July 5, 2013

Demarcation

Comment on 'Dr. X'

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Myth, well told, is still the most convincing way to explain how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. To recall, Zeus was the god of sky and thunder. He oversaw the universe, assigned the various gods their roles, and was known for his erotic escapades. Zeus was emotional, spontaneous and had a lot of trouble with other gods, goddesses and humans. At Prometheus, for example, he was angry for three things: being tricked on sacrifices, stealing fire for man, and for refusing to tell him which of his children would dethrone him. To handle his problems, Zeus regularly fell back to chicanery, force and violence (for details see Wikipedia). Purified from all religious connotations this is the stuff soap-operas are made of until today. Let us call this the gossip model of the world.

The ancient Greeks regarded myths as ‘true stories’ and distinguished them from fables as ‘false stories’. Xenophanes made his contemporaries aware that their ‘true stories’ were what is now called a projection (Popper, 1994, p. 39).

With this, the problem of demarcation arose for the first time. And it was easily solved. The pre-Socratics rejected any mythological explanations of the world because they saw that everything could be explained by the actions of gods which meant on closer inspection: nothing. This methodological insight set science on its track.

Popper, for one, put the demarcation criterion to work. He rejected psychoanalysis because it could explain everything even why it did not work as intended. He rejected Marxism because it could explain post factum why the Revolution happened in a less advanced country instead in the most advanced, which should have happened according to Marx's best-known prediction.

It might seem that the original demarcation is a matter of history. This is not so. When Dawkins refuses to discuss with a creationist, we are back at the fundamental methodological decision that constituted science. Demarcation is a question that reappears continuously in new settings.

Economics faces the following alternative. If it wants to be accepted as a science it has to stick to the rules. The rules are quite simple: material and logical consistency (Klant, 1994, p. 31). No excuses (complexity, Duhem-Quine, etcetera), no pork sausage (inexact, separate). If economics cannot deliver on principle, as Robert Locke maintains, it has to join the Geisteswissenschaften and try its luck with Verstehen (see Drechsler's article). Verstehen, however, cannot lead to much more than to a gossip model of the world. People like this kind of stuff, but that's not science. Everbody can understand why Zeus throws the thunderbolt, but no way leads from there to the lightning rod.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke


References
Klant, J. J. (1994). The Nature of Economic Thought. Aldershot, Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar.
Popper, K. R. (1994). The Myth of the Framework. In Defence of Science and Rationality. London, New York, NY: Routledge.