Critical realism — making sense of science

19 Sep, 2021 at 23:09 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments


Jacques Lacan — a severe case of obscurantism

17 Sep, 2021 at 12:48 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 12 Comments

This so-called crisis. It does not exist' - Jacques Lacan on Psychoanalysis  in 1974To lure the intended or preferred audience into accepting an assertion or set of assertions, the obscurantist should first of all convince the reader that there is indeed a deep and profound insight lurking underneath the surface of his prima facie incomprehensible statements. The obscurantist’s hope is to persuade the intended reader that the hidden treasure, the true meaning, is indeed so valu able and so revealing that he is willing to invest a huge hermeneutic effort in trying to understand whatever his hermeneutic efforts indicate as the “true meaning” of what Lacan says. As Lacan himself put it in a defiant mood: “L’écrit, ça n’est pas à comprendre. C’est bien pour ça que vous n’êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens. Si vous ne les comprenez pas, tant mieux, ça vous donnera justement l’occasion de les expliquer” (Lacan, 1975, p. 35). What is in normal conversation extrinsic to understanding – acceptance of what is asserted – now triggers the desire to understand: “these pronouncements contain deep truths about myself that I must accept, so what he says must make sense.”

Filip Buekens & Maarten Boudry

What Žižek and other postmodern obscurantists have in common

16 Sep, 2021 at 16:36 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Leave a comment

Mainstream economics — an obscurantist and harmful waste of time | LARS P.  SYLLAmong the soft obscurantists some aim at truth, but do not respect the norms for arriving at truth, such as focusing on causality, acting as devil’s advocate, and generating falsifiable hypotheses. Others do not aim at truth, and often scorn the very idea that there is such a thing. By assumption, these non-respecters of truth cannot be reached by argument, only by ridicule …

Let me mention who they are, by discipline and by name. Disciplines include deconstructionism, postmodernism, subaltern theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, gender theory. Some names are Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, Gayatri Spivak, Alain Badiou, Slavoj  Žižek, Homi K. Bhabha, Judith Butler.

Jon Elster

When listening to — or reading — the postmodern obscurantist mumbo-jumbo​ that surrounds​ us today in social sciences and humanities, yours truly often finds himself wishing for that special Annie Hall moment of truth:

Kant’s transcendental green spectacles

8 Sep, 2021 at 17:49 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments


On sophistry and illusion

4 Sep, 2021 at 10:37 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Leave a comment

David Hume quote: If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity...

Noam Chomsky on language and knowledge

4 Sep, 2021 at 08:54 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Leave a comment


On logic and science

31 Aug, 2021 at 15:42 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 10 Comments

That logic should have been thus successful is an advantage which it owes entirely to its limitations, whereby it is justified in abstracting — indeed, it is under obligation to do so — from all objects of knowledge and their differences, leaving the understanding nothing to deal with save itself and its form. But for reason to enter on the sure path of science is, of course, much more difficult, since it has to deal not with itself alone but also with objects. Logic, therefore, as a propaedeutic, forms, as it were, only the vestibule of the sciences; and when we are concerned with specific modes of knowledge, while logic is indeed presupposed in any critical estimate of them, yet for the actual acquiring of them we have to look to the sciences properly so called, that is, to the objective sciences. 

In mainstream economics, both logic and mathematics are used extensively. And most mainstream economists sure look upon themselves as “twice blessed.”

Is there any scientific ground for that blessedness? None whatsoever!

If scientific progress in economics lies in our ability to tell ‘better and better stories’ one would, of course, expect economics journals being filled with articles supporting the stories with empirical evidence confirming the predictions. However, the journals still show a striking and embarrassing paucity of empirical studies that (try to) substantiate these predictive claims. Equally amazing is how little one has to say about the relationship between the model and real-world target systems. It is as though explicit discussion, argumentation and justification on the subject aren’t considered to be required.

In mathematics, the deductive-axiomatic method has worked just fine. But science is not mathematics. Conflating those two domains of knowledge has been one of the most fundamental mistakes made in modern economics. Applying it to real-world open systems immediately proves it to be excessively narrow and hopelessly irrelevant. Both the confirmatory and explanatory ilk of hypothetico-deductive reasoning fails since there is no way you can relevantly analyse confirmation or explanation as a purely logical relation between hypothesis and evidence or between law-like rules and explananda. In science, we argue and try to substantiate our beliefs and hypotheses with reliable evidence. Propositional and predicate deductive logic, on the other hand, is not about reliability, but the validity of the conclusions given that the premises are true.

How to do philosophy

16 Aug, 2021 at 19:25 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on How to do philosophy

Introducing philosophy - OpenLearn - Open University - A211_1A contest was announced to see who could do the best job of carving up a side of beef.  The judge was announced as a famous chef, who had earned two Michelin stars.  Attracted by the prize money, a butcher and an analytic philosopher entered the contest.

The Analytic Philosopher went first.  A fresh side of beef was placed on a large wooden table, and he approached to begin.  He was dressed in freshly pressed chinos and a button-down shirt.  The Analytic Philosopher laid a leather case on one corner of the table and opened it, revealing a gleaming set of perfectly matched scalpels, newly sharpened.  He selected one scalpel carefully and addressed the side of beef.  After inspecting its surface carefully, he raised his hand and made the first cut, a precise slice in a perfectly straight line.  Working steadily, but with meticulous care, he proceeded to make slices and cross slices until he had completed the carving of the beef, a task that took him the better part of an hour.  When he had finished, he stepped back, wiped the scalpel clean on a piece of paper toweling, replaced it in the case, and with a bow to the judge, withdrew.

The butcher was next up.  Her side of beef was on a table next to that on which the Analytic Philosopher had been working.  She was dressed in overalls and a butcher’s apron, on which one could see spots of blood and stains from her work.  She took out a cleaver, a saw, and a sharp butcher’s knife, and went to work on her side of beef, wasting no time.  Bits of fat and gristle flew here and there, some ending up on her apron and even in her hair, which she had covered with a net.  She whistled as she worked at the table, until with a flourish, she put down her saw, bowed to the judge, and stepped back.

The judge examined each table for no more than a moment, and then without the slightest hesitation, handed the prize to the butcher.  The Analytic Philosopher was stunned.  “But,” he protested, “there is simply no comparison between the results on the two tables.  The butcher’s table is a shambles, a heap of pieces of meat, with fat and bits of bone and drops of blood all over the place.  My table is pristine — a careful display of perfectly carved cubes of meat, all with parallel sides and exactly the same size.  Why on earth have you given the prize to the butcher?”

The Judge explained.  “The butcher has turned her side of beef into a usable array of porterhouse steaks, T-bone steaks, sirloin steaks, beef roasts, and a small pile of beef scraps ready to be ground up for chop meat.  She clearly knew where the joints were in the beef, how to cut against the grain with the tough parts, where to apply her saw.  You, on the other hand, have reduced a perfectly good grade-A side of beef to stew meat.”

Moral:  When butchering a side of beef, it is best to know something about what lies beneath its surface.

Observation:  This is also not a bad idea when doing Philosophy.

The problem wih postmodernism

10 Aug, 2021 at 15:54 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

Catharine MacKinnon; Tony Trabert; Ralph Nader — Charlie RosePostmodernism is a flag flown by a diverse congeries, motley because lack of unity is their credo and they feel no need to be consistent. Part of the problem in coming to grips with postmodernism is that, pretending to be profound while being merely obscure (many are fooled), slathering subjects with words, its selfproclaimed practitioners fairly often don’t say much of anything …

Postmodernism as practiced often comes across as style — petulant, joyriding, more posture than position. But it has a method, making metaphysics far from dead. Its approach and its position, its posture toward the world and its view of what is real, is that it’s all mental. Postmodernism imagines that society happens in your head. Back in the modern period, this position was called idealism.

Catharine MacKinnon

What does a RCT tell us?

9 Aug, 2021 at 17:05 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

parachuteParachute use compared with a backpack control did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when used by participants jumping from aircraft in this first randomized evaluation of the intervention. This largely resulted from our ability to only recruit participants jumping from stationary aircraft on the ground. When beliefs regarding the effectiveness of an intervention exist in the community, randomized trials evaluating their effectiveness could selectively enroll individuals with a lower likelihood of benefit, thereby diminishing the applicability of trial results to routine practice. Therefore, although we can confidently recommend that individuals jumping from small stationary aircraft on the ground do not require parachutes, individual judgment should be exercised when applying these findings at higher altitudes.

Robert W Yeh et al.

Yeap — background​ knowledge sure is important when experimenting …

‘Ideally controlled experiments’ tell us with certainty what causes what effects — but only given the right ‘closures.’ Making appropriate extrapolations from (ideal, accidental, natural or quasi) experiments to different settings, populations or target systems, is not easy. ‘It works there’ is no evidence for ‘it will work here.’ Causes deduced in an experimental setting still have to show that they come with an export-warrant to the target population/system. The causal background assumptions made have to be justified, and without licenses to export, the value of ‘rigorous’ and ‘precise’ methods — and ‘on-average-knowledge’ — is despairingly small.

