Thursday, June 7, 2012

Getting past a prejudice against ideas

We're talking about Dierdre McCloskey's book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, starting [here].She has several leading intellectual enemies in the book. One is the majority of her colleagues in economics departments, on methodological grounds. She spent the first part of her career as a hard-core Chicago-school economist, and still remembers the sense of rigor and certainty.

.. few of my social-scientific and even many of my humanistic colleagues will be strongly inclined to disagree, and not merely about my praise for the bourgeoisie. They have the idea, held with passionate idealism, that ideas about ideas are unscientific. For about a century, 1890 to 1980, the ideas of positivism and behaviorism and economism ran the social-scientific show, and many of the older showpeople still adhere to the script we learned together so idealistically as graduate students.'
This is a consistent theme on this blog. It is not just economics. Psychology turned positivistic for half a century, and helped obscure the real problems we faced. But it is very hard to persuade people that they are wrong when their joe or self-respect depend on it. As McCloskey says,

.. opponents of ideas as causal are what the modern Marxists call with a sneer "vulgar" Marxists-wanting passionately to be seen as tough-minded behaviorists, positivists, materialists, quantitative, "evidence based," every single time, regardless of the common sense or the historical evidence. Their methodology, they are quite sure, yields the only scientific truth. It is their identity, which is why they become upset and abusive when some unScientific fool claims that something was caused by ideas.
In fact - and this is a lovely quote -

The great economist Simon Kuznets, notes his student Richard Easterlin, believed that "the `givens' of economics- technology, tastes, and institutions- are the key actors in historical change, and hence most economic theory has, at best, only limited relevance to understanding long-term change." Mokyr and Goldstone and Jacob and Tunzelmann and I and some others would go one step further, to ideas.
How can I disagree when the very name of this blog is Big Sky Ideas? I've always found the history of ideas particularly important. Unexamined ideas can be profoundly damaging. A preference for theorems and lemmas is mostly just an esthetic preference for a particular style of argument. Claims of greater "precision" or "consistency" are usually overdone.


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