"An economic theorist who offers a model prepares the ground for a practitioner who should employ her judgment in using this model; but the theorist's contribution falls short of a testable prediction." (Gilboa, et. al. 11)
"Cases can never be refuted, and case-based reasoning is thus an attractive alternative to rule-based reasoning, allowing economists to work with models simple enough to be useful without worrying about refutations." (Gilboa, et. al. 27) [HT: Jong Jae Lee]
The two passages above are quoted from a paper "Economic Models as Analogies" forthcoming in the Economic Journal by a group of leading economists.* It represents part of a wider trend among economists re-interpreting their own activity (recall last week's post); in doing so, they are also making more sensible claims on behalf of economics, while trying to keep most of the economist's tool-kit intact (recall this post). Both passages reveal how thoughtful economists' are trying to come to grip not just with the charge that their models are not realistic (as noted throughout the opening sections of the paper), but with the widespread perception that their models have been refuted in the events of the last decade. While a cynic might interpret the two passages above as a belated admission that something was refuted in 2008, the significance of these passages is to be found in the renewed focus on judgment.
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy,
rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic
data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same
intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the
functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. We judge
economics by what it can produce. As such, economics is rather more like
engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual.--Robert J. Shiller [HT Jeff Bell]
Is the younger generation of economists like Raj skipping some of the
big questions of economics because some smaller questions are easier to
answer? If so, is that optimal from the standpoint of society as a
The character of cutting-edge, academic economics has changed during the last few decades. It is not entirely easy to characterize these changes in part because economics is a very large, fast-moving field (and, of course, I pay more attention to philosophers than economists). Even so there can be merit in this simplification: (i) between 1947 and 1970, there was a formal revolution in economics (associated with names like Samuelson, Arrow, Debreu, etc.); this revolution occurred more or less simultaneously with (ii) the development of econometrics (associated with names like Tinbergen, Koopmans, etc.)--many of the people involved interacted with each other at the Cowles Commission. Of these two developments, the first had a more theoretical ethos and the second a more policy oriented focus. (Of course, lots of fields in economics -- development, labor, forestry, agriculture, etc. -- have always been very focused on policy.) With the break-down of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s, policy,
"big questions of economics" returned to the center of the discipline's attention.* In the quoted passage above, Shiller's "necessarily" takes the centrality of policy for granted...so much so that most of what is published as "theory" by theoreticians in economics these days has some such policy orientation.**
Ingrid Robeyns has a very nice post at Crookedtimber with an excellent discussion on why "economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or
explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis
concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the
theory-building." Her post includes a lovely, brief and clear treatment of the abuse of the Pareto-improvement criterion; it's worth your time to check it out.
However, I worry a bit about the meme that focuses on the lack of clarity about values by economists. For, it reinforces the convenient economist's (and philosopher's) distinction between positive and normative questions, embraced since Sidgwick encouraged the split between the two fields (recall and here). To put the worry more constructively and subtly reinterpret my two earlier posts (here and here) on Raj Chetty's widely discussed NYT op-ed piece: economists are not transparent about their status-quo bias that is embedded in their empirical methodology, which (recall (and here and here), takes important institutions and norms as given).[+] From the point of view of the political economy of economics this (relative) status-quo bias of policy oriented economics is to be expected because the demand for economists is fuelled by existing institutions.
Three illustrations of why scientists need to know history:
 Biologists often appeal to founders in the field such as Darwin or
Haeckel, either as a point of contrast or as intellectual ancestor - but
are their depictions accurate?
 Scientists need to know the nature of the scientific practice, e.g.,
the refutations of well accepted theories, the failures, the dead ends.
 Terms like "fitness" may be loaded with historical baggage that scientists are not aware of, but which affects their reception.--Roberta Millstein. [Numbers added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The image(s) of science that philosophers of (the) science(s) describe and promote often has an afterlife in (the) science(s).
