Below are a few different articles on the shortcomings and false assumptions of modern economics. What’s central to each of these is the difference between the human sciences and the natural sciences and the consequences of mistaking one for the other. Economics is a social science and many problems arise when we treat it as if, because of its sophisticated mathematical models, that it is like a natural science. The last article is an interesting example of the important of models when trying to understand reality.
Old economics is based on false ‘laws of physics’ – new economics can save us
It is time to ditch the belief that economies obey rigid mechanical rules, which has widened inequality and polluted our planet. Economics is evolving
In the 1870s, a handful of aspiring economists hoped to make economics a science as reputable as physics. Awed by Newton’s insights on the physical laws of motion – laws that so elegantly describe the trajectory of falling apples and orbiting moons – they sought to create an economic theory that matched his legacy.
Their mechanical metaphor sounds authoritative, but it was ill-chosen from the start
Really fascinating Op-Ed that raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature of the field, the relevance of (big) experiments, the role of models and predictions in sciences, as well as the role of government to pay for these types of projects.
This connects to a earlier post about what makes knowledge worth pursuing.
Knowledge Questions: What are the roles of models and predictions in the natural sciences? What should society’s priorities be in promoting advancement in the natural sciences? Who should decide what these priorities should be? How do we decide whether advancements in the natural sciences are worth pursuing? What is the purpose of scientific research?
The trouble is, a “prediction” in particle physics is today little more than guesswork. (In case you were wondering, yes, that’s exactly why I left the field.) In the past 30 years, particle physicists have produced thousands of theories whose mathematics they can design to “predict” pretty much anything. For example, in 2015 when a statistical fluctuation in the L.H.C. data looked like it might be a new particle, physicists produced more than 500 papers in eight months to explain what later turned out to be merely noise. The same has happened many other times for similar fluctuations, demonstrating how worthless those predictions are…
It is correct that some technological developments, like strong magnets, benefit from these particle colliders and that particle physics positively contributes to scientific education in general. These are worthy investments, but if that’s what you want to spend money on, you don’t also need to dig a tunnel.
And there are other avenues to pursue. For example, the astrophysical observations pointing toward dark matter should be explored further; better understanding those observations would help us make more reliable predictions about whether a larger collider can produce the dark matter particle — if it even is a particle.
Particle Physics Is Doing Just Fine
In science, lack of discovery can be just as instructive as discovery.
To read these articles, you’d think that unless particle physics comes home with a golden ticket in the form of a new particle, it shouldn’t come home at all. Or at least, it shouldn’t get a new shot at exploring the universe’s subatomic terrain. But the proposal that particle physicists are essentially setting money on fire comes with an insidious underlying message: that science is about the glory of discovery, rather than the joy of learning about the world. Finding out that there are no particles where we had hoped tells us about the distance between human imagination and the real world. It can operate as a motivation to expand our vision of what the real world is like at scales that are totally unintuitive. Not finding something is just as informative as finding something.
Knowledge Questions: What is the impact that knowledge has on the knower? What are our limitations in acquiring knowledge? What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? What is the role of skepticism in acquiring knowledge?
Below is an article about related issues.
The episode shows how human fallibility can lead scientists astray, even when they appear to be conducting valid experiments. And why not look to magicians for insights into the blind spot in our perceptions? Many of them are experts on ways people can be fooled. As Benvensite showed the world, an advanced degree in something like immunology does not make one immune to self-delusion.
As the famous Richard Feynman quote about science goes: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Knowledge Questions: What separates science from pseudoscience? What are the characteristics of “good” science? To what extent can we expect scientific knowledge to be “certain”?
From his basement in upstate New York, Herbert MacDonell launched modern bloodstain-pattern analysis, persuading judge after judge of its reliability. Then he trained hundreds of others. But what if they’re getting it wrong?
Although the reliability of blood-spatter analysis was never proven or quantified, its steady admission by courts rarely wavered, even as the technique, along with other forensic sciences, began facing increasing scrutiny.
In 2009, a watershed report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on the whole discipline, finding that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous,” and that experts’ opinions were generally “more subjective than scientific.”
Still, judges continued allowing spatter experts to testify.
A second article from Propublica
The FBI Says Its Photo Analysis Is Scientific Evidence. Scientists Disagree.
ProPublica asked leading statisticians and forensic science experts to review methods image examiners have detailed in court transcripts, published articles and presentations. The experts identified numerous instances of examiners overstating the techniques’ scientific precision and said some of their assertions defy logic.
Knowledge Questions: How do we determine the value of knowledge? What is the purpose of producing scientific knowledge? To what extent does scientific knowledge have to have practical application for it to be considered “valuable”?
Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons
Fundamental discoveries don’t always have practical uses, but they have soul-saving applications.
Freedom is the license the roving mind requires to go down any path it chooses and go as far as the paths may lead. This is how fundamental discoveries — a.k.a., “useless knowledge” — are usually made: not so much by hunting for something specific, but by wandering with an interested eye amid the unknown. It’s also how countries attract and cultivate genius — by protecting a space of unlimited intellectual permission, regardless of outcome…
And yet, in being the kind of society that does this kind of thing — that is, the kind that sends probes to the edge of the solar system; underwrites the scientific establishment that knows how to design and deploy these probes; believes in the value of knowledge for its own sake; cultivates habits of truthfulness, openness, collaboration and risk-taking; enlists the public in the experience, and shares the findings with the rest of the world — we also discover the highest use for useless knowledge: Not that it may someday have some life-saving application on earth, though it might, but that it has a soul-saving application in the here and now, reminding us that the human race is not a slave to questions of utility alone.
The question can further be narrowed to ask when governments should fund scientific research.
People who are critical of government spending often find government funded scientific research projects they deem wasteful and publicize them as examples of government waste. Sometimes the discussions are just political theater but the conversation does raise interesting questions. What is the government’s responsibility when it comes to funding science? What criteria should we follow when determining what is worthwhile and what isn’t?
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has on multiple occasions published lists of projects he thought were wasteful but he also published an interesting list of 20 questions he thought should guide our decisions on which projects deserved government spending.
- Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?
- Will the findings advance medicine?
- Will it improve our national defense?
You can download his whole document here.
Science Magazine Responds
Analysis: Senator’s attack on ‘cheerleading’ study obscures government’s role in training scientists
Below is a link from Science magazine addressing the Senator Flake’s approach and assumptions.
“More importantly, perhaps, how NSF did spend the money illustrates an important point often lost in the sometimes highly partisan debates over government research spending: Most of those dollars go to educate the next generation of scientists. These students are trained in many disciplines and work on a wide array of projects—some of which might sound dubious to politicians. After graduation they use their knowledge to bolster the U.S. economy, improve public health, protect the nation from its enemies, and maintain U.S. global leadership in science.”
Planet Money Podcast: Shrimp Fight Club
These issues were discussed on a Planet Money Podcast which was adapted from another podcast Undiscovered.
Knowledge Questions: What are the limitations in our abilities to reason? How do we produce knowledge in the sciences? What impact does knowledge have on the knower?
This article brings together so many interesting issues in TOK and the problems associated with knowledge and its production. There are connections in this article to memory, the scientific method, the replication crisis, reason, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance (think Trump and Theranos, or the advice your career counselor gave you when going into job interviews). At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. Humbling moments too easily can turn into moments of humiliation.