Basis of a theory
My Physicist friend Amitabha Lahiri who authored the book ‘First Book of Quantum Field Theory’, opened my eyes to the world of Scientific logic, which in itself is as far drawn from definitive postulates as Theology is from Physics and conterminously whether it is close to chance or as far drawn from it seemingly depended on how much we are willing to extend the boundaries of experimental knowledge and the verification of results thereof and also on how much openness we want to inculcate in our scientific enquiry itself.
I have been intrigued for quite some time to find the basis of a theory or law or simply a hypothesis, as in today’s world of information explosion, every event or information associated with it brings in a two sided view, almost diametrically opposing each other and if that becomes a logical framework for arguments to be developed and data to be vetted, the denouement is more likely to be skewed towards a probabilistic expression, rather than a definitive or what Keynes referred as ‘demonstrative certainty’ or ‘conclusive’ certainty in his book ‘The Treatise on Probability’. I did find in awe the apparent lack of concern for the probabilistic expression and the adjustments that are needed to be made around it, when businesses and economies set out to do their short and long term planning. This leads me to believe that there is something inherently missing in today’s world of understanding of what constitutes a rational and logical premise behind the framing of a hypothesis or a judgment, whether in the scientific or the non-scientific area and the limits of cognitive biases tend to pose grave risk to the application of such judgments in areas they are not meant to demonstrate certainty of results; the experimental and probabilistic nature of some of the base work leaves a lot to be desired if a treatise or hypothesis is to be separated from just a conjecture. More on this as we proceed to unravel how some of the basic laws of Science have been challenged with new knowledge and with an open mind of enquiry, both being the vital ingredients of the human spirit of enquiry, which separates the personal nature of the scientific bias from the universal and more noble nature of enquiry, which does not necessarily seek an outcome to be either conclusive or inconclusive.
Russell in his book, ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ had referred to the original problem of hilosophy and the importance of human consciousness in relation to the interpretation of objects and he wrote, “One of the great historic controversies in philosophy is the controversy between the two schools called respectively ’empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’. The empiricists–who are best represented by the British philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume–maintained that all our knowledge is derived from experience; the rationalists–who are represented by the Continental philosophers of the seventeenth century, especially Descartes and Leibniz–maintained that, in addition to what we know by experience, there are certain ‘innate ideas’ and ‘innate principles’, which we know independently of experience. It has now become possible to decide with some confidence as to the truth or falsehood of these opposing schools. It must be admitted, for the reasons already stated, that logical principles are known to us, and cannot be themselves proved by experience, since all proof presupposes them. In this, therefore, which was the most important point of the controversy, the rationalists were in the right.” He later on went on to defend the empiricists partially by pointing out that it was not the lack of human knowledge that could be attributed for not being able to logically deduce an effect from the cause but that “nothing could be known _a priori_ about the connection of cause and effect”. However Russell himself remained quite inconclusive in siding with the empiricists or the rationalists when the bigger puzzle unfolded that induction, which is so much the basis for many proofs in Mathematics is itself not provable, ‘the validity of inductive principle cannot be proved by induction’, and he later remarked, ‘that the general propositions of mathematics, such as ‘two and two always make four’, can obviously be known with certainty by consideration of a single instance, and gain nothing by enumeration of other cases in which they have been found to be true. Thus our knowledge of the general propositions of mathematics (and the same applies to logic) must be accounted for otherwise than our (merely probable) knowledge of empirical generalizations such as ‘all men are mortal’.”
The problem however remained that Kurt Gödel had to prove much later on that consistent and complete mathematical systems were themselves quite incomplete as he showed in Theorem 1 that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” (essentially, a computer program) is capable of proving all facts about the natural numbers. For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system, while his Theorem 2 stated if such a system is also capable of proving certain basic facts about the natural numbers, then one particular arithmetic truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself.
So we go back to the very foundation of knowledge that makes us believe an axiom, or a hypothesis must be based on certain principles either of cause and effect, or of provability, or simply on an empirical relationship, but the very core principle must be based on what Karl Popper proposed, ‘Falsifiable’. This however puts every discovery to be a subject of ‘limited’ nature of human knowledge and the uncertain nature of every denouement that is pending further experimental proof. This simply makes ‘Truth’ only partial, as the falsifiable nature of its existence makes it rather fragile.
