These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

Guala’s “Philosophical Arrogance” in Science

In the past, I have been criticized for being uncharitable to philosophers, but I contend that this might whitewash what is often my point: so long as we aim to use language to convey facts, the language that we choose seems to bear importance.

To help illustrate my point, let us consider something said by Guala, on pg. 607:

“The correct reading is that deductive logic is an insufficient tool for scientific inference, and hence we need to complement it by means of a theory of induction. The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result. Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle. What we need is an explication of why some such inferences are considered more warranted than others. If, as pointed out by Duhem and Quine, deductive logic is insufficient, this must be a task for a theory of induction.”

This quote gives several examples of exactly what I mean. Guala starts by telling us——perhaps from his Ivory Tower, smoking a wide cigar, maybe wearing a platinum monocle (or thick glasses to deal with what might be an extreme case of myopia)——what the “correct” way is to read the Duhem-Quine problem. Well, maybe he is correct, but he sure seems confident! Is Guala privy to superior information or superior logic to that of Hume, Popper, and others? Despite what seems to be a respectable, albeit divergent to my own, opinion, I find this issue to be important. If we treat the concept of knowledge as though we can assert that we know that we know things, and if we allow this to be reflected in our language, then I suppose that we risk poisoning the well. What do I mean by that?

If we do not always have in mind that we may be wrong, it could be easy to be confused about what can be known or what is known. This seems to have led to many disasters. Firemaster 550, leaded gas, asbestos, tobacco, marijuana, the shape of the Earth come to mind as problematic cases of having overstated our knowledge. Some cases have led to mass destruction.

Later in the same line about Guala’s “correct” reading, he tells us that we need to use “a theory of induction” to make up for the Duhem-Quine problem. We have gone to great length to describe problems with induction, so although Guala seems, throughout the paper, to treat induction as valid, I find it unnecessary to rehash now obvious points.

The next sentence is more interesting: “The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result.” I think it is important to recognize that it seems that we probably do know some things, but it seems that we cannot be certain about that, and it seems even less likely that we can be certain about exactly what it is that we know, so Guala’s point only seems to be important insofar as we can say that there is probably a good reason to do science: within some margin of error, we are probably sometimes correct.

Next, Guala, out of concern for validating statements that seem impossible to make, seems to aim for tragic irony. He says, “Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle.” That scientists draw inferences does not seem to present evidence that they are right to draw such inferences. Perhaps what he means is that it seems that science probably sometimes works, and sometimes, scientists make these sloppy inferences, so maybe the sloppy inferences happen to sometimes work, and that validates the inference-making process. If this is his point, I find it extremely problematic for reasons that I have stated and that I will further develop, not to mention that it seems illogical.

“Arrogance” is a term to describe people who think that they are more skillful or important than they are, correct? I argue that we might say that someone would be arrogant if they assumed that they were correct when they were not. Here, Guala seems to be gaslighting by projection. What I mean is that he seems to intend to get the cautious, prudent skeptic to doubt their wisdom by asserting that they overstate their case, but this seems rife with contradiction. It is as though he is saying that he knows that people can know things and that he and others can know when they know things and that people who say otherwise are not only wrong; they must have a defect to even question Guala’s position. It seems silly, but I will step away from my purely defensive posture now.

The rest of the quote seems to be more of the same (arrogant) overstatement of Guala’s position, so I will desist from breaking all of it down. However, to speak more to my point, I do not think that the most important problems in these texts are always the content of what is being said. It is my view that the presentation plays a key role in the shaping of science and of the culture in which science (or any other human phenomenon) takes place.

Guala seems to gloss over problems and oversimplify ideas to the point of vanquishing contingency. This kind of approach is reflective of problems I have been bringing up all semester. It is not that the content is so objectionable; it is that the presentation normalizes faulty thinking. I would prefer that someone use a socially responsible form to present a bad idea than to use a reckless form to present the right idea. At least in this case, there is the virtue of reinforcing a culture that would seem better equipped to deal with the complications of an elite few producing science. If we constantly state things as absolute facts, myriad problems seem to arise.

On pg. 609, Guala states:

“In a mediating model theoretical principles are combined with substantive information from the real world, to create a tool that can be used to investigate both realms: the theoretical realm by deriving interesting implications that were not obvious from an examination of the theory itself, and the real world by deriving testable predictions about observable phenomena.”

Is this not highly contingent? This week’s other reading, from Nelson, is far more palatable for me, much as most of the reading this semester has been. He seems more interested in acknowledging the apparent contingency in what is being stated.

