Home > Main > Scientific thinking about Anti-scientific thoughts

Scientific thinking about Anti-scientific thoughts

May 13, 2011

Parts of this post I recycled from an old post I wrote on another blog.

I love Hayek – well at least a bit. I think some of his explanations of capitalism are just beautiful, and his ideas really helped to defend against communism when it was needed.

But every now and then, I run across stuff like this:

Briefly, we find the curious situation where the Keynesian theory, which is comparatively best confirmed by the statistics because it is the only one which can be tested quantitatively, is nevertheless false. Yet, it is widely accepted only because the explanation earlier regarded as true, and which is still regard as true, cannotby its very nature be tested by statistics.

He is talking about his True Theory of Unemployment at this particular juncture, and it makes me sick. It is not just unscientific, it is anti-scientific. Here he is again, just being really, really anti-scientific.  But before we get into the exact problems with that theory, we need to be clear about the usefulness of an untestable theory.

In most cases, an untestable theory is regarded as unscientific. I am in the Karl Popper camp: For a theory to have any value, it must be falsifiable.

From Wikipedia on Karl Popper:

Logically, no number of positive outcomes at the level of experimental testing can confirm a scientific theory, but a single counterexample is logically decisive: it shows the theory, from which the implication is derived, to be false. Popper’s account of the logical asymmetry between verification and falsifiability lies at the heart of his philosophy of science. It also inspired him to take falsifiability as his criterion of demarcation between what is and is not genuinely scientific: a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it is falsifiable.

Hayek likes to think that logical thought trumps empirical experience and science.  Here is a question for the Austrians: Even if logical thought does trump empirical evidence and science, how would we know? By what criteria could this knowledge be judged?   

Now, I can appreciate the usefulness of being useless as much as the next guy, but in many areas, I am a practical man. If I cannot measure or judge or test something, why would I use it to guide my thinking? It reminds me of Learned Helplessness.

It isn’t just the Austrians.  Here is Tom Hickey on mainstream econ:

My objection to the mainstream is based on their methodology, which is chiefly logical and mathematical rather than scientific. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. It is ideology and the ideology is designed to advance vested interests.

MMT is descriptive of how the monetary system works. It uses SFC modeling based on conventional national accounting identities and reported data. Therefore, the theoretical conclusions it draws are based on empirically derived data as premises and the accounting format as the logical form

While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable. While the logic is fine, the premises are either false, nonsensical, or untestable.

It’s worth saying a few times, because it helps to focus on the problem of mainstream econ.  It isn’t the logic of mainstream econ that’s the problem.  It’s that the assumptions and premises are impossible to reject with any amount of empirical evidence.

So many are untestable and not observable in the real world.  Even if they are reasonable assumptions, it is impossible to advance very far, because we can never reject the idea as being wrong. We can always say “oh there was some mitigating circumstance – the theory is still fine.”  and it seems reasonable.

It’s because the assumptions are unscientific.  They are not falsifiable, so every logical conclusion drawn from these unscientific premises is always true.  It’s an infinite string of 1’s.

Categories: Main
  1. Peter D
    May 13, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    You realize there is a name for that: Not Even Wrong 🙂

    • TC
      May 14, 2011 at 9:40 am

      I’ve used that so many times in my life! lol. I’ve always loved that phrase. Well, now you know the title of the post about the ERR.

  2. Tom Hickey
    May 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Ah to be sure……. and there is an explanation for everything !


    Three Irishmen are sitting in the pub window seat, watching the front door of the brothel over the road.

    The local Methodist pastor appears, and quickly goes inside.

    “Would you look at that!” says the first Irishman.  “Didn’t I always say what a bunch of hypocrites they are!”

    No sooner are the words out of his mouth than a Rabbi appears at the door, knocks, and goes inside.
    “Another one trying to fool everyone with pious preaching and stupid hats!”

    They continue drinking their beer roundly condemning the vicar and the rabbi when they see their ownCatholic priest knock on the door.

    “Ah, now that’s sad,” says the third Irishman. “One of the girls must have died.”  ­­

  3. Tom Hickey
    May 14, 2011 at 8:28 pm



    Richard H. Thaler

    “… So in answer to the current question I am proposing that we now change the usage of the word Aether, using the old spelling, since there is no need for a term that refers to something that does not exist. Instead, I suggest we use that term to describe the role of any free parameter used in a similar way: that is, Aether is the thing that makes my theory work….

    “Often Aetherists (theorists who rely on an Aether variable) think that their use of the Aether concept renders the theory untestable. This belief is often justified during their lifetimes, but then along comes clever empiricists such as Michelson and Morley and last year’s tautology become this year’s example of a wrong theory.

    “Aether variables are extremely common in my own field of economics….”


  4. May 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    The funny thing is, Popper and Hayek were close friends. Hayek read Popper’s wartime ms. The Open Society and Its Enemies, and it was Hayek who used his influence to get it published by Routledge in 1945. Hayek also was influential in getting The Poverty of Historicism published in Economica over a few issues in 1944-45. On the strength of these, Popper, again with Hayek’s recommendation was able to leave New Zealand and get a job at London University where he stayed for the rest of his academic life (with the exception of visiting appointments, of course.)

    Popper and Hayek did not agree on the substance of politics. Hayek, of course, is one of the fathers of modern conservative thought. Popper started out as a Socialist, but later became a believer in mixed economies and incremental social engineering. He was not affiliated with any Party, but certainly leaned toward Labor in the English context.

    In spite of Popper’s disagreements with Hayek over substance, and as you point out, in method, as well, Popper was very reticent about criticizing Hayek in public or in his classes. He never forgot what Hayek did for him, and never applied his well-known critical scalpel on Hayek’s writings.

    I don’t quite agree with you that Popper would view metaphysical notions as wholly without value. He was in no way a logical positivist in reverse with the only difference in outlook being the emphasis on falsifiability rather than verifibility. While he did hold to the idea that the line between Science and other modes of thought lies in the testability of scientific theory, he also very heavily emphasized the role of metaphysics in giving rise to Science and in providing conceptual foundations for it. He thought that metaphysics was important and valuable and Science continues to develop with the assistance of metaphysical notions. If you look at the three volumes in Popper’s Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery, published in the 1980s (The postscript was written in the mainly in the 1950s) and such notables as Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend all had access to it) mainly through the editorial efforts, of W. W. Bartley, III, you will find that all three deal very frequently with the role of metaphysics in science, and Vol III, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics introduces the idea of metaphysical research programmes. Here Popper views scientific research as influenced by underlying, often not fully explicit, metaphysical conceptions and frameworks. In Kuhn’s and Fayerabend’s work, these became paradigms; in Lakatos’s work, they were re-badged as scientific research programmes.

    In any event Popper’s thinking about science goes way beyond simply finding an inconsistency between experimental/observational results and our theories and hypotheses. he’s also very concerned about logical inconsistencies in theories, and the relation between theories and metaphysical research programs. In particular if the coupling between these two is not sufficiently tight, then explanatory problems arise in Science motivating new theories.

    Having said all this, I am not suggesting that testability isn’t critical for a scientific theory. I was one of those who criticized Matt Rognlie for subscribing to the existence of long-term equilibrium real interest rates when he could not test for their existence, and criticized him further for engaging in a ‘religious exercise’. I didn’t do this because I found metaphysics inappropriate in a scientific context, but rather because he was calling MMT creationist and in the next breath basing his argument against it on an untestable metaphysical assumption.

  1. September 30, 2011 at 8:17 am
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