Ever since Kuhn projected his experiences within and about physics onto a persuasive and widely discussed image of science, philosophers of science and the scientists that embrace Kuhn and his image [see here], have thought that progressive science requires certain features (paradigmatic consensus, mythic history, puzzle-solving, etc.)* In the exchange over her post, Millstein offered three reasons for thinking that praticing scientists need to know an accurate history. Let's grant a critic that  is not very persuasive. For those kind of appeals are primarily rhetorical techniques; there is a sense in which the truth does not matter in such appeals. Let's grant a critic that  can be achieved without knowledge of history (which now is conceived as a repository of error). So,  is not intrinsic to scientific practice, but it does not mean that history does not have this useful, therapeutic role.
Let's stipulate that there is genuine bullshit (see Frankfurt 1986). Let's also stipulate there is bullshit in the Humanities, even in philosophy.
A lot of people I know in philosophy are pretty confident that much of what passes in Literary Theory and the philosophies that influence(d) it is bullshit. I have seen testimony people that ardently defend this view who have studied quite a bit of, say, Continental philosophy and reached this conclusion. (Of course, in reality, a lot more folk are dismissive on the basis of extremely slender personal, intellectual investment.) When pressed for evidence, the Sokal Hoax is trotted out as exhibit A. It made a great splash inside the academy and the popular media that covers it. Rather than interpreting the case as an instance of bad refereeing, editorial misjudgment, whole areas of thought got written off by quite a few people.
I just learned that a paper was retracted from Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics--a very fine physics journal published by a reputable institute. It frankly reports, "The Editorial Board has investigated this and found that the XPS
spectra shown in figure 3 all exhibit an identical noise pattern that is
unphysical." [HT Retractionwatch] In other words, the journal published artfully presented bullshit. (It recently announced that it "is now using ScholarOne Manuscripts for submission and peer-review management.") Undoubtedly, this incident is unpleasant for all the parties involved, but nobody in their right mind will draw any inferences about physics from it.
The moral: very good journals can publish bullshit, and the refereeing institutions of all disciplines need constant maintenance.
The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our
predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and
may never be....Over time, the question of why economics has not (yet) qualified as a
science has become an obsession among theorists, including philosophers
of science like us...What is economics up to if it isn’t interested enough
in predictive success to adjust its theories the way a science does
when its predictions go wrong?--Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain, in the New York Times.
Sometimes I receive the following back-handed, compliment-question, "Why do you do history? You might make a decent real philosopher." A part of the answer is that the second-order stories we tell ourselves -- often handed down by mentors and supervisors, and senior peers -- about where we come from and what we do often are just as interesting and important as the first-order activities; they may also influence us and others in ways that are often hard to spot. This by way of introduction because in what follows I primarily challenge the conceptual oppositions (and associated historical myths) in Rosenberg and Curtain's Opinionater piece (allowing that the genre they are writing in need not require scholarly precision). Perhaps, my challenge allows some clarity about the first-order issues to emerge.
The main stated point of Rosenberg & Curtain (hereafter RC) is that "the task of the Fed’s next leader will be more a matter of craft and wisdom than of science." Surprisingly enough, given that RC are philosophers, they spend very little words on conceptualizing the nature or origin and causes of such "craft and wisdom," even though at the end of their piece they boldly assert that "the Fed chairman must,
like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to
fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at
that)." We are not told why of all the crafts and skills, the fine-tuning violin is the most appropriate exemplar for a Fed chairman. Even if we grant the fruitfulness of the tuning metaphor, a fine-tuning violinist possesses a skill that may not require (much) wisdom; she tunes an orchestra that is oriented toward a common goal with skilled performers. The Fed-chairman deals with a more heterogeneous population with ends that are -- I hope -- not unified.
In fairness to RC, most of their piece is focused on a self-described "obsession:" is economics 'science?' So, let's turn to that first.
If this collection leaves it unclear just what naturalized metaphysics
comes to, its advocates are at least making a serious attempt to engage
with our pre-eminent knowledge-producing disciplines. Newton famously
compared his efforts to those of a boy on the seashore who succeeded in
picking up a smoother pebble or a prettier shell while the great ocean
of truth lay all undiscovered before him. While naturalist
metaphysicians are at sea trying to oversee the reconstruction of
Neurath's boat, many a contemporary analytic metaphysician remains on
the beach embellishing his or her own sand castle, oblivious to the
incoming tide.--Richard Healey.