If we want to prevent tragic mistakes and injustices, it seems wise to assume that we cannot be completely sure of anything. Guala’s absolute statements remind me of Paul Mccartney’s Beatles’ tune: “Here, There, and Everywhere.” I am sure that I will probably eventually make up the sleep I have been losing after having read Guala’

Economists as Incidental Ethicists

I want to argue that economics, perhaps unwittingly, makes moral claims. What, then, could I mean by “moral claim?” When contemplating possible behaviors, we consider that which seems “good,” “right,” and “natural,” among other considerations. Economics often seems to tell us what we should value and why, even if this is not economics’s true aim. Wilber’s article helps to outline much of this, but I believe that he makes some mistakes, and I aim to clarify what I find to be the most compelling points.

I will start with what I think is a minor point. On pg. 138, Wilber refers to Kuhn’s position, which says that we cannot be objective because our sense of the world relies on theoretical understandings. I think that this is an important point, but Kuhn’s framework seems a bit abstract. I am inclined to take a position that compares our sense observation to a distorted image of the world. I think it is important to recognize that value judgments seem to be necessary in order to make any sense of the world. We do not wander aimlessly through life without common sense of values. As such, economists, just as everyone else, have human aims in mind, whether they are always privy to this fact or not. To this point, Wilber alludes to Blaug’s conception of how some of this works in economics.

On pg. 139, Wilber refers to Blaug: “Blaug concedes that both ‘factual’, and ‘moral’ arguments rest ‘at bottom’ ‘on certain definite techniques of persuasion, which in turn depend for their effectiveness on shared values of one kind or another’ (Blaug, 1992: 115)” If there is an objective truth, humans might be convinced that they know what it is, but there does not seem to be a sufficient means of verifying it. To some degree, we seem to rely on faith. Moreover, and to Smith’s point that Wilber alludes to just below his quote from Blaug (and as I have argued in previous papers), humans seem to agree on a number of moral questions, despite that the positions required by these moral stances often require disregard for what would appear to be the most self-interested outcome.

Later, in Wilber’s section on ethical outcomes, I would argue that he makes some mistakes but that his overall message is correct: economics seems to take a moralistic position despite not fully accounting for moral considerations. The moral claim in economics may come in somewhat unfamiliar terms, but indeed, I would argue that many economists put so much faith in the market and in economics understandings that they often put these above moral considerations that come from other sources: “Markets don’t lie,” “People have insatiable wants,” and “Competition is good” are often taken as prescriptions for behavior, regardless of whether this is the willful intent of economists. Wilber may oversimplify some of his examples (I would argue that he seems to), but if he means to point out that common thinking in economics sometimes makes inflexible claims that contradict our shared moral codes (I would argue that he seems to), then it seems that he is right to say so. Some people may not find the ethical stances of economics to be important, but they can inform that which seems to be most important to us: health and happiness.

I find important Wilber’s point, on pg. 139, about social trust. If we observe countries with greater social trust (as in the Scandinavian countries and Japan), they tend to be (if we believe the research) more egalitarian, more altruistic, and healthier than countries with lower social trust. Happier people are generally found to be healthier, although there could be exceptions to that. What could be more important to economic actors than health and happiness? Indeed, the notion that self-interest is people’s main driver seems too simple. If one were to assert that self-interest were more important to people than altruism is, we could get into a long discussion on where self-interest begins and where altruism ends; what seems clear is that people often find it important to consider others. An argument could also be made that, to some point, greater altruism improves health and happiness.

Near to Wilber’s point on pg. 139, if we look at the Norwegian case, their society seems to depend a good deal on social trust. This social trust seems to help the economy and Norway’s institutions to run efficiently. In fact, the efficiency of Norway’s institutions seems to help to create social trust, which appears to improve conditions overall for Norwegians. To some degree, there appears to be cyclicality. Perhaps cultivating social trust would be advisable to all communities, and perhaps John Neville Keynes could help in that.

I like John Neville Keynes’s idea, referred to on pg. 138 of Wilber, of separating economics three ways. As things stand, all economists seem to be charged with practicing positive economics. As such, if someone who does not practice positive economics aims to use economists’ findings, they are subject to scrutiny; nevermind that economists are a self-selected group who necessarily mostly buy into certain assumptions that the rest of society might not. If we undermine those outside economics’s small, self-selected circle who criticize economics methods, we narrow the narrative on the value of contemporary economics. It may be that economists are, in some ways, the experts on what economists do, but doctors’ methods are refined by public health experts and new methods are developed by scientists and technologists, just as there are externally formed regulations that govern auto mechanics, and engineers and new technologies determine emerging techniques. Why should economics be so different?

