The quest​ for certainty — a new substitute for religion

10 Feb, 2019 at 16:13 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 6 Comments

popIn this post-rationalist age of ours, more and more books are written in symbolic languages, and it becomes more and more difficult to see why: what it is all about, and why it should be necessary, or advantageous, to allow oneself to be bored by volumes of symbolic trivialities. It almost seems as if the symbolism were becoming a value in itself, to be revered for its sublime ‘exactness’: a new expression of the old quest for certainty, a new symbolic ritual, a new substitute for religion.

As a critic of mainstream economics mathematical-formalist Glasperlenspiel it is easy to share the feeling of despair …


  1. Give me ambiguity or give me something else! Uncertainty has the psychological effect of increasing anxiety. There is nothing that induces uncertainty and hence anxiety more than one’s survival being unclear. Unemployment, temp jobs, technological change, inequality, stagnating wages, etc., all now with an overlay of climate catastrophe and the sixth extinction. It feels like we are in a state of increasing entropy as we seem to approach the edge of chaos where increased complexity resides.

    • Each of the sources of uncertainty you mention is psychological and therefore arbitrary; psychology can change overnight.

      You can achieve financial security with perfect hedges: buy shares in the S&P index and also in a triple-short S&P index; you make money if the S&P goes up, and make triple if it goes down. Then you talk down the economy …

      • which is great if you have enough money, but most people, especially those suffering unemployment, temp jobs, etc., have insufficient or no money to invest; so your solution is bunkum

        • The reason people lack money is based on faulty public policies that rely on naive constraints assumed by economists, which constraints finance has figured out how to relax. Economists have not come to terms with finance and public policy still listens, wrongly, to economists.

  2. “In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult.

    Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.

    Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven’t thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes were writers of crystalline clarity most of the time. Marx had great moments, as in The Communist Manifesto. Economics owes very little, if anything, to the practitioners of scholarly obscurity.” John Kenneth Galbraith ,Writing ,Typing and Economics ,The Antlantic, 1978

  3. I always thought a booming voice was all the gravitas one needed …

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