Monday, July 22, 2013

Revolt of the Masses. III

Whenever I propose to limit the franchise to a competent minority,  people immediately assume that I wish to restrict the vote to what are commonly considered the "educated" portion of our population: those commonly considered the "elites".  That isn't my intention because it's quite obvious that our ruling class are just as responsible for the decline in civilisation as are the mass-men hordes. In fact, what has been so striking over the last century is just how frequently our "best and brightest" have failed.  Take the GFC.  Out of all the world's published economists only a tiny fraction predicted it. Given its size and systemic origins, the profession's failure to predict it is akin to the science of astronomy failing notice the moon. (Some of the guys on the list made lucky guesses!)

The problem with Economics is that it is hard. Competency in the subject requires a knowledge not just of economics but human nature, culture, psychology,  law, geography and so on. A broad deep knowledge of the subject is a prerequisite and yet this requirement runs counter to the policies of our Universities which encourage specialisation.  Gasset sees the specialist as a typical, but more technically accomplished mass-man.
Specialisation commences precisely at a period which gives to civilised man the title "encyclopaedic." The XIXth Century starts on its course under the direction of beings who lived "encyclopaedically," though their production has already some tinge of specialism. In the following generation, the balance is upset and specialism begins to dislodge integral culture from the individual scientist. When by 1890 a third generation assumes intellectual command in Europe we meet with a type of scientist unparalleled in history. He is one who, out of all that has to be known in order to be a man of judgment, is only acquainted with one science, and even of that one only knows the small corner in which he is an active investigator. He even proclaims it as a virtue that he takes no cognisance of what lies outside the narrow territory specially cultivated by himself, and gives the name of "dilettantism" to any curiosity for the general scheme of knowledge.
I think when Gasset uses the term "man of science" he uses the term to cover all sorts of technical "specialists", not just those connected to the pure sciences.
For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, because he is "a scientist," and "knows" very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line. 

And such in fact is the behaviour of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of-this is the paradox-specialists in those matters. By specialising him, civilisation has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his speciality. The result is that even in this case, representing a maximum of qualification in man--specialisation-and therefore the thing most opposed to the mass-man, the result is that he will behave in almost all spheres of fife as does the unqualified, the mass-man.
Here he pretty much describes Charlton's "clever sillies". Their high IQ seems channeled into one small area, otherwise they resemble the mob. Gasset recognises the subtle hubris that comes to most when they become experts in their fields.  Confident in making pronouncements in their own area of expertise they see no problem in making pronouncements in fields outside it.  In fact, in my own dealings with lots of professionals, it astounding just how ignorant they are of areas outside their own specialisation, and how their own opinions on certain issues echo's that of "Joe Average".  Arts graduates tend to be woeful when it comes to scientific issues and the STEM guys are arts averse.
The most immediate result of this unbalanced specialisation has been that to-day, when there are more "scientists" than ever, there are much less "cultured" men than, for example, about 1750. And the worst is that with these turnspits of science not even the real progress of science itself is assured. For science needs from time to time, as a necessary regulator of its own advance, a labour of reconstitution, and, as 1 have said, this demands an effort towards unification, which grows more and more difficult, involving, as it does, ever-vaster regions of the world of knowledge. Newton was able to found his system of physics without knowing much philosophy, but Einstein needed to saturate himself with Kant and Mach before he could reach his own keen synthesis. Kant and Mach-the names are mere symbols of the enormous mass of philosophic and psychological thought which has influenced Einstein-have served to liberate the mind of the latter and leave the way open for his innovation. 
Gasset recognises that most of our high status professionals are really nothing more than higher skilled technical artisans.  To him, there is a world of difference between being "educated" and being "cultured". For culture demands the big picture, not the narrow specialisation. The reason why  "the centre cannot to hold" is because no one in charge sees how they interrelate.  The men who built European culture--Renaissance Men--were "encyclopaedic"; their inheritors, specialists.

After reading his statement on Einstein, Kant and Mach I followed it up by seeing if Einstein had anything to say about  the matter. He pretty much backs up Gasset's assertion.
I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. (Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)


Aurini said...

Hand a little red ball over to a Mathematician, a Physicist, and an Engineer - ask them the volume.

The Mathematician will measure the radius, multiply by 4/3xpixr3.

The Physicist will dunk it in water, and record the displacement.

The Engineer will pull out his Big Book of Little Red Balls and look up the serial number.

Inane Rambler said...

Great choice of Krugman as the pic.

The worst thing about him is that he's completely dishonest, and totally inconsistent. Yet he's been held up as this groundbreaking economist that knows everything.

People go on and on about how he won the "Nobel Prize in Economics", but 1. That's not even its proper name, and 2. it's presented by the Swedish Central Bank. But any chance him or his supporters get they like to throw this in everyone's face as though he's some sort of visionary scientist.