I mentioned Healey's review favorably a few days ago. Even so, the polemical closing paragraph above, which gives voices to "the deep suspicion" of "many naturalistically inclined philosophers," is unfair and dangerous myth. Before I turn to argue this, some terminological clarification. Healey's review is about a book about "scientific metaphysics" and he calls the practitioners of it, "naturalist metaphysicians," which are contrasted with so-called "analytic metaphysicians." He never settles on definitions, but after some empirical analysis, he writes, "Whatever naturalized metaphysics comes to, it is clearly less enamored
with logical analysis of language but pays much closer attention to
actual science than a lot of what goes by the name of analytic
metaphysics." This is a decent first approximation (and captures nicely the contrast between those that, say, start-from-David Lewis and those that, say, develop their views from grappling with the Scientific Image, or Structure).*
"Horn 1: no predicates carve at the joints. Here only two attractive options seem open. One is Goodmania: all talk of objecive joints in reality is simply mistaken." T. Sider (2011) Writing The Book of the World, 186.
"Let it be clear that the question here is not of the possible worlds that many of my contemporaries, especially those near Disneyland, are busy making and manipulating." N. Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 2.
One nugget in the Healy citation data is the near-absence of Nelson Goodman. The only work by Goodman found in the top 500 is The Structure of Appearance (1951) with 11 citations in the H4 (between 1993-2013). No mention of Goodman's Fact, Fiction, and Forecast (over 3000 citation according to google.scholar) or the foundational work in mereology; there is no harm--even Harvard professors can be forgotten (recall Jon on Collingwood paradoxicality; it seems Goodman's reputation went into decline around 1996). A more serious matter is that Goodman's Languages of Art (published in 1976), which over 4000 citations, is invisible in the H4. So, this tells you at once that nominalism is discussed and aesthetics is seriously neglected in our supposedly, generalist journals. This should come us no surprise (recall this post earlier in the week.) Given the significance of the widely deployed aesthetic principles embedded in the theoretical virtues of simplicity, elegance, harmony, this absence is something of a scandal (over and beyond the intrinsic value of aesthetics). (By the way: in the Stanford Encyclopedia, Goodman's aesthetics is the only entry primarily devoted to Goodman--it even contains a biographical sketch, as if the editors doubt there ever will be a systematic Goodman entry.)
The absence of Goodman's (1978) Ways of Worldmaking (WOW) is in some sense more important. (For the record: I never met Goodman.) Let me explain.
1. Leibnizian substance: Something is a substance if and only if it evolves by the fundamental laws 2. Russellian laws: The cosmos is the one and only thing that evolves by the fundamental laws 3. Spinozan monism: The cosmos is the one and only substance (from 1 and 2)
As Schaffer is well aware, there is lots of irony in all of this. (At NewAPPS we have discussed Russell's reservations about Spinoza several times here, here, and also Jeff. [Recall also Russell's debts to Boole on Clarke vs Spinoza; and Stebbing on Spinoza.]) Now, my objection to this argument is inspired by my reading of Spinoza's so-called "Letter on the Infinite," but what follows is not meant to be a historical argument (or a gotcha, 'you got the history wrong' moment). Recall that I read Spinoza as claming that characterizing and grasping substance as such does not involve our ordinary scientific 'utensils' (e.g., measures, mathematics, laws of nature), but rather concepts like essence and eternity. Mathematical physics can only give a partial view of substance as such. Now one reason for this is that mathematical physics of Spinoza's day, treats some part of nature as a closed system (governed by its own 'conservation' rules/laws). Moreover, Spinoza would deny that fundamentally the universe evolves. For, applying temporal concepts to the universe is, however useful it may be, always a less than fully adequate conceptualization of the universe.