Let us examine this fragility of Truth and its impact on our current state of businesses and social lives.
Natural Selection Vs Mutual Aid
Charles Darwin in his immortal book, ‘The Origin of Species’ challenged the very basis of all earlier human knowledge as regards the origin of life and what constituted the fundamental codification of life. But in creating the foundations of his theory I found in awe the tremendous need to collaborate with the other thinkers of his times or even earlier. He seemed to be always drawing inspiration from others and acknowledging their contributions as important as his own in developing the theory. Not many such examples exist and Darwin merely wrote what he observed through experiments painstakingly all his life and put that into a form that was discernable to the scientific community that led to the eventual celebration of the theory of natural selection.
While he drew inspiration from Lamarck’s work, he rejected his ‘theory of progressive development’, which his own grandfather believed in. He also commended the work of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who believed that the species were the ‘degeneration of the same type’ and that the conditions of life were the cause for the change. Darwin also commended the work of H.G. Wells, who first proposed that natural selection was the basis for development (more in the case of human beings) and also found evidence in the agriculturists’ treatment of the domesticated animals and their subsequent improvement. Darwin pointed out with same fervor that what Professor Grant, Rev Herbert and Patrick Mathew had written, were quite close to what he also proposed as the theory of Natural selection to be the basis for propagation of life in the different species and the basis for their development and survival. His final collaboration with Wallace, Hooker and Huxley is well known, in developing the theory, in fact Wallace’s memoirs contain almost the same set of examples that Darwin espoused in his book, although quite independently. This goes to show that scientific enquiry into the unknown needs collaborative effort and when sharpest intellects venture to experiment with the unknown they must come together, challenge each other and at the same time uphold the principles of logical reasoning. But the more important factor that leads to such unfolding of knowledge is in one’s ability to be honest in the interpretation of results of the experiments, as it is so important that experiments must be conducted and observations must be done under conditions that are reproducible and more resembling its true credible nature. Darwin in fact was more a humanist and a philosopher who was more inspired by the spirit of enquiry and wrote in his ‘Descent of man’ that he would love others to challenge his work and he had no qualms where the truth led.
Darwin summarized his thoughts in the two important chapters 3 and 4 of ‘Origin of Species’ as follows:
“Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they
be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.” But at the same time he did not stop to caution, “I should premise that I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is
more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny.”
There can be no doubt that the Theory of Natural Selection, that draws millions of examples from the life forms under different conditions, both severe and life-supporting, is an empirical deduction that had ventured to find the basic code of life, that which makes life forms divergent, or sometimes extinct and sometimes thrive in its fullest extent ushering new and more divergent life forms. However in doing so Darwin took credence from Malthus and got influenced by Huxley and Spencer in going to the far extreme view that for life to survive there was the one and only need to struggle for existence and that in the survival of the fittest lay the hope of life. As he wrote, ‘A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive; there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage. Although some species may be now increasing, more or less rapidly, in numbers, all cannot do so, for the world would not hold them.
“There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that, if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair. Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in less than a thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny.”
That the last part of his observation and that the only basis of survival was a struggle amongst the same species for food was wrong, has been pointed out by Kropotkin in his immortal Treatise, ‘Mutual Aid: A factor of Evolution”.
The two analyses, one by Darwin and the other by Kropotkin are very similar in content in their honesty of approach and in their intent to unravel the mystery of life through an empirical fact-finding zest and in a collaboration that brought quite a few scholars of their times together. Kropotkin first started with Kessler and then alluded to Ackerman and Goethe and finally to a host of contemporary biologists and zoologists including Louis Buchner. He drew conclusions from his own long journeys into eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria where he witnessed the most extreme nature of climate and habitat that influenced him to believe that, “Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find– although I was eagerly looking for it–that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.
“On the other hand, wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in
the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest–in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.”
