February 26, 2016

Postmodernism — the philosophy of scientific write-offs

Comment on Robert Locke on ‘The problem of postmodernism in American economics: a historian’s perspective’


Science is about true/false and it is decisive to determine the one or the other with the highest possible certainty. Vague propositions/theories are, to begin with, scientifically worthless: “Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong.” (Feynman, 1992, p. 158)

And exactly this is the reason why vague theories are so popular among non-scientists in general and economists in particular. As the Keynesians say: “it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong!” (Davidson, 1984, p. 574)

Economists know very well that economics is still at the level of storytelling and that it does not satisfy well-defined scientific criteria: “Economics is a strange sort of discipline. The booby traps I mentioned often make it sound as it is all just a matter of opinion. That is not so. Economics is not a Science with a capital S. It lacks the experimental method as a way of testing hypotheses. . . . There are always differences of opinion at the cutting edge of a science, . . . . But they last longer in economics . . . and there are reasons for that. As already mentioned, rival theories cannot be put to an experimental test. All there is to observe is history, and history does not conduct experiments: too many things are always happening at once. The inferences that can be made from history are always uncertain, always disputable, . . . You can’t even count on a long and undisturbed run of history, because the ‘laws’ of behavior change and evolve. Excuses, excuses. But the point is not to provide excuses.” (Solow, 1998, pp. x-xi)

What holds for economics, holds for the so-called social sciences a fortiori. It is, therefore, no surprise that postmodernism thrives yonder. The natural habitat of all scientific write-offs is the pluralistic no man's land between true and false where “nothing is clear and everything is possible.” (Keynes, 1973, p. 292)

In this no man’s land nobody can be refuted and this is quite fine for all who have nothing to offer but proto-scientific garbage yet claim to have an explanation for everything: “By having a vague theory it is possible to get either result. ... It is usually said when this is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can’t be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it.” (Feynman, 1992, p. 159)

For all who know nothing but feel the urge to say something, postmodernism is the philosophical outfit of choice.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Davidson, P. (1984). Reviving Keynes’s Revolution. Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, 6(4): 561–575. URL
Feynman, R. P. (1992). The Character of Physical Law. London: Penguin.
Keynes, J. M. (1973). The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Vol. VII. London, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Solow, R. M. (1998). Foreword, volume William Breit and Roger L. Ranson: The Academic Scribblers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 3rd edition.

Immediately preceding How to creatively destruct Orthodoxy.


REPLY  to Ken Zimmerman on Feb 28

You write: “Science is about observing first. Then theorizing (if useful) can set up testing of what we think we have observed.”

(i) With regard to empiricism, you are light years behind the curve. For details see Economics, too, has been almost ruined by the bigots of common sense.

(ii) About how science works I have given this quote in the preceding post above: “Research is in fact a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant, 1994, p. 31)

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