[lbo-talk] posh as fuck

Wojtek S wsoko52 at gmail.com
Fri Dec 9 04:22:17 PST 2011

Ravi: "Despite all the talk of open thinking and what not (Kuhn’s revolutions included), it seems to me the primary purpose of universities is to store ossified information and burn it into the minds of the next generation."

[WS:] Yup. Imre Lakatos called it a "scientific research programme" - which is basically an intellectual-institutional programme of saving holy grails from empirical refutation - contrary to Popper's falsificationism. Or rather, if I recall Lakatos' argument correctly, Popper's falsificationism still works but infrequently. The every day business of knowledge production is the fabrication of "problemshifts" or intellectual devices to save holy grails from empirical falsification, or perhaps postpone such falsification. Lakatos talks about two kinds of problemshifts - one "positive" that consists of fabricating auxiliary theories that explain away exceptions to the holy grail, and the other one "negative" delineating scope conditions that define the potentially damaging empirical evidence as irrelevant.

For example, in economics the holy grail is purpose rationality or a belief that individuals act to maximize their self interest. It delivers the needed conclusion that market is good because it efficiently maximizes self-interest. Yet this holy grail faces empirical refutation in the fact that markets suck in the delivery of a wide range of goodies. A negative problemshift is the concept of public goods (non-rival and non-excludable) - which places certain classes of goods outside the realm of the market and thus saves the holy grail of market efficiency and the holy grail of economic rationality. A positive problemshift is the fabrication of concept of altruism which explains away evidence of people not acting in their economic self-interest. That it is a problemshift rather than a bona fide scientific hypothesis can be illustrated by the circularity of the argument - if they see people maximizing their self-interest, they interpret it as evidence supportive of their rationality assumption, but if they see people not maximizing their self-interest, they interpret it as evidence that they act altruistically. In other words, their so-called "theory" can "explain" the behavior after it happens, but cannot predict it before it happens.

So from that point of view, academia is indeed a bastion of "free and thinking" in defending holy grails from empirical falsifications. No other institution could do as well. Or, as JK Galbraith much more clearly in plain English:

"At the highest levels of social science scholarship, some novelty of formulation or statement is not resisted. On the contrary, considerable store is set by the device of putting an old truth in a new form, and minor heresies are much cherished. The very vigor of minor debate makes it possible to exclude as irrelevant, and without seeming to be unscientific or parochial, any challenge to the framework itself. Moreover, with time and aided by the debate, the accepted ideas become increasingly elaborate. They have a large literature, even a mystique. The defenders are able to say that the challengers of the conventional wisdom have not mastered their intricacies. Indeed, these ideas can be appreciated only by a stable, orthodox and patient man - in brief, by someone who closely resembles the man of conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable. The skeptic is disqualified by his very tendency to go brashly from the old to the new. Were he a sound scholar, he would remain with the conventional wisdom." (_The Affluent Society_)


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