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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Evaluating a "Foreign" School of Thought

Here's a problem: We each have a limited lifespan. Not one of us is going to be able to learn everything there is to know. So we have to evaluate which things are worth learning and which aren't. But... we have to evaluate which things we are not going to bother learning without having learned them. How in the world are we supposed to do that?

Well, I think what most people do, and certainly what I do, is act kind of like the vultures that fly over my yard in Pennsylvania: we start with a real high level survey of things, and gradually circle in on areas that seem especially promising. We will likely find some nice fresh carcasses, but also some that have been well picked over, as well as occasionally surely missing some areas we really ought to have checked out. Once in a while we will totally screw up, perhaps, say, thinking "There's a nice, pale walrus carcass on that beach!" and flying way out of our range to feast on it, only to realize it was just Murphy sunbathing.

The problem grows more pressing, if not more fundamentally disturbing, when one has looked at an area, decided it would not repay deeper study, and then is challenged by someone who has devoted tons of time to the area as to why you are "neglecting the vital work of Professor Oxhaumphauser?"

"You see," you respond, "I checked out the Professor's most famous book, Night: An Accumulation of Sooty Particles in the Air. I didn't think his theory made much sense, so that was that."

"Ha! That's all you've read! Well, of course, that's actually one of his weaker books, and unless you've read the entire 27-volume collected works, you'll never really understand Oxhaumphauser."

It's hard to know what to say to such a comeback, except, "Well, it's my time, and time is money, and I bet my money on the horse I think will come in."



Bob Murphy has hit this problem with Keynesianism, I think, as we can see in this post. Bob has read Christina Romer, and thinks what she says ought to be a good representative sample of "what Keynesians think." But Lord Keynes comes back and accuses him of gross ignorance, citing a book by one E. Cary Brown from 1956. What's a fellow to do, but keep studying?

From the other side, people who criticize Hayek often hit the same difficulty: "But you are neglecting his 1927 weekly report for The Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research on trade fluctuations in Bohemia!" Poor Brad DeLong!

And, of course, I recently have hit this difficulty regarding Popper and his acolytes. Well, here is my resolution, for what it is worth:

At LSE, in my philosophy of science program, we read more Popper and Hempel than any other two philosophers of science. We also read a number of responses to their work, and I was prompted to read still further. Several of the criticisms of Popper, particularly those by Wesley Salmon and Adolf Grünbaum, to me appeared to have fully undermined Popper's approach.

When I saw that none of the Popperians I spoke to even seem to grasp what the difficulties noted by Grünbaum and Salmon were, quite aside from having any idea how to respond other than to repeat Popperian "boilerplate," I became far more certain I was correct. (In other words, their supposed answers to the problems raised by Salmon and Grünbaum showed clearly that they had not even understood the problem, as if, faced with the problem of catching a lion, their solution was "Catch two lions and let one go!")

And when I saw the paranoia with which some of them handled objections to Popper -- claiming that the philosophy profession despised and disparaged Popper, which I knew to be ridiculous from personal experience -- that pretty much clinched it for me. (Voegelin and Strauss did despise Popper -- but both of them were outsiders to 20th-century philosophy.)

But still, of course, it could be true that if I read just one more book by Popper, I might see he was right after all.  But...

It's my time, and time is money, and I bet my money on the horse I think will come in.

6 comments:

  1. I think Bryan Caplan's idea of an ideological Turing test is a useful way to figure out if you should pay attention to people who are inclined to ignore. Some code monkey needs to do some work on a platform for that kind of thing.

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  2. as if, faced with the problem of catching a lion, their solution was "Catch two lions and let one go!")

    Did you make that up? If so, I will overlook your hurtful comment.

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    Replies
    1. "If so, I will overlook your hurtful comment."

      The one where I implied you were unfamiliar with the work of obscure Keynesians from the 50s?

      I am very sorry about that.

      Delete
  3. While I agree with the general thrust of your post, I have a few nits to pick.

    First, and I think you flirted with this in your post, is that what we choose to learn is hugely dependent on what others we trust instruct or inspire us to learn (and to avoid). Think of the required readings in a class, or the footnotes in a book, or the recommendation of a friend or parent.

    Second, i think your observation of the Lord Keynes-Murphy row is misguided. Murphy was looking for standard, mainstream consensus. Now, I've never heard of E. Cary Brown, but a quick Google Scholar search seems to imply that his biggest claim to fame is the AER article the LK referred to, with about 270 citations. Christina Romer, on the other hand, has at least 7 publications (again, according Google) that have over 300 citations. Surely, then, when one is looking for the "typical" and "serious" view, the view of one of the most well-known, and widely read people in the field should be more likely to be considered than that of an *obscure* (by today's standards) figure?

    Lastly, at least it makes *sense* that if you are going to categorically criticize (or critique) the thinking of a single person, it seems only fair to consider the entire corpus of that individual person's thought on the subject. But, I'll concede that if a person that written 100 books on the subject, and the thinking does not seem to have changed much in 10 or 20 (or maybe even 5) books from across the timeline of the anthology, then it might be sensible for a person to casually claim they "know" the authors position. However, hopefully you'll agree that's not scholarly and academic--which is a completely separate matter altogether, especially since scholars and academicians can be monetarily compensated for their time learning about other things.

    In conclusion: (1) we also learn things other people tell us to learn; (2) when looking for "typical" views, it doesn't make sense to go after "obscure" anything; and finally (3), selective and cursory readings are ok for a casual understand, but probably can't be classified as scholarly or academic.

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  4. "(1) we also learn things other people tell us to learn;"

    Absolutely.

    "(2) when looking for "typical" views, it doesn't make sense to go after "obscure" anything"

    Sure; but then you leave yourself open to the charge "Well, Romer is popular BECAUSE she over-simplified Keynes, while it is Brown that really gets it."

    "However, hopefully you'll agree that's not scholarly and academic..."

    Not to read all 100 of someone's books before saying ANYTHING about him? No, that is flat-out wrong. It would be unscholarly to write a *biography* of the person without reading (almost) everything they wrote; but a paper discussing one aspect of their work? Then you just have to have read what is relevant there. If I am writing a paper on Hayek's business cycle theory, I certainly don't need to have read The Road to Serfdom or The Fatal Conceit, or 80% of what he wrote.

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  5. "Sure; but then you leave yourself open to the charge "Well, Romer is popular BECAUSE she over-simplified Keynes, while it is Brown that really gets it.""

    Maybe, but the original point was determining what is *typical*, not "deep" or "true" or "thorough". Hopefully those things coincide, but they don't necessarily.

    "If I am writing a paper on Hayek's business cycle theory, I certainly don't need to have read The Road to Serfdom or The Fatal Conceit, or 80% of what he wrote."

    Certainly true. But my original point was consulting 100 books dedicated to a single topic. So if you are writing a paper (or a detailed and damning blog post) about Hayek's business cycle theory, and especially his views on the effects of trade, then surely you must consult "his 1927 weekly report for The Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research on trade fluctuations in Bohemia!"

    -Ash

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