Surely, it is not the case that only economists can figure out what economists do, just as expert observers, for various reasons, explain how doctors and auto mechanics perform their work. It is important that outside experts do so. It allows for considerations of ethics, best practices, and broad implications from the kinds of work that they do, allowing them to be impartial in their analyses. If we can take good care to elucidate economists’ practices, whatever work economists do that informs our behaviors might fully consider that which is best for people.

Mr. Wilby

James opened the door to greet Thomas Wilby. James needed help and had gone to his local Priest in order to try and get an answer. Father Thomas had called “a few Parishioners” and had Mr. Wilby suggested to him.

As Mr. Wilby’s appearance materialized in James’s mind, white stripes of reflected light shone off the black patent leather shoes as he stepped into the room. Mr. Wilby’s face exposed nothing worthy of note.

“Hi, there. Mr. Wilby, right?”


“Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you.”

Mr. Wilby’s thin lips barely moved. His voice was like store-brand orange juice pouring into the room, neither thick nor thin, neither sweet nor bitter. One could easily forget every feature of Mr. Wilby. His eyes were small and round, like those of a rat, but they were so dark that one couldn’t find the pupils. He wore a tan trenchcoat over his tailored suit. He had a medium build.

Each day, Mr. Wilby went to the local coffeeshop and ordered a tall breve. The baristas there secretly called him “The Accountant.” He didn’t say “Thank you.” He didn’t say “Hello” or “Goodbye.”

“Here it is. This is the room,” James said. He waited for a response, but the man just stared into the room. James thought of turning on the light, but he just stood there with the man, instead, doing nothing, waiting.

Mr. Wilby’s face was stiff and thick, as he scanned the room. The black, withering vine, which crawled from the powder blue antique painted lamp, down the cracking, ancient plaster, disappeared into a mauve electrical socket. The lamp was older than the 1960s suburban home. In the corner, was an old color television set. It looked soft and peppered, thanks to a network of dust, cobwebs, and old, dried out dead insects.

Mr. Wilby had noted that it was a Craftsman home, like a lot of homes on the block. It’d probably been built between 1964 and 1966. The outside was painted hunter green with cream-colored columns. It wasn’t yet falling apart, like some homes in other parts of the city, but it wasn’t as well maintained as most of the houses on its block. The bronze number plate on the front of the house had turned brown over the years, and it was now hard to make out the 206 it was meant to convey.

Mr. Wilby had walked up to the front entry at a moderate pace, and he took in the rows of hedges, the wooden front porch swing on the wooden porch. It had probably been a cute house at some point. The doorbell worked well, thought it made no difference to Mr. Wilby, except that he didn’t have to swing open the screen door in order to knock.

Mr. Wilby observed the pair of matching blue recliners, with the zig-zag lighter and darker material forming the pattern on the chairs’ upholstery. He crouched down and watched the burgundy leather briefcase leave his black leather gloves to land on the floor, before he opened the briefcase.

Humanistic Realism in Science: A Defense of the Irrational

“Our motives and even our purely scientific ideals, including the ideal of a disinterested search for truth, are deeply anchored in extra-scientific and, in part, in religious evaluations. Thus the ‘objective’ or the ‘value-free’ scientist is hardly the ideal scientist. Without passion we can achieve nothing – certainly not in pure science. The phrase ‘the passion for the truth’ is no mere metaphor.” – Karl Popper, “The Logic of the Social Sciences” (p. 97)

“And thus in the last analysis Economics does depend, if not for its existence, at least for its significance, on an ultimate valuation – the affirmation that rationality and the ability to choose with knowledge is desirable. If irrationality, if the surrender to the blind force of external stimuli and uncoordinated impulse at every moment is a good to be preferred above all others, then it is true the raison d’être of Economics disappears. . .The revolt against reason is essentially a revolt against life itself.” – Lionel Robbins, The Nature and Significance of Economic Science (pp. 157-158)


Karl Popper and Lionel Robbins want science to be very sciencey. Science, in their view, should be about cold calculations of what the world around us is. It would seem that an objective view of the world could help us to make good decisions.

However, I do not believe that any objective view of anything can be grasped by humans; I do not believe that humans are rational in any meaningful way (except to say that humans can sometimes be more rational than some humans sometimes are); and I believe that the distinction between the positive and the normative is basically a false one. I will explain all of this throughout this paper.

Essentially, Popper defines science as those behaviors that test theories. Scientific theories, in Popper’s view, are those that are falsifiable, so theories that do not seem to be at all falsifiable do not qualify as science. According to Popper, behaviors that do not aim to test, for the sake of falsification, are not scientific.