Kropotkin took the question one step further to extend it more to the arena of human survival through the times of barbarism to civilization and from the days of medieval guilds to modern factory associations, from village institutions of community to the current associations of city administration, he found more evidence of mutual aid in facilitating survival of the individual and the community around it than in the bitter struggle for arrogating power that is in greater publicity in the treatises that followed Darwin’s original book.
He went on to believe, “They all endeavored to prove that Man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was “a law of Nature.” This view, however, I could not accept, because I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit
something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation.
“But excellent though each of these works is, they leave ample room for a work in which Mutual Aid would be considered, not only as an argument in favor of a pre-human origin of moral instincts, but also as a law of Nature and a factor of evolution.
“But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience–be it only at the stage of an instinct–of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. Upon this broad and necessary foundation the still higher moral feelings are developed.”
In so doing Kropotkin did not lose sight of the fact that individual struggle for domination and sexual selection did play a very important role in shaping the development and variation in species, but he could not accept it to be the only source of all important inputs for survival. While not ignoring the part, he pointed out to the lack of sensitivity in accepting the broader role such ‘individualism’ played, “I should certainly be the last to underrate the part which
the self-assertion of the individual has played in the evolution of mankind. However, this subject requires, I believe, a much deeper treatment than the one it has hitherto received. In the history of mankind, individual self-assertion has often been, and continually is, something quite different from, and far larger and deeper than, the petty, unintelligent narrow-mindedness, which, with a large class of writers, goes for “individualism” and “self-assertion.”
The genetic code which holds the life’s innermost mysteries, after many decades of research had left more questions unanswered than answered and we struggle to find the ‘real’ truth as these opposing views with a lot of supporting edifices tell us that we must be unbiased towards finding the truth. Subsequent research has shown that different species `cooperate’ in Nature towards the improvement of the gene pool in each species and that the idea is roughly that a predator species does not compete with the prey, but that the prey species allows the predator to weed out the weaker individuals for an overall improvement of the gene pool. The recent experiment that came out in Nature (that was collaboration between the Universities of Exeter and Bath in the UK, with a group from San Diego State University in the US), challenging our current understanding of evolution showed that biodiversity may evolve where previously thought impossible. Professor Robert Beardmore, from the University of Exeter, said: “Microbiologists have tested this principle by constructing very simple environments in the lab to see what happens after hundreds of generations of bacterial evolution, about 3,000 years in human terms. It had been believed that the genome of only the fittest bacteria would be left, but that wasn’t their finding. The experiments generated lots of unexpected genetic diversity.”
The new research shows the experiments were not anomalies. Professor Laurence Hurst, of the University of Bath, said: “Key to the new understanding is the realization that the amount of energy organisms squeeze out of their food depends on how much food they have. Give them abundant food and they use it inefficiently. When we combine this with the notion that organisms with different food-utilizing strategies are also affected in different ways by genetic mutations, then we discover a new principle, one in which both the fit and the unfit coexist indefinitely.”
My three and half years in the villages of Switzerland had taught me many important lessons of life; the commitment to harmonize human endeavor towards the objectives of the collective rather than the individual and through the principles of mutual aid in solving life’s problems than in the institutions that preach the principles of ‘Winner Takes All’ comes in good stead. There are more ways than one to achieve happiness in human societies and prosperity, but the more long-lasting could also be the ones to be seen in the remote villages and cantons where mutual aid is in concert.
The limited nature of Truth: Scientific dogmas, et al
Karl Popper in his first section of the lecture on Darwin brings out the tension that exists between scientific ‘proclamations’ that walks a thin line between truth and conjecture. He brought the essence of scientific enquiry to the fore, “My position, very briefly, is this. I am on the side of science and of rationality, but I am against those exaggerated claims for science that have sometimes been, rightly, denounced as “scientism”. I am on the side of the search for truth, of intellectual daring in the search for truth; but I am against intellectual arrogance, and especially against the misconceived claim that we have the truth in our pockets, or that we can approach certainty. It is important to realize that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions — about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world.”
It should however be noted that in this same lecture Popper pointed out that Darwin while disproving Paley’s “purposeful design” which could well be explained as the result of chance and of natural selection, “Darwin was most modest and undogmatic in his claims.” We have found this much lack of dogmatism in many of the latter Biologists of our times like the formidable Richard Dawkins, who seemed to be more than blessed with the aura of scientism that Popper so much despised in the same lecture.