Dawkins is more of a scientist than this hack.

mdavid said...

SP, Given its size and systemic origins, the profession's failure to predict it is akin to the science of astronomy failing notice the moon. (Some of the guys on the list made lucky guesses!)

This statement is simply wrong.

The economy cannot cannot be predicted with meaningful accuracy, period. Failing to predict it is guaranteed, not a "failure". Like the weather, if you get it right very far out at all, you merely got lucky.

The lack of predictive power on complex systems, even with lots of data and brainpower, has been known by educated people for thousands of years, but Mandelbrot and others recently proved it mathematically. For some reason, this isn't taught much in schools.

A good read on this is Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb explains how predicting the future in economics (and other complex systems) is mathematically impossible no matter how much computing power or data you have.

Taleb's pool table analogy explains: if one knows the location of every ball + the speed & accuracy of the cue ball, a person might predict the second, third and fourth degree movements. But by the 9th movement the gravitational pull of the person shooting alters the trajectory of the ball. So the slightest error in knowledge of initial conditions destroys the prediction very far out. After 56 movements a particle on the outer edge of the universe will effect the trajectory. And economics is much, much more complex than a pool table.

The bottom line is this: There are simply too many factors to consider to make predictions in economics. And we are not even talking about free will, how a changed mood by Warren Buffet or Putin change history. We are merely looking at mechanical systems.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Inane Rambler

My second choice was Dawkins.


Sorry, disagree.

The GFC was not some Black Swan event. The non-Mainstream, particularly the Austrians, saw it coming miles off. It's the economics profession who, in the main, thought that all things were hunky-dory. The Black Swan argument has been a convenient excuse for the economics profession in explaining why they missed the greatest economic comedy since the Depression. The argument implies that no one saw the wreck coming and yet many did.

Those who did see the wreck coming saw it a mile away. Rapidly rising debt, rapidly rising house prices, uncorrelated with any commensurate rise in productivity, negative savings rate. Such data does not allow you to predict the date of the crash but it does allow you to determine that the system is weak and prone to collapse.

Greenspan's comment on not being able to identify a bubble was an unintentional self-indictment of his cognitive limitations. The fact that so many of the profession agreed with him is a self indictment on theirs.

Drew said...

4 substantial posts in a span of 1 week. Who are you and what did do with The Social Pathologist?

Your argument would have been stronger if you used weather systems instead of pool table.
Pool is the typical example used for Newtonian deterministic philosophy of the universe.
Weather is the science discipline that caused the development of chaos theories arising out of a few simple sub systems.

Sticking with the weather example. Even that can be predicted roughly accurately with the right simulation tools. Except modern economics doesn't use chaos theory, and dynamic systems modeling. They are still stuck in the 1930's with overly simplified equilibrium equations.

Go read the meeting minutes of Fed Res from 2008 that were released a few months back. I did, and I can tell you these mainstream economists didn't know which way the wind was blowing even while they were standing outside and watching the tornado touch down right in front of them. They had not a single clue.

Bob Wallace said...

I refer to people like Krugman as "high-IQ idiots."

The Social Pathologist said...

@Bob Wallace

They are indeed hi-IQ idiots. What I like about Gasset, though, is that he describes the mechanism of their idiocy despite their high IQ. Specialisation compartmentalises I.Q.

Guys like Roissy seem to see IQ as the overwhelming determinant of success, yet there appears to be lots of evidence that suggests the high IQ is no protection against outright stupidity. I was perusing the Times Higher Education supplement the other day, looking at the rankings of the world's best universities. The U.S has an inordinate amount of these institutions so you would expect that it, as a country, would be the best run in the world. Germany, for instance, has very few universities which make the top 50 yet, at least from my experience, life in Germany seems a lot better than life in the U.S for the average citizen.


Agreed. The GFC was a result of a whole host of systemic errors in the system. What irks me about the economics profession, is instead of admitting they don't understand the subject, or that their models are wrong, they attribute it (the GFC) as some sort of black swan event.
This explanation has the pernicious effect of both psuedo-plausibly explaining their failure to predict and thus absolving them of any guilt.

September 11 was a black swan event, the subprime crisis wasn't,

asdf said...


The problem is your looking at someone like Krugmen and assuming he wants to get the question correct. In reality he wants to get other people to think he's correct(because of the increase in status). Or even being generous he wants his theories to be correct not because they are correct but because he would prefer a world in which they are correct. There can off course be a crossover here, where people want him to produce theories they like and he does so while convincing himself as well because he would also like them to be true.

Bruce recently described this quite well:

Certainly IQ is a strong determinate of "success" in the modern western mold (money, status, etc) holding other factors constant. Moreover, IQ specialization, whatever its effects on the mind more generally, is correlated with climbing the societal ladder.