Saturday, 20 August 2011

Quack Science

In every era ideology and dogma and superstition prevail.  These take the forms of conventional practice, academic theory, and political protocol.

Intellectual vanity, habit and the politics of power entrench flawed or limited concepts as standard practice.  These may take the form of practices that have usually worked in the past, or that have a result that looks effective at first encounter, or that work some of the time at least.

The themes reoccur in different forms as society evolves; voodoo becomes economics; bloodletting becomes monetary policy the flawed logic is the same but applied to a different task.  Just as with most religious or cultural prohibitions and practices these arise from practical survival strategies or from superstition but rarely from logical thought.  As these mores become entrenched in the belief system their validity becomes unquestioned even as their practicality becomes questionable.

The high priests of the time have varyingly claimed that the earth was flat, the sun orbited the earth or that the earth was created in six days and the dinosaur fossils where there just to tempt man into false thoughts.  These dogmas are protected by the priesthoods with a pathological viciousness perhaps most clearly exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition which managed to roll several dogmas into one grand dogma and used them for all sorts of evil political purposes. 

Even a profession as grounded in science as the medical profession has been marked by similar denials of common sense over the past centuries. Indeed some of the best examples of the power of dogma and vested interest prevailing over commonsense observations occur in this field.  

 Large parts of our entire belief system are invariably wrong due to the limitations of our knowledge.This in itself is reason to always question the common beliefs.

For the past century Economics has been the prevailing dogma. It shares the common attributes of previous dogmas or belief systems in that it attempts to control and explain the present and predict or map the future.  But its theoretical assumptions ensure it is founded in a basic denial of reality.  It has become the language of power and control, replacing the religious dogma and political dogmas of previous centuries.

The agents of power and control use the theoretical constructs of Economics to convert common sense observations into rules about behaviour.  Much of the time this is an effective survival strategy as it is efficient to turn good practice into rote behaviour.  The problem arises when rules become commandments and observation becomes replaced by dogma because then we stop questioning and learning.  

To illustrate the fundamental similarity of economics with previous belief systems it is only necessary to compare the ritual themes in action.  Voodoo is nothing more than reading the signs. A slaughtered goat or chicken is disembowelled and laid out according to ritual and then the “anointed ones” gather around to interpret the signs.  There is no scientific basis for the interpretation, it is just a judgement based on informed opinion and historical observation embedded in ritualised learning.

Each anointed one has a different point of view but as they sit around the dead chicken tugging on their beards and making their prognostications they observe the views of the other anointed ones and the reactions of the surrounding tribe and reach a consensus or an agreed difference in opinion and leave it up mob to interpret their wise sayings. 

The dead chicken provides nothing other than a structured forum for consideration of an issue. 

As with voodoo, economics is a process of ritualised debate based on practical observations but described in the anointed ones’ own special language that the rest of us barely understand.  The specialised language adds complexity not clarity to the debate.  It enables the debate among the anointed ones to proceed without interference from the uninitiated who might otherwise question the soundness of the observations and conclusions subject to discussion. 

Economics is nothing more than a conceptualised disembowelled chicken.

These ritual processes can allow the anointed ones to leap to some fairly daft conclusions as they become more wedded to their rituals than their observations.  The specialised language and the symbology prevents their advice from being vulnerable to widespread derision or critique.

It is reasonable to posit as a general rule the more abstract the language of the discourse the less concrete the substance of debate.  Take some of the more radical social discourses such as post modernist or deconstructionist theory.  These have not moved much beyond a debate on the meaning of the specialist language involved because at their core they possess nothing to discuss other than a few interesting ideas with little relevance to society.  The process of defining the language of the debate becomes more important than the subject of debate.

The participants in these abstract debates need to make the language used particularly impenetrable to ensure that the uninitiated who fund the ongoing discourse do not see it for what it is, an intellectual diversion populated with a bunch of high priests who couldn’t make the grade in a more demanding area of dogmatic thought let alone being out there in the real world doing something useful.

Education is about teaching acceptance of the status quo and compliance with the existing order.  As such it teaches the orthodoxy and that is learning not thinking, it is based on learning not logical thought.  As a result the status quo is not effectively subject to a constant process of challenge and review, just repetition.

Rational rather than logical and conceptual thought dominates our systems.  Rote learning rather than commonsense prevails.  This tends to breed a delusional state in the dogmatists and a resigned state in the rest of the population who adapt their lives to the realities the dogmatists force on them.  The more entrepreneurial then identify the distortions in the social and economic fabric that the dogmas create and exploit them for gain or power.

There is good reason for this human behaviour.  Society can only function if the great majority comply with its rules and practices.   We would all have been lion food a long time ago if most of us sat around pondering the meaning of life.   It is our nature that most of us have to be focussed on the here and now and getting the daily chores done.  It only becomes a problem when the here and now becomes divorced from reality by excessive adherence to dogmatic responses than common sense.

Who do you believe

As a reality check it is useful to compare weather forecasters with economists.  Most of us know a bit about weather.  We understand seasons and the regular progression of good weather after bad.  We can read the signs of oncoming change but none would dare to predict what the weather would be like on a particular day in a month’s time as we know that odds are utterly against us doing anything better than a lucky guess. 

It is also evident that most people have less faith in weather forecasters than in economists if the relative salaries of the two are anything to go by.    This is a classic illustration of the gullibility of the human race.  A weather forecaster is using some of the most advanced technology available to measure systems that abide by the laws of physics.  Even though the weather is hard to predict it is not truly chaotic just highly complex.  Every day the weather follows the same rules as it did the day before and each year it follows the same cycle. 

Economics is the complete opposite of this.  The system being described cannot be measured in anything but the roughest approximation.  It does not follow any physical law but is driven by human sentiment, political circumstance and random environmental influences.  On no two days are these parameters ever the same, the one certainty is that yesterday’s economic environment will never occur again and the next year will bear no resemblance to the last.

As a result of this economists can only be guessers, and the most they can lay claim to is being better informed than the rest of us, though most of us might think they just have a narrower view and less imagination.

Weather forecasters are likely to be happy with being 80% right looking five days ahead and are pleased to be able to predict a rough approximation of the trend one or months into the future.  Meteorologists are dealing with a science of forecasting probabilities.  Economists are dealing with an art of forecasting possibilities.  The more foolish of them treat it as a science the wise as an art.

The principal failure of economics arises from its conversion from art to science.  Where once economics was a philosophical art describing and analysing behaviour patterns in the marketplace it has been turned into a pseudo-science based on study of numbers.  When economics was a study in philosophical thought the leading practitioners where people with a very strong conceptual talents.  

As it is converted to a pseudoscience the practitioners are now people with numerate talents.  The numerate apply rules and, unless blessed with a rare combination of talents are, by nature, intellectually unable to partake of the questioning and the resultant conceptual debates required to keep the “pseudo-science” behind the rules grounded in reality.  As a result they keep describing tomorrow’s possibilities in terms of yesterday’s measurements and dogma.  They are driving into the future looking in the rear view mirror.  As with driving a car in the same manner the deficiencies of this approach are obvious to the bystanders.

As with many areas of intellectual endeavour the acolytes are taught to learn not to think, to remember not to question, to never challenge the rituals, and at the end of their training they possess knowledge but not wisdom.

Each time one of their projections fails they rework their models but like a dog chasing its tail, the task is circuitous.  The justification for the inaccuracy is that the model needs refined.  It doesn’t matter how much the model is refined, it is using yesterday’s data to predict tomorrow’s reality and is attempting the impossible.  This doesn’t matter however as the model has become the purpose not the process of their efforts.

The end result of this is that there is no proper feedback process for testing the assumptions underpinning the current economic orthodoxies.  That this is the case is evident in the fact that most of the orthodoxies do not even conform to the most basic tenets of economic theory.

The weakness of modern economic dogma is compounded by the pluralism arising within its increasing complexity and artificiality.  As more and more “high priests” are produced by the monasteries of economic thought the greater is the detail of the examination and interpretation of the dogma.  Like all faiths, separate schools of thought arise as opinions within the high priesthood polarise.

This leads to the syndrome of the blind men describing an elephant.  Each can only described the bit that he is hanging on to at the time and has no understanding of, and no desire to understand, the other bits.  Economists unfortunately also seem all to be hanging on to the beasts tail.

The worst problem is that economists are that they are the primary factor preventing society from adapting to the system change that is occurring through resource depletion, demographic pressures and the consequences of years of allowing human greed, selfishenss and stupidity to dominate over the finer human attributes.