The hazards of trying to draw conclusions about all of science, by
focusing narrowly on physics were learned at the end of the last
century. However, including biology and chemistry are only the
beginning, not the end, of the project of trying to develop a more
well-rounded picture of science.--Alisa Bokulich
The quoted passage is from a terrific NDPR review by Bokulich that Catarina discussed yesterday. Bokulich notes that "Conspicuously absent from this list are any of the social sciences." Bokulich goes on to call attention to the works of four recent leading philosophers of social science--all of which happen to be women. [By the way, when later in the review Bokulich calls attention to the lack of representation of women in the volume (and the lack of focus on philosophy race/feminism) she does not refer back to her earlier discussion. This justifies Catarina's claim that Bokulich should be praised for the "elegant way" in which these issues are raised. ]
As the epigraph to this post suggests, our current understanding of the development of philosophy of science is that we are "trying" to develop it away from an exclusively physics focus to other sciences during the last few decades. (It was gratifying to read Bokulich's claim that philosophy of economics is "thriving.") But this leaves me with a puzzle: if one opens Ernest Nagel's (1961) The Structure of Science, one notes that three out of fifteen of chapters are exclusively focused on philosophy of social sciences and history. These together comprise 25% of the text. (This understates the situation because earlier chapters also discuss relevant material. There is is also a chapter on biology, by the way.) So, half a century ago one the most widely cited works in the philosophy of science (although probably unread these days unless one is interested in Nagel-reduction) by one of the professional leaders of the discipline (who arguably invented analytical philosophy as a category) at one of the then elite departments already was offering a "well-rounded" picture of science. How come this was not the norm in the profession?
Eric admires Susan Stebbing because she was
a philosopher who spoke out against the authority of science. I am not so
convinced that her stance was all that admirable. I am all for challenging
scientists when their philosophy is confused. I am much less keen on
setting up common sense as a competitor of science. This is what Stebbing did,
and I am less than clear why Eric would endorse this aspect of her program.
Stebbing was a common sense philosopher,
and sometimes an ordinary language philosopher. Her attacks on the authority of
science were a reaction to its presumed displacement of every day thought. Her
famous put-down of Arthur Eddington is an excellent example. Eddington had
written that wooden chairs and tables were not solid, since they are mostly
composed of “empty space.” Stebbing replied that chairs and tables are
paradigms of what we mean by the word ‘solid’. To deny their solidity is simply
to misuse the language. (This is “the argument from the paradigm case” famously
mocked by Ernst Gellner in his wonderful book, Words and Things.) Why would Eric endorse such a piece of arrant
The issue between Stebbing and Eddington
has often been misunderstood.
[I start with intellectual autobiography because, perhaps, my journey may serve as a warning to students who let the secondary sources do their thinking while reading primary sources.--ES]
One of the dogmas that I encountered and accepted uncritically when I started doing scholarship on eighteenth-century figures is that they were 'Newtonian.' This conceit wrecked my dissertation (on David Hume and Adam Smith) because I had to conclude that Hume either was an ignoramus or dishonest.
Later, by teaching Berkeley to very inquisitive Wesleyan undergraduates, I realized that very smart philosophers could be informed critics of Newton, and contest the authority of natural philosophy (this paper is the finding of my scholarly voice, which resulted in a more ambitious project.) I returned to Hume and started to see the un-Newtonian and anti-Newtonian aspects. In the wake of my more recent scholarship on Spinoza, I started to discern a whole eighteenth century debate over the application of mathematics to human affairs.
But Adam Smith was not touched by my revisionism. I continued to stand by my reading of the Wealth of Nations, and to see in Smith a very sophisticated Kuhnian-naturalistic defense of the Newtonian paradigm. After all, it was Smith's student, the great jurist-sociologist John Millar, who tagged Smith as the Newton of civil society. [Millar pairs Smith with Montesquieu, presumably to keep Hume out of the picture.]
Now, however, reflection on work by a young Argentinian visiting scholar, Leondro Stieben, and, especially, a fascinating manuscript-monograph on Adam Smith by the distinguished scholars Mike Hill and Warren Montag, which usefully compares Spinoza and Smith, has led me to reconsider Adam Smith. Consider the following paragraph:
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a speaker dinner by a faculty member in the physics department. We were told to show up at 6:30 pm at Pi, a local gourmet pizza restaurant and cocktail bar that has gone from hip to hipster in the past couple of years. This is also where I meet with my students after our Monday seminar. But this time it was just me and a group of physicists.
