits of alternative institutional arrangements.” (Stigler, ">Presidential Address at the AEA, reprinted in, The Economist and the State, 39)
He goes on to insist that one can only establish these costs and benefits by way of arduous empirical inquiry. The absence of such comparative data on the institution of science did not stop Stigler, Kuhn, and their countless contemporary followers from promoting their faith in an image of disagreement-free science.