Robbins defines economic science as that which positively describes behaviors that result from scarcity. In Robbins’s view, economic science should concern itself only with providing an account of any such behavior. His view of science, here, is to quantify the relevant information and do nothing more, i.e. economic science is a positive, as opposed to a normative, endeavor.

What they seem to share is their Humean devotion to separating the normative from the positive. Robbins is more explicit on the subject, while I believe Popper’s position depends on some implication. When Popper points out cases of pseudoscience (Freud, Marx), what Popper seems to be taking issue with is the advocacy for theories in spite of the empirical realities that they face. These pseudosciences seem to be interested in defending their theories out of normative concerns instead of being interested in allowing falsification to lead us to better theories. Positive science may be brutal, but perhaps we must simply allow it to run its course.

I think that Popper would agree that science, being purely about falsifying theories, is to be kept separate from policy decisions and other normative concerns, even if those normative questions can use science to help them make their decisions. Pseudoscience is the exceptional case. Pseudoscience can run into problems because pseudoscience often allows the normative to corrupt concerns for the positive. Robbins seems to be a bit clearer on the subject: positive economics does not deal with normative questions, except to provide data with which to make decisions.

In the quote by Robbins, using a logic that seems to be falling more and more out of fashion, he rationalizes the importance of economics as an academic field. It seems that academia is growing increasingly sensitive to the lived experiences of various people, especially the experiences of those among historically underrepresented and misrepresented groups, but Robbins is from an earlier time. Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking has put a good deal of focus on the positive virtues of rationality, but as we have learned more about the possible dangers that can come from ignoring the irrational, along with the virtues of our cognitive processes that are not consciously performed, academia seems to have largely shifted toward greater respect for our irrational selves. For this reason and others, what Robbins said may strike at least some of us as problematic.

Robbins may have defined as rational any act which helps us to achieve our aims, but a look at this definition finds problems. If we act in a way that is incidentally helpful to us, is that rational? For an extreme example, if someone attempts suicide, only to become famous in doing so, leading them to incredible wealth and to getting all the mental health care that they need, and if this results in their happiness and improved health, is that rational or irrational? Someone might argue that the definition, then, would be improved by having it speak to intentionality.

Rationality is often viewed as being a conscious process — one that speaks to people’s intentions. But humans do many things that solve immediate problems and ignore more lasting ones. Often, immediate problems are not as important as more lasting problems, but we often sacrifice the long-term for the short-term, anyway. In this way, people often cause predictable problems by not fully considering the consequences of what they do. That is to say that they are not always fully intentional. To that point, it is also true that we may misunderstand problems or misunderstand our broader situations. This can come from distortions that arise from psychological traumas, socializations, and other effects on our brains that alter our judgements. This all speaks to part of the very problem in defining “rational.”

The way the word “rational” is often used takes Robbins’s definition and accounts for a good deal more. We could argue over what Robbins means by “uncoordinated impulse,” but I do not think it would do any good. Simply, no creature could survive were its thoughts and actions uncoordinated. Any distinction between rational and irrational needs for “rationality” to incorporate something more than the fact that the actions coordinate and assist in survival. Otherwise, the distinction is arbitrary, as such a conception of irrationality essentially ensures death, and thus, no rationality or irrationality. This irrationality does not occur by virtue of the fact that it ensures its own demise. Therefore, such a distinction is false in that one exists and the other does not. If “rational” is to be a word, it must mean more than what Robbins suggests.

The interesting point, then, is that we can assume that Robbins submits his argument to admit that there actually is an irrational basis for economics: the value judgement that allows us to determine that rationality is good. Of course Robbins contradicts himself here, but I sense that he is basically admitting as much and that he is okay with it.

The problem appears significant, though. The decision to value rationality is necessarily an irrational one. What makes anything better than anything else? We might presume that it is simply what has been evolutionarily advantageous to us, and in some senses, logical processes seem to have served us well.

If we can tentatively accept that rationality should be defined as intentional thought, and if we can believe in any science at all, then humans are mostly irrational. Prefrontal (or meta-) cognition seems to make up very little of what we do and this kind of thinking is what we might think of as being rational. Popper’s rationality principle faces similar issues to Robbins’s definition of rationality.

The quote from Popper suggests an understanding of something that seems clear to me: there is no reason to test anything at all if the results are not important to us, and such import relies on irrational valuations. Humans basically agree on the most fundamental moral questions: violence is wrong, theft is wrong, dishonesty is wrong, playing dubstep in public is wrong, etc., but why? What makes violence, theft, or dishonesty (or dubstep) wrong? Frankly, I can see two ways to view moral codes upon which we universally agree: 1) we simply feel it; 2) it can be explained as that which has most effectively led to the survival of humans.

