16 April 2007

Surviving in a mediocracy (part 4)

Parts 1 to 4 in full here.

Nonsense on stilts

There are certain academic disciplines, such as applied chemistry or cell biology, where the criterion of generating testable hypotheses still dominates. As for the rest, you can more or less take it as read that they've been infected by left wing ideology and/or what I have called "technicality" — unnecessary (and often totally vacuous) technical complexity. There is something curiously universal about the quality of technicality, so that you often can't tell just from the isolated content whether you are dealing with supposed economics, or maths, or theoretical physics, or philosophy, or even literary theory.

PROPOSITION 3.2 The model has a stationary perfect equilibrium. If the game is symmetric, then there exists a symmetric stationary perfect equilibrium.

PROPOSITION 3.3 Suppose that PA = PB and cA = cB. Then symmetric equilibrium is unique if one of the following conditions holds:
(i) cA(z) = cB(z) = zμ for some μ > 1;
(ii) N ≤ 3 and Assumption C3 holds;
(iii) N ≤ 5, cA = cB is twice continuously differentiable, and c″A = c″B is monotonic non-decreasing.
An organisation called the Post-Autistic Economics Network (PAECON) has formed around a group of 'deviants' who don't want to keep quiet about the fact that economics has become blighted by mathematical gobbledygook. Unfortunately, PAECON have got this issue mixed up with the claim that modern economics is biased in a right wing direction. They seem to believe this because economics tends to focus on markets. I think that's nonsense. It seems to me that the majority of post-war economists have been pretty desperate to find models which would justify intervention, it's just that it hasn't been easy. There's not much that can be proved with economics beyond the perfect competition model, which — unfortunately, from many people's point of view — is supportive of free market philosophy. That is why economists, and other social scientists, got so excited about the Prisoner's Dilemma (which allegedly demonstrates a market failure) and about game theory generally, and why John Nash is a much more prominent character in current economics textbooks than Ronald Coase.

The PAECON problem illustrates the curious fact that, even when it becomes impossible to suppress awareness that something is seriously wrong with some area of academia, the fallout is remarkably limited. Everyone seems to keep on going in pretty much the same old way.

Another area which it has become positively fashionable in some quarters to deride (because it's easy to do so), but where the effect of the derision has been minimal, is postmodernist philosophy. However, a dodgy system ridiculing its own excesses can easily end up being a way to sweep the more endemic problem under the carpet. It can be awfully convenient to identify some useful scapegoats, in order to pretend you're on the side of the critics. (A propaganda device employed by communist regimes, among others.)

The fact that the most prominent critique of postmodern academia, Intellectual Impostures, has come from academia itself is taken by some as a healthy sign. It could equally well be a sign that criticism of academia, even when any (intelligent) fool can see the nonsense for what it is, is now only permitted for those who have received 'training'. (Even so, the authors of Intellectual Impostures were castigated by some reviewers for not sticking to their own area of expertise.) I also find it ironic that the book essentially consisted of two physicists ridiculing the uses to which modern physics has been put by certain philosophers, when what has made this possible is the fact that much modern physics has the quality of gobbledygook to begin with.

A tiny proportion of academics still generate material of appeal to the layman, disguising the fact that the bulk of contemporary research is vacuous. For the most part they do so by (a) rehashing old material (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies), (b) recovering old truths which had become unfashionable (e.g. Steven Pinker), or (c) making assertions which are tendentious to the extent they’re not trivial (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Simon Baron-Cohen, Jared Diamond).

People like me, who don’t want to generate pointless theory, or tedious data supportive of a pro-intervention agenda, or otherwise to reinforce the prevailing ideology, cannot get on in modern academia. Perhaps until recently they could, if they were willing to accept third class status by working in areas or institutions which (career-wise) meant the kiss of death. But even that option has practically disappeared, at least in Britain.

[to be continued]

Excerpt from: Professor Sir John Vickers and Professor Christopher Harris, ‘Racing with uncertainty’, Review of Economic Studies 54 (1987), pp.7-11.

David Thompson — himself a regular critic of fashionable nonsense — mentions this post, and generates some interesting responses.