Popper explained once again while on Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection and taking cue from Mendelson’s Theory of Heredity that this came very close to being called “an immensely impressive and powerful theory. The claim that it completely explains evolution is of course a bold claim, and very far from being established. All scientific theories are conjectures, even those that have successfully passed many severe and varied tests. The Mendelian underpinning of modern Darwinism has been well tested, and so has the theory of evolution which says that all terrestrial life has evolved from a few primitive unicellular organisms, possibly even from one single organism.
“However, Darwin’s own most important contribution to the theory of evolution, his theory of natural selection, is difficult to test. There are some tests, even some experimental tests; and in some cases, such as the famous phenomenon known as “industrial melanism”, we can observe natural selection happening under our very eyes, as it were. Nevertheless, really severe tests of the theory of natural selection are hard to come by, much more so than tests of otherwise comparable theories in physics or chemistry.
“The fact that the theory of natural selection is difficult to test has led some people, anti-Darwinists and even some great Darwinists, to claim that it is a tautology.”
Popper however later asserts that natural selection is not a tautology, but at the same time it is not provable, although it holds good in so many situations. Popper delves into a very important aspect of the debate on body and mind in the latter part of the lecture that brings out the contradiction that one faces around what the creative mind achieves and whether that is tuned to the basic genetic code or is it an instant random chance event more dictated by the feats of inspiration that is no way possible to codify within genetic parameters.
Here we move into a territory of science where we can only make conjectures and Popper had made one, “My conjecture concerning the origin of mind and the relation of the mind to the body, that is the relation of consciousness to the preceding level of unconscious behavior, is that its usefulness — its survival value — is similar to that of the preceding levels. On every level, making comes before matching; that is, before selecting. The creation of an expectation, of an anticipation, of a perception (which is a hypothesis) precedes its being put to the test.”
I shall go back to Roger Penrose and his book, ‘Shadows of the Mind’, where he deals with this topic at length and he almost sides with the conjecture that the human mind is more than the computational ability that it puts together through its myriad of neurons and other biological means. While computing in computational situations, it develops a superior power that goes beyond computation to be able to distinguish certain signals or trends or data consistencies or inconsistencies that spurs it to make certain choices or decisions that cannot be explained by mere computational logic. This programming of the mind could come from experiential learning or could come without. Short of calling this an enigma, one can at least derive some consolation that what the mind can endure the best of the best computers cannot and therefore the inherent nature of creativity cannot be replicated by any means. Thus Beethoven or Tagore will remain the rarest on earth and never would their creativity be resurrected by any amount of selective programs or genetic experiments or by any remote experimentation of the likes of natural selection. Thus the theory of natural selection, although in its limited form explain many things on the survival and development of life, it could do precious little in explaining the development of the mind or the creativity inherent in it.
Let us go back to the initial question, is Truth limited in nature?
Falsifiable Truth and the limits of scientific logic
We know that in many of the scientific research that has to deal with data, computations and logical reasoning, we cannot avoid the basic principles of scientific logic, which is based on either inductive reasoning or deductive methods or based on the Probabilistic Testing of a Hypothesis.
The core of the problem of inductive reasoning was highlighted by Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature, where he remained skeptical till the very end that induction as a method of reasoning, which itself could not be proved (otherwise it would be a circular argument), had severe limitations as a basis for scientific logic or theories. He started with the explanation of cause and effect and then detailed the role to be played by repetitive instances that is used in induction as follows:
“Suppose two objects to be presented to us, of which the one is the cause and the other the effect; it is plain, that from the simple consideration of one, or both these objects we never shall perceive the tie by which they are united, or be able certainly to pronounce, that there is a connection betwixt them. It is not, therefore, from any one instance, that we arrive at the idea of cause and effect, of a necessary connection of power, of force, of energy, and of efficacy. Did we never see any but particular conjunctions of objects, entirely different from each other, we should never be able to form any such ideas.
“But again; suppose we observe several instances, in which the same objects are always conjoined together, we immediately conceive a connection betwixt them, and begin to draw an inference from one to another. This multiplicity of resembling instances, therefore, constitutes the very essence of power or connection, and is the source from which the idea of it arises. In order, then, to understand the idea of power, we must consider that multiplicity.”
This leads us to the definition of inductive reasoning as ‘inference from particular instances’. This is demonstrated by John Vickers as:
1. a1, a2, …, and are all Fs that are also G.
2. an+1 is also F.
3. an+1 is also G.
I go back to Hume and acknowledge the deep skepticism he had on this process of reasoning and he adequately cautioned us of the wrong interpretation of cause and effect by giving a simple example of heat and pleasure while enumerating his eight postulates of cause and effect; his seventh postulate runs as follows:
“When any object increases or diminishes with the increase or diminution of its cause, it is to be regarded as a compounded effect, derived from the union of the several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. The absence or presence of one part of the cause is here supposed to be always attended with the absence or presence of a proportionable part of the effect. This constant conjunction sufficiently proves, that the one part is the cause of the other. We must, however, beware not to draw such a conclusion from a few experiments. A certain degree of heat gives pleasure; if you diminish that heat, the pleasure diminishes; but it does not follow, that if you augment it beyond a certain degree, the pleasure will likewise augment; for we find that it degenerates into pain.”
So if I apply this in the mathematical form, if. a1, a2, …, and an are specific element of heat and if they combined in the entity of F, and if G is the embodiment of pleasure in a cold surrounding, then every increment in it would raise the pleasure up to a certain point and then revert in the other direction (negative) when that point is exceeded, thus an+1 would never be also G, which is pleasure if the point n is threshold of pleasure.
Thus we come to the most critical observation by Hume in his latter statements, which I have carefully elucidated from his immortal Treatise:
“There is no Algebraist or Mathematician so expert in his science, as to place entire confidence in any truth immediately upon his discovery of it, or regard it as anything, but a mere probability. Every time he runs over his proofs, his confidence increases; but still more by the approbation of his friends; and is raised to its utmost perfection by the universal assent and applauses of the learned world. Now it is evident, that this gradual increase of assurance is nothing but the addition of new probabilities, and is derived from the constant union of causes and effects, according to past experience and observation.
“In all the incidents of life we ought still to preserve our skepticism. If we believe, that fire
warms, or water refreshes, it is only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise. Nay if we are philosophers, it ought only to be upon skeptical principles, and from an inclination, which we feel to the employing ourselves after that manner. Where reason is lively, and mixes itself with some propensity, it ought to be assented to. Where it does not, it never can have any title to operate upon us.”
This skepticism of Hume was more than put to a general scrutiny by the brave Karl Popper, when he brought the concept of “falsifiability”, which brought to the fore the thought that Science is merely a search for Truth, but never an end in itself in declaring that Truth in any way has been reached that is finally cast in stone and cannot be altered in any form. But before I delve into Popper, I would like to summarize some of my personal thoughts on the subject, where I would again eulogize Hume for guiding me to it.
In every observation, we are guided by our senses and our senses are in turn guided by a mind, which is sometimes not under the influence of reason. Our observations are therefore never perfect in their ability to resemble the exactness of what they stand for. It is somewhat like the quantum question that both position and momentum cannot simultaneously be measured; our minds measure or observe to a certain degree of probability, but never as accurately as if it resembled what it had embarked to study. Thus when large numbers of such observations are put to test, there is bound to be variability to the original intent; this probabilistic nature of mind’s ability cannot be ignored and its impact on the final judgment is worth a thought.
This is further compounded by the bias that minds carry, some of this is inherent in the experience that the mind has inculcated and the extent of memory that it can draw its conclusions from; there is after all a limit of memory and therefore the mind is more likely to reject a few observations or instances or experiences simply for want of memory space. This aspect is also likely to have a bearing on the result. Bartley’s immortal book, “The Retreat to Commitment” holds some glaring examples as to the nature of the question of dilemma of ultimate commitment.
The biggest impediment to any free thinking is the ‘belief’ embedded in the mind itself, before any hypothesis is even formed through observation or data gathering. On the contrary some of these beliefs tend to influence the very hypothesis and the gathering of instances or data that would later prove the hypothesis itself. I have found many managers more influenced by their beliefs that they later confirm by selecting data carefully from a random pool.