Essentially, at least some of our universal sense of morality — that is, that to which we more surely seem to agree — seems to be a function of pro-social, and otherwise adaptive, behavioral patternings. These ethical matters may become complicated based on a number of factors, but we seem to have evolved in such a way as to instinctively agree on some questions of how we should behave.

Humans generally have common goals and desires, including that we should try to help one another survive and that we should try to help one another obtain what is needed in order to survive. Our happinesses or unhappinesses can have serious implications on our own individual survivals, and generally, we instinctively tend to aim to be happy and to help one another be happy as a means of our own survivals.

I believe that Popper’s quote speaks to this understanding. We recognize common goals and attitudes, so we work toward achieving those things. There must be things that motivate us to do science, and if we did not agree on what many of those things were, then I do not believe that science would get done, especially not in the highly effective ways it often seems to get done.

The fact that some things motivate us necessarily requires that we make distinctions; otherwise, we would simply wander around doing random things at random times in random ways. However, and to repeat, it seems that these motivations could only ever be based on irrational value judgements. To whatever degree humans can be “rational,” it is likely only: 1) in relation to other human and non-human beings; 2) in terms of fulfilling irrational desires, which is what Robbins’s conception of economics speaks to.

This seems to be the basic problem that Popper and Robbins share here. They both argue that something irrational must drive scientific thinking, but they both seem to prefer a hard line between positive and normative concerns. These thoughts seem incongruous. Positive science aims to describe what the world is, and if we are to distinguish between positive and normative, then it seems reasonable enough that we should be able to do so along the lines of whether the statement or question in question is or is not imbued with irrational thought matter. Positive science is that which sees the world clearly with no concern for anything other than the visible truth. Normative science — or art, if you prefer — concerns itself with irrational human ideals. This brings up several possible problems that I can see.

First, if irrational concerns motivate our scientific endeavors, then we are likely to only ever conduct scientific behaviors that reflect irrational concerns. How do we make a positive account of the world if we limit our scope? This may seem like a minor point, but the kinds of problems that science aims to solve are often complicated ones. If we systematically limit our understanding of the world, then we are likely to miss a lot of answers and to misunderstand a good deal of the world. Here, normative concerns inform the methodology of positive science as to distort the positive scientific picture in particular ways.

This concern can lead to asymmetrical effects, in terms of whom it affects and how. So long as scientists need be motivated by irrational concerns, scientists must be driven by the concerns that scientists or funders have, rather than the concerns that all humans have. This can make a difference because some kinds of people may be over — or underrepresented among the scientific community. We might not be surprised if solutions arrived at through science might be more helpful to wealthy, Western, white, male people, if they make up a greater proportion of scientists or funders than do non-wealthy, non-Western, non-white, non-male people. It is likely true that relevant questions go unasked by scientists and this can be quite problematic. In this case, the normative concerns of scientists are not necessarily consistent with the normative concerns of non-scientists.

Science is not a singular, fixed, transparent, static, easily assessed thing. I bring this up because scientific processes can be vulnerable to criticism. Some experiments do not work and theories generally run into problems. We do not necessarily have a means which allows us to make the most useful choice in deciding how to resolve these things. There are longstanding practices in which we are fairly confident and there are cutting edge practices that might be riskier. When trying to solve reasonable scientific questions, there may be scientific endeavors that produce results that depend on operational choices. Their resolutions can be arbitrary and can be vulnerable to personal biases. The ways by which we conduct science rely on choices and not all of those choices need be the most rational choices, so here, normative concerns affect positive outcomes. But even at the point of interpreting findings, there could be problems.

When reporting research, there is often an interpretive phase of what we might describe as the “positive scientific” findings. In my view, this phase can be crucial. Even if the person reading the interpretation is an expert in the field, they may be affected by the interpretation given by the interpreter. For those who are not relevant experts, they would seem to be subject to even greater influence by the interpretation given. The interpretation is both important and sensitive. If we all have irrational concerns, then we can expect that, outside the view of our conscious minds, our irrational concerns are likely to affect much of what we do. In fact, this is basically what the term “bias” means, does it not? Here, the normative concerns of the interpreter of the data affect the understanding of positive results, possibly leading to differences in how future positive scientific endeavors are undertaken.

