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.

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

9 comments:

Graeme said...

This reminds me of an experience doing my MSc in Finance dissertation.

My supervisor was very keen that I should do an econometrics dissertation like everyone else. I did not want to because I was neither good at, nor liked, econometrics.

I wanted to do a corporate finance dissertation, and was allowed to after being warned that it was too much for an MSc and my idea was more suitable to explore at Phd level.

What I did was recast Jensen and Meckling's model of agency within a firm using slightly different assumptions. It worked pretty well.

I passed the dissertation, so I did not suffer for my choice. Where it reflects what you are talking about was that there was pressure to do be the same as everyone else and crunch data, instead of trying for new ideas.

I have to say, in spite of this, I did think the course and the faculty were pretty good overall.

TDK said...

I find it difficult to agree with you.

You tell us about PAECON which (rightly) criticises the use of mathematical gobbledygook to justify tendacious work but uses this insight to (wrongly) oppose free market thinking.

You tell us about Butterflies and Wheels and Alan Sokal, who (rightly) criticise post Modernism but find fault because such criticism is easy to do or because it originates in academia.

The world does not consist of perfect friends or perfect enemies and one needs to make allies where one finds common cause.

I actually think Post Modernism is the biggest enemy we face. At its core it redefines reality to say that there is no objective truth except that which services a given narrative. This is the core of current left wing thought. It enables so called progressives to concurrently champion feminism, gay rights and Islamism. It is at the core of multi-culturalism (the ideology) and cultural relativism. It valids Noam Chomsky, who seems to have enormous influence in academe. Therefore no criticise can be trivial or obvious.

One of the writers on Butterflys and Wheels is David Thompson, who doesn't seem very left to me. Here's an article of his

Fabian Tassano said...

"there was pressure to do be the same as everyone else and crunch data, instead of trying for new ideas."

I think the pressure not to come up with ideas that might threaten the status quo of the prevailing theoretical paradigms has become a feature of many academic disciplines.

Graeme said...

I was hardly threatening the status quo by seeing how an well known model worked out under slightly different assumptions! I only made one curve linear.

Fabian Tassano said...

“You tell us about PAECON which (rightly) criticises the use of mathematical gobbledygook to justify tendacious work but uses this insight to (wrongly) oppose free market thinking.”

What I have against PAECON is that they see the source of the problem as right wing bias. Ergo, the solution is supposed to be: more emphasis on social issues. They see a link between pro-market bias and mathematicisation where I see none.

“You tell us about Butterflies and Wheels and Alan Sokal ... but find fault because such criticism is easy to do or because it originates in academia.”

I’m all in favour of criticising postmodernism a la B&W. (I'm indebted to Ophelia Benson for a couple of juicy po-mo quotations used in my book.) However, there’s a risk that, by highlighting the obvious minority absurdities, we miss the bigger issue. It isn’t just postmodern philosophy that’s the problem, in my opinion, it’s academic philosophy in general.

A propos "the need to make allies", we invited Ophelia and Jeremy of B&W to the book launch party, and sent them a review copy, but never heard from them.

Ophelia said...

Er - did you? Invite us to the launch party? And never hear from us (from me)? I'm terribly sorry! I don't find the email message - perhaps I never got it? I'm not in the UK, so couldn't have gone to the launch if I had got it, but I would have answered (unless I accidentally overlooked it). I did get the book; have been meaning to say something about it; will try to do that when time permits.

Anyway sorry about rude silence, it wasn't intentional, was a matter of either non-receipt of message or accidental oversight in press of deadlines and other such obscuring matter.

Fabian Tassano said...

Well, we sent an invite to Jeremy at the email address given on B&W, and asked him to convey the invitation to you as well (if you happened to be in the UK). No worries.

A mention of the book on B&W would be great.

james higham said...

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'.

Good comment. As one who is nominally a 'professor', I see much of this going on.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your criticisms of academia. Criticizing it is easy, in a way, but not enough people are doing it.