When I showed up at 6:30 I didn't recognize anyone. I mentioned the name of the person who had invited me to the Maitre'De. She referred me to a corner of the restaurant occupied by a group of people who didn't look like physicists at all. As I introduced myself, I already regretted acccepting the invitation. When they introduced themselves and told me about their projects, I contemplated my escape. None of it made any sense to me. But I nodded with a smile on my lips and pretended that I understood.
Then the person who invited me showed up with the speaker. I felt even more intimidated. Here I was: a philosopher, in the midst of a group of physicists, who exceeded me on the coolness scale by a factor of at least 200. Sure, I just joined the Center for Neurodynamics and I do have a few empirical projects in the oven. But to be honest, I don't know all that much about black holes or elementary particles. I am sure the "cool math" these folks were referring to was ... well, very cool. But I didn't even know what kind of math was the cool kind of math.
During the last few weeks, NewApps has hosted several inter-connected discussions about the relationship between physics, metaphyisics, and philosophy of physics (and their histories) [see here and here as well as Jody Azzouni's intervention here. Azzouni's is a response to a forthcoming piece by Arntzenius & Dorr.]
Abe Stone has written a very provocative set of reflections on Azzouni and the whole dialectic here. There is a lot going in Stone, but his core point is that Azzouni's use of “actual physical probing,” begs the question. Now, there are two issues here.
First, in his piece Azzouni had offered two examples (one "a non-scientific example" and another "more scientific" [neither pretending to be genuine scientific]). Now the nub of these examples is this: the first example focuses on how the Arntzenius & Dorr technique imposing internal structure on objects, while the second examples explains why imposing structure on the spacetime between objects is objectionable. [I am partially quoting earlier private correspondence with Azzouni.] But what matters about the examples is not a metaphysical commitment to "big or little balls" (and anything that deviated from them being "spooky") as Stone suggests, but rather that they bring out the way in which Arntzenius & Dorr impose extra structure that does not seem capable of guiding future science (and is unmotivated by either existing science or by what has come to be known as 'nominalism'). [I apologize to Robbie Williams by not couching these comments in terms of his very interesting analysis of the dialectic: ]
Second, if I understand him rightly, Stone believes by contrast that the topological structure that Arntzenius and Dorr introduce can be amenable to (suitably re-interpreted and transformed) physical theory. And if I understand him rightly Stone thinks such philosophical theorizing is both desirable and necessary for the progress of science (something that brings him close to Michael Friedman's dynamics of reason, I think--but maybe I am being misled by their shared Kantianism) if it can help us think anew about what the nature of the empirical is.
I agree with the spirits of Stone's remarks here (I am all for letting a thousand flowers bloom in such matter), but it would be nice to know in what sense the Arntzenius/Dorr approach does indeed help us think afresh about what physical probing is, or can be.
My sister is now finishing her PhD in medium-energy nuclear physics. Over the past 3.5 years that she has been involved in this research, she has never written a single-authored paper. Indeed, of most of the papers she collaborated on she is not first author, but one of about 10 or so members of her lab. In the sciences, this is a fairly modest number of co-authors, since papers with 50 or even 100 and more authors are not exceptional (the trend towards huge numbers of co-authors, however, seems to be leveling off).
So we can say that co-authoring is the norm in physics, indeed in most of the sciences. I am not aware of quantitative analyses, but philosophy, like other humanity, is still mainly a single-author enterprise (in the interest of full disclosure: I do tend to co-author most of my work). A quick glance at the latest entries in PhilPapers shows that the majority of papers in professional philosophy journals is written by single authors: of the first 100 entries of the New Papers section, only 15 are by two or more authors.
I think co-authoring is on the rise in philosophy, but there is still a lot of resistance to the practice.
Steven French suggests, yes.
Steve gives two reasons: i) it's so hard to keep up with 'the cutting edge'; ii) unless we're doing something semi-sociological, there are good reasons not to go there [the cutting edge].