The reporting of scientific findings can have implications for how we behave. In class, we have talked about the commodity options market, and we have talked about Sorosian reflexivity. In science, we could think of clear, simple examples, as in when scientists tell us what makes us healthy and happy. If scientists find that exercise, meditation, or undertaking the Communist Revolution™ makes us healthiest and/or happiest, then it would seem wise to do those things. In such a case, it would seem clear that the positive becomes the normative. If a scientist tells us that eating meat causes global warming that will eventually kill us, it would be wise to stop eating as much meat; there is here a blurring of lines. Why would the scientist choose to study whether or not meat production causes global warming? And do the findings not tell me what I should do?

In the purest sense, scientific findings do not always explicitly dictate suggested behaviors, but clearly, the subject matter is chosen with irrational human concerns in mind; simply, the whole point of the scientific endeavor is often to suggest human behaviors. Other cases are less clear on the matter, but still, I would argue that the problem tends to persist.

If we think of a less clear example, it may help to better illustrate how problematic the distinction between positive and normative can be. If someone were to study some basic question in chemistry or astrophysics, each of these still can tell us a good deal about how humans should behave, if we can assume that humans mean to optimize their health and happiness. How chemicals are composed or how they react with one another can be very useful information for humans. How stars behave could also have a dramatic impact on the decisions that humans make.

With that in mind, is there ever really a distinction between positive and normative? Why learn about the world? We have to have reasons for doing what we do, but contrary to what the word “reason” might imply, this word very often speaks to feelings, evolutionary impulses, irrational motivations.

In this way, perhaps it is a bit ironic that earlier philosophers referred to the normative as “art.” After all, when scientists do their work for the least normative reasons, it may be due to some aesthetic concerns: “I find Math’s potential elegance exciting,” “I chose marine biology because fish are so beautiful,” etc.

Moreover, the more we learn about the world, the more we think about the implications of those things. It is hard to imagine a scientific question that would not tell us something about how we might behave. Perhaps this is at least partly because the questions we tend to ask can also tell us about who we are and what is important to us. To combine this point about the blurry line that distinguishes positive from normative with the point I made earlier about who scientists are, if our understanding of what makes humans healthiest is influenced by the biases of scientists and/or funders, then could we perhaps create conditions that would make happiest and healthiest the groups from which scientists and/or funders come and not necessarily all humans? I see this as potentially a big problem, and in this light, the question of why the treatments of some diseases and not others, and whom those diseases affect, takes on new potential meaning.

In the end, what scientists say about what the world is might tell us something about how we should behave, but this is a complicated thing. Scientists do important work and make important discoveries, but it is not so simple as to describe scientists as objective observers telling us what the world is and making things better for us. In fact, scientists have feelings and biases, too, and for some people, scientists actually make the world worse. Further, unmitigated valorization of cold, rational treatments of the world around us does a good amount of damage. This could be redeemed if it were the case that people could ever be truly rational and that it would be good if people could ever be truly rational. I am not sure that either is true, and I suggest that if we could acknowledge this, we could do science in a more honest and, perhaps, more productive way.

To Search for Bearings: A Response to Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen

Melissa Harris-Perry is a writer, professor of political science, and important intellectual, especially for her work on African-American politics and intersectional feminism. She has published two books, written for The Nation, hosted a political editorial show, and she now works as editor-at-large for

In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry describes the historical legacy of intersectional discrimination. She quotes the Combahee River Collective: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The point seems intuitive. If we accept empirical evidence that demonstrates that African-Americans and women are discriminated against, in unique ways and for unique reasons, then it stands to reason that African-American women face at least double jeopardy (I say “at least” because there may be an interaction to account for, which might suggest that the discrimination is greater than the sum of its parts).

The book is organized into five sections: the introduction; the crooked room; shame; the “strong black woman;” and Michelle Obama/the conclusion. Each section begins by borrowing a piece of literature to create affect that permeates its section. Excepting the introduction and conclusion, each section follows the borrowed literature with a chapter framing its important central concept and a chapter that supports the concept with empirical evidence and case studies.

To begin, Harris-Perry introduces the book’s theme: African-American women face unique challenges rooted in historical depictions of African-American women that are society, including African-American women themselves, internalize. After taking us through the complicated journey of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harris-Perry gives a prescription for what we might do with Sister Citizen. In referring to the treatment of Janie’s story by Janie’s friend, Harris-Perry says, “Phoeby’s task is to hear Janie’s story, be made taller by it, and use it to demand changes in the systems of racism and patriarchy that circumscribe American life,” before describing how we might do something similar.