The predilection of the mind towards certain instances as a preference over other instances is more likely to have a bearing on the result and this holds the biggest drawback for inductive reasoning and thus scientific truth cannot be verified by mere induction; whereas the logic of falsifiability makes us much more comfortable when we deal with testing. The simplest example is the case of the statement:
Man is mortal: This is not falsifiable as we cannot find one person who is not mortal and as we may have millions of examples of people dying to prove that man is mortal but it may not be good enough as there still remained the chance that one could turn out to be living forever, although that probability is extremely low.
Man is immortal: This is easily falsifiable, as a single death would prove this statement wrong.
Popper’s moot point is “The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” While a mathematical statement 2 + 2 = 4 is never falsifiable, it simply gives us a deep insight to the nature of the problem of science that such mathematical truths which can be falsified, like 2+2 = 5, makes us believe with more certainty this statement as opposed to the previous, which cannot be falsified in a more intelligible and scientific footing.
I will now take examples from Economics to show how many of these theories are not falsifiable and therefore must be held with due skepticism as to the nature of their applicability.
Economics: A little humility would take us more than what arrogance has made us progress
I have found humility much in want in the great economic and political thinkers starting from Adam Smith to our current pundits in the likes of Krugman, although I personally admire all of them for their learned and systematic approach, their honesty in portraying their version of truth is beyond doubt.
Economics owes much to the empiricism of Smith, Ricardo and Malthus, although all three of them demonstrated their bias towards examples that they pursued and did not venture to take those that were weak as part of general observations than treat them as special. This tendency to treat differently similar outputs stemming from the same market conditions is a problem that has continued all along to the times of Friedman.
The very benign example that Smith starts with in his Wealth of Nations concerning butchers and extending that as a general gospel of truth to explain what role self-interest plays is a sweeping generalization of what constitutes an economic activity. Or to say that the invisible hand of the market makes things work so that buying and selling could continue unimpeded is another example highlighting the same cause. That these were right examples but only one sided and under specific conditions that may not be replicable in other conditions, could have spared the study of economics to have gone in the direction that Biology had taken post Darwin; the difference lay simply in the humility that the latter demonstrated and the former had much in want. The lack of self-doubt in many of the economists and the presence of the same in the Biologists, had led to sweeping discoveries in the latter. On the contrary Economics has progressed, but much to the derogatory fallouts that the aftermath of deep crises left economies in the lurch of eventual bail-outs at huge cost of the tax-payer. No economist could either predict or change the course of economies when knowledge and theories were in plenty to guide; it seemed that knowledge and theories followed the events to learn from them. The difficulty with Economics is that nothing what is said can be falsifiable, almost like the ancient astrological predictions.
This only proves the need for being humble rather than arrogant, a trait that has become the dominant part of every economist’s staple of virtue. Here we must acknowledge the commitment one has to first demonstrate towards impartiality and absence of bias, and here one has to allude to the fact that economists are all right, but only on the average as I have never found any single average data wrong (every statistic is predicted rightly on the average basis with one economist predicting the highest and the other one the lowest, upper and lower bound neutralizing each other over sample data points). The very role of Statistics in economic forecasting is itself on weaker ground, simply because the samples are never the true representation of the population and when it comes to human interpretation of some of the data, only sky is the limit.
Starting with Say’s law (Supply finds its own demand) to Phillip’s curve on inflation Vs Unemployment, to the more recent Efficient Market Hypothesis, we see the approach of Economists to empirically state what can never be falsified. This approach of sticking to induction, to believability of self-proclaimed gospels by whatever strong or weaker correlation to a series of instances while ignoring those that could pose as potential challenge pervades the institution of learning in this field.
However the very nature of results, of smaller or greater economies, in every area whether micro or macro, leaves us with a sobering thought that it is only through the unbiased approach of humble scrutiny that any further progress can be made. To take Economics to the level of a scientific subject, it is left to the economists and to the display of their inherent behavior as human beings that can subject themselves to the skepticism and to the humility that comes with it.
6th April 2011