Readers comments welcome.
In recent blogging, Mohan Matthen has been challenging folk committed to History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) to articulate a way in which general philosophy of science (GPOS) can be properly philosophical within HPS (see also here and elsewhere). To simplify: he points out that i) much GPOS has been drifting into philosophy of some particular science (PoX) or, ii) in so far as it is interested in epistemic issues, it should become a sub-species of epistemology. I challenged ii here, and found the subsequent exchange with Mohan and David Wallace very illuminating. But I was left admitting that my position lacked resources to prevent the slide into PoX with a focus on internalist conceptual analysis. As a response, I have been developing concepts that allow me to re-conceive philosophy, and its history as well as its complex relationship with the sciences.
Luckily, one of the most exciting young philosophers of physics, Katherine Brading, rides in to the rescue! Below I quote from the concluding, stirring paragraph of a paper she presented at a recent conference on Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science. She offers a program for HPS in which the history of science X can be viewed as a contribution to ongoing philosophy. I have come close to this position when I insist that my approach to the philosophy of economics is a recovery of the shared history of economics and philosophy (recall this blog; or this one) in order to do philosophy, but without Brading's boldness. Brading's position needs to be developed (she needs to stop relying on the deep/superficial distinction), of course, but it offers the start of a viable alternative to Mohan's position. I quote Brading's concluding paragraph, which presents her approach *by way of contrast with a passage by Tim Maudlin (in which he describes the view she is attacking; it is unclear if Maudlin endorses the view) that she quotes*, in full without further comment:
"The official part of my paper ends there, but given the title and stated goals of this conference, I cannot resist a comment on the manner in which philosophers should engage with physics. Very often, philosophers of physics work on “interpretations” of theories in physics, and work their way back from these towards philosophical questions. Here is an example of a philosopher of physics [Maudlin--ES] describing this work:11
"Physics provides theories which typically consist of a mathematical formalism and some procedures for applying that formalism to particular concrete situations. But both the formalism and the procedures may admit of alternative ontological interpretations. It may not be clear, for example, which part of the mathematics corresponds to real physical magnitudes and which is an artefact of arbitrary choices of units of gauges. It may not be clear which mathematical models represent real physical possibilities, and which do not. And it may not be clear which pairs of mathematical models represent the same physical situation. All of these problems confront even the philosopher who tries to take, for example, the Theory of Relativity ‘at face value’." [The accompanying footnote reads: "11Maudlin, in Loux and Zimmerman (eds.), 2003, pp. 461-2. I quote Maudlin here not as an example of a philosopher of physics who endorses this approach, but because of the clear description he gives of the approach, and the fact that his description appears in a metaphysics handbook."--ES]
This is one possible approach, of course, and there is important conceptual work to be done here, but I do not think it is the most profound philosophically. An alternative is to begin with the deepest of our philosophical questions, and to use the development of physics read as a contribution to philosophy to explore how these questions are transformed, re-worked, addressed, and sometimes rendered non-questions. One does not “help oneself” to a philosophically shallow formalism, and then attempt to do philosophy: one sees physics as a part of the history of philosophy, and engages it on those terms. That is what I have tried to do here."
This is due, I think, to the over-reliance on statistical technique absent fruitful/constraining background theory (that helps pins down the uncertainty in and variance of major parameters). In economics there are few very enduring quantitative results (and that also pin down major parameters). Too much economic research is sensitive either to changes in our understanding of the relevant data-set and ‘improved’ statistical technique or to changes in social circumstances that have made old claims outdated (because, as I suggested in my comment on Boulding last week, economics may have a reflexive relationship with 'objects' studied). Below I quote (without accompanying footnotes and bibliography) from my first published paper in the philosophy of economics that targets the obsession over testing/confirmation (and the accompanying *abuse* of statistical technique, but for the record: I am not critical of statistics or econometrics as such!). When I wrote the passage below I was ignorant of much of 20th century economics, although as the larger paper reveals, I was struck that the economists I was reading were very worried about underdetermination in context of research (without it being motivated by holism or confirmation).