The next section starts with a favorite quote of mine, from Audre Lord: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” When considering disparate outcomes, it seems important to consider where power lies and what the tools of power are. The safest attempts to address inequities seem to necessarily require cooption of systems that create the imbalances. Perhaps, when dealing with oppressions, reconceptions of institutions and systems are appropriate for preventing reconcentrations of power among the historically privileged few.

Perhaps with something similar in mind, Harris-Perry describes one of the master’s primary tools for creating inequities that benefit the master and the master’s house: the crooked room. To define this idea central to her book, Harris-Perry refers to studies in cognitive science that observe how people attempt to reconcile up and down in rooms that are configured so as to confuse the issue. This serves as an analogue for experiences of African-American women. Society tells us that African-American women are people whom they are not, forcing African-American women to learn to blindly adjust, trying to avoid overcompensating or otherwise falling prey to misconceptions thrust upon them.

Harris-Perry defines three mythologies of African-American women: Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire. Jezebel is the overly sexualized African-American woman, Mammy is simultaneously the asexual African-American woman and white women’s unwaveringly loyal helper, and Sapphire is the angry and masculine African-American woman. Harris-Perry uses historical analysis, case studies, focus panels, and secondary sources to help define and locate these caricatures among American social understandings. She expresses the political importance in these problematic characterizations: “Although none of these stereotypes captures the complexity of black women’s lives, they have been powerfully and regularly reproduced in American political discourse and popular culture since the Civil War.” These stereotypes play an important role in how African-Americans hold “fictive kin” accountable.

Harris-Perry asserts that shame can play an important role in African-American women are viewed. She draws on Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule and others to point out that African-Americans share a linked fate, albeit a nuanced one, and the psychological literature illustrates how shame relates society’s treatment of African-Americans to African-Americans’ lived experiences. W. E. B. DuBois assists: “How does it feel to be a problem?” But Harris-Perry does not altogether reject shame.

Harris-Perry makes a distinction between reintegrative stigmatizing shames, which has the possible redemptive virtue of reinforcing social values and cohesion, and stigmatizing shame, which is responsible for alienation and brutal forms of oppression. Harris-Perry posits that a society that shames a category of people distorts the experience of those people.

Harris-Perry describes how Hurricane Katrina and the Duke Lacrosse Case show that treatment of African-American women by society has been influenced by misrecognition. Endless coverage of Hurricane Katrina “offered many opportunities for recognition and misrecognition. Issues of race, gender, and politics were literally framed by what Americans saw.” Harris-Perry shows a racial difference in reactions to images of African-Americans from Hurricane Katrina; African-Americans were more likely to experience certain negative emotions than were whites, and these differences in emotional responses may have affected views on relevant policies. Whites were less likely than African-Americans to support, through whatever necessary means, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the repatriation of displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. In a similar vein, African-American women experienced greater stress when receiving the news that Crystal Mangum seemed to have lied about the Duke Lacrosse Case. One of the tragedies is that the Duke case may have contributed to the perpetuation of unfair biases, despite that, among millions of people, any subgroup of people will surely contain some people who are sometimes dishonest and who sometimes make bad choices. But Harris-Perry shares how African-American women have constructed an alternative image of themselves.

Harris-Perry offers, “The strong black woman serves as a constructive role model because black women draw encouragement and self-assurance from an icon able to overcome great obstacles. She offers hope to people who often face difficult circumstances.” Indeed, throughout the book, Harris-Perry illustrates a compelling case for the “strong black woman” overcoming myriad obstacles represented by the crooked room. But she also cautions that “there are dangers to allowing this symbol to remain unchallenged at the center of African American understandings of womanhood. When black women are expected to be super-strong, they cannot be simply human.” She suggests that the self-defined archetype forms a prison that charges African-American women with being many things to many people, leaving very little of themselves for themselves and to themselves, leading many African-American women to heavily depend on God’s support.

Harris-Perry defines “womanism” as a theological term to describe African-American women who gracefully endure intersectional oppressions and survive—through God’s distant assistance—unthinkable obstacles, while others depend on them. African-American women are resilient in the face of oppression, as they wait to be properly recognized, even by the churches that they selflessly serve. In some ways, this is counterintuitive, as the church participates in the abuse and neglect of African-American women. Despite that, religion may represent the source of some African-American women’s strength, as some African-American women look to their roles in the church, and to their relationships with God, to help straighten their crooked room.