RCTs have very little reach beyond giving descriptions of what has happened in the past. From the perspective of the future and for policy purposes they are as a rule of limited value since they cannot tell us what background factors were held constant when the trial intervention was being made.

RCTs usually do not provide evidence that the results are exportable to other target systems. RCTs cannot be taken for granted to give generalizable results. That something works somewhere for someone is no warranty for us to believe it to work for us here or even that it works generally.

Why there is no relationship between truth and logic

5 Aug, 2021 at 11:58 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 7 Comments


To be ‘analytical’ and ‘logical’ is something most people find recommendable. These words have a positive connotation. Scientists think deeper than most other people because they use ‘logical’ and ‘analytical’ methods. In dictionaries, logic is often defined as “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity” and ‘analysis’ as having to do with “breaking something down.”

But that’s not the whole picture. As used in science, analysis usually means something more specific. It means to separate a problem into its constituent elements so to reduce complex — and often complicated — wholes into smaller (simpler) and more manageable parts. You take the whole and break it down (decompose) into its separate parts. Looking at the parts separately one at a time you are supposed to gain a better understanding of how these parts operate and work. Built on that more or less ‘atomistic’ knowledge you are then supposed to be able to predict and explain the behaviour of the complex and complicated whole.

Logic yields validity, not truth. - Post by Ziya on BoldomaticIn economics, that means you take the economic system and divide it into its separate parts, analyse these parts one at a time, and then after analysing the parts separately, you put the pieces together.

The ‘analytical’ approach is typically used in economic modelling, where you start with a simple model with few isolated and idealized variables. By ‘successive approximations,’ you then add more and more variables and finally get a ‘true’ model of the whole.

This may sound like a convincing and good scientific approach.

But there is a snag!

The procedure only really works when you have a machine-like whole/system/economy where the parts appear in fixed and stable configurations. And if there is anything we know about reality, it is that it is not a machine! The world we live in is not a ‘closed’ system. On the contrary. It is an essentially ‘open’ system. Things are uncertain, relational, interdependent, complex, and ever-changing.

Without assuming that the underlying structure of the economy that you try to analyze remains stable/invariant/constant, there is no chance the equations of the model remain constant. That’s the very rationale why economists use (often only implicitly) the assumption of ceteris paribus. But — nota bene — this can only be a hypothesis. You have to argue the case. If you cannot supply any sustainable justifications or warrants for the adequacy of making that assumption, then the whole analytical economic project becomes pointless non-informative nonsense. Not only have we to assume that we can shield off variables from each other analytically (external closure). We also have to assume that each and every variable themselves are amenable to be understood as stable and regularity producing machines (internal closure). Which, of course, we know is as a rule not possible. Some things, relations, and structures are not analytically graspable. Trying to analyse parenthood, marriage, employment, etc, piece by piece doesn’t make sense. To be a chieftain, a capital-owner, or a slave is not an individual property of an individual. It can come about only when individuals are integral parts of certain social structures and positions. Social relations and contexts cannot be reduced to individual phenomena. A cheque presupposes a banking system and being a tribe-member presupposes a tribe.  Not taking account of this in their ‘analytical’ approach, economic ‘analysis’ becomes uninformative nonsense.

Using ‘logical’ and ‘analytical’ methods in social sciences means that economists succumb to the fallacy of composition — the belief that the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts.  In society and in the economy this is arguably not the case. An adequate analysis of society and economy a fortiori cannot proceed by just adding up the acts and decisions of individuals. The whole is more than a sum of parts.

Mainstream economics is built on using the ‘analytical’ method. The models built with this method presuppose that social reality is ‘closed.’ Since social reality is known to be fundamentally ‘open,’ it is difficult to see how models of that kind can explain anything about what happens in such a universe. Postulating closed conditions to make models operational and then impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure is an unwarranted procedure that does not take necessary ontological considerations seriously.

In face of the kind of methodological individualism and rational choice theory that dominate mainstream economics we have to admit that even if knowing the aspirations and intentions of individuals are necessary prerequisites for giving explanations of social events, they are far from sufficient. Even the most elementary ‘rational’ actions in society presuppose the existence of social forms that it is not possible to reduce to the intentions of individuals. Here, the ‘analytical’ method fails again.

The overarching flaw with the ‘analytical’ economic approach using methodological individualism and rational choice theory is basically that they reduce social explanations to purportedly individual characteristics. But many of the characteristics and actions of the individual originate in and are made possible only through society and its relations. Society is not a Wittgensteinian ‘Tractatus-world’ characterized by atomistic states of affairs. Society is not reducible to individuals, since the social characteristics, forces, and actions of the individual are determined by pre-existing social structures and positions. Even though society is not a volitional individual, and the individual is not an entity given outside of society, the individual (actor) and the society (structure) have to be kept analytically distinct. They are tied together through the individual’s reproduction and transformation of already given social structures.

Since at least the marginal revolution in economics in the 1870s it has been an essential feature of economics to ‘analytically’ treat individuals as essentially independent and separate entities of action and decision. But, really, in such a complex, organic and evolutionary system as an economy, that kind of independence is a deeply unrealistic assumption to make. To simply assume that there is strict independence between the variables we try to analyze doesn’t help us the least if that hypothesis turns out to be unwarranted.

To be able to apply the ‘analytical’ approach, economists have to basically assume that the universe consists of ‘atoms’ that exercise their own separate and invariable effects in such a way that the whole consist of nothing but an addition of these separate atoms and their changes. These simplistic assumptions of isolation, atomicity, and additivity are, however, at odds with reality. In real-world settings, we know that the ever-changing contexts make it futile to search for knowledge by making such reductionist assumptions. Real-world individuals are not reducible to contentless atoms and so not susceptible to atomistic analysis. The world is not reducible to a set of atomistic ‘individuals’ and ‘states.’ How variable X works and influence real-world economies in situation A cannot simply be assumed to be understood or explained by looking at how X works in situation B. Knowledge of X probably does not tell us much if we do not take into consideration how it depends on Y and Z. It can never be legitimate just to assume that the world is ‘atomistic.’ Assuming real-world additivity cannot be the right thing to do if the things we have around us rather than being ‘atoms’ are ‘organic’ entities.

If we want to develop new and better economics we have to give up on the single-minded insistence on using a deductivist straitjacket methodology and the ‘analytical’ method. To focus scientific endeavours on proving things in models is a gross misapprehension of the purpose of economic theory. Deductivist models and ‘analytical’ methods disconnected from reality are not relevant to predict, explain or understand real-world economies

To have ‘consistent’ models and ‘valid’ evidence is not enough. What economics needs are real-world relevant models and sound evidence. Aiming only for ‘consistency’ and ‘validity’ is setting the economics aspirations level too low for developing a realist and relevant science.

Economics is not mathematics or logic. It’s about society. The real world.

Models may help us think through problems. But we should never forget that the formalism we use in our models is not self-evidently transportable to a largely unknown and uncertain reality. The tragedy with mainstream economic theory is that it thinks that the logic and mathematics used are sufficient for dealing with our real-world problems. They are not! Model deductions based on questionable assumptions can never be anything but pure exercises in hypothetical reasoning.

The world in which we live is inherently uncertain and quantifiable probabilities are the exception rather than the rule. To every statement about it is attached a ‘weight of argument’ that makes it impossible to reduce our beliefs and expectations to a one-dimensional stochastic probability distribution. If “God does not play dice” as Einstein maintained, I would add “nor do people.” The world as we know it has limited scope for certainty and perfect knowledge. Its intrinsic and almost unlimited complexity and the interrelatedness of its organic parts prevent the possibility of treating it as constituted by ‘legal atoms’ with discretely distinct, separable and stable causal relations. Our knowledge accordingly has to be of a rather fallible kind.

If the real world is fuzzy, vague and indeterminate, then why should our models build upon a desire to describe it as precise and predictable? Even if there always has to be a trade-off between theory-internal validity and external validity, we have to ask ourselves if our models are relevant.

‘Human logic’ has to supplant the classical — formal — logic of deductivism if we want to have anything of interest to say of the real world we inhabit. Logic is a marvellous tool in mathematics and axiomatic-deductivist systems, but a poor guide for action in real-world systems, in which concepts and entities are without clear boundaries and continually interact and overlap. In this world, I would say we are better served with a methodology that takes into account that the more we know, the more we know we do not know.

Mathematics and logic cannot establish the truth value of facts. Never has. Never will.


3 Aug, 2021 at 10:11 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on Hegel


Ontological emergence

10 Jul, 2021 at 10:37 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments


Wittgensteins Sprachphilosophie — der Fliege den Ausweg aus dem Fliegenglas zeigen

4 Jul, 2021 at 16:43 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on Wittgensteins Sprachphilosophie — der Fliege den Ausweg aus dem Fliegenglas zeigen


David Graeber on the importance of Roy Bhaskar’s work

3 Jul, 2021 at 11:09 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on David Graeber on the importance of Roy Bhaskar’s work


No philosopher of science has influenced yours truly’s thinking more than Roy Bhaskar did. Roy always emphasised that the world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

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