The book concludes by offering Michelle Obama as the most visible African-American woman in contemporary society and as one of the most successful in straightening her crooked room. Obama confronts the three stereotypes at different times, as well as typical sexist reactions by some elements within the media and some elements in society more broadly. Despite this, Obama seems to have defined herself on her own terms, managing to avoid some possible pitfalls to which society subjects African-American women. Instead, Obama perseveres through unfair mischaracterizations and willful hatred directed at her. There is, however, an obversal image to Harris-Perry’s monumental depiction of Obama’s resilience and grace in the face of the challenges with which Obama is confronted: Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod’s case is significant for its juxtaposition against the hopefulness with which one might think of Michelle Obama. In fact, Barack Obama’s White House was complicit in the misrecognition and mistreatment of Shirley Sherrod. Harris-Perry explains, “Such cavalier disdain is hard to attribute to anything other than very deep, persistent assumptions about black women as unsavory and ultimately disposable.” As Michelle Obama worked to straighten the crooked room, her husband’s administration reminded us just how crooked the room can be.

We might classify Harris-Perry’s book as dealing with intersectional political complications that African-American women face. She attempts to answer whether socio-political treatment of African-American women is uniquely oppressive and limiting. Beneath this consideration lies questions of whether the contemporary political paradigm allows African-American women to achieve full citizenship and rights, how African-American women’s race and gender make them politically unique, and what factors have contributed to African-American women’s problematic situation.

Harris-Perry’s book ends without offering a new solution; instead, Harris-Perry suggests more of previously tried methods. Does the answer lie in more of this kind of effort? Perhaps, but should we conclude that there is no more helpful option? Harris-Perry offers, “African American women too often hesitate to demand resources to meet their individual needs,” before closing with a Shirley Chisholm quote about Chisholm’s desire to be viewed as authentic.

However, I feel that there could be helpful changes. My point is not that I oppose efforts to properly diagnose the problems. I find that kind of work important, but it might have been better for Harris-Perry to not imply a solution, and to simply give a compelling account of the reality. Instead, Harris-Perry’s book sometimes suffers from going partway in some of its efforts.

Harris-Perry’s book occupies an interesting space, if partly for her methodological approach. She uses the kind of Ordinary Least Squares linear regression models that pervade quantitative approaches to political science, along with focus panels, detailed historicizations, references to psychological research, and literary references that help to illustrate her points.

Sometimes, it seems that Harris-Perry compromises between not fully telling a narrative and not fully justifying her arguments. It feels like she is squeezing at least two books into one and that they require more space. The empirical story is often compelling, but she does not always take us fully from idea to empirical proof. She often requires us to make leaps of faith.

I find it important to acknowledge the limits of empiricism, but Harris-Perry comes up short in this concession, which counterintuitively seems to weaken her argument. She states, “I cannot tell a clear causal story, drawing neat arrows from stereotypes to black women’s emotional lives to their political choices.” She goes on to assert that there is value in her empirical work. That said, there does not seem to be a way for anyone to fully demonstrate causality, regardless of the academic field, so Harris-Perry may have been better served to have pointed that out instead of limiting the criticism to her writing.

Despite Harris-Perry’s concession that she cannot prove causality, she sometimes states things in absolute terms—for example: “That desperate survivors were portrayed as dangerous criminals was largely a result of the racialized nature of the Katrina disaster. Americans have long connected urban African American communities with crime.” While her logic here makes sense to me, it seems that she undermines her argument by stating it as though the association she draws must hold. To be clear, she immediately follows this with evidence to support her claim, but if she cannot make absolute claims to causation, then how can she make statements as above?

Harris-Perry’s book leaves me with other questions. Are the differences in whites’ and African-Americans’ opinions on policies after Katrina due to misrecognition of African-American women, as Harris-Perry suggests, or is it maybe due to differences in attitudes about government interventions in general? Despite her implication of the former, she does not fully convince. Also, is shame sometimes good? She asserts that it might be, but the empirical evidence that she provides seems to all line up on the other side of the argument. While Harris-Perry’s book came before the reification of Black Lives Matter in the minds of most Americans, it occurs to me that the Hurricane Katrina tragedy may have been a catalyst for sublating an understanding and perhaps even an ethos on which BLM may have been built.

Those issues aside, Harris-Perry stumbles upon a point that I find interesting. She alludes to political correctness on both sides of the Duke Lacrosse issue. Referring to an article by Charlotte Allen, Harris-Perry writes, “This rhetorical move casts into doubt the entire history of black women’s physical and sexual subjugation simply because Crystal Mangum lied about the assault in March 2006. The image of Jezebel is used to shame both contemporary black feminist scholars and the historical women whose lives are their source material.”

In note 48, on page 348, Harris-Perry refers to a response by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt, in a paper titled, “In the Afterlife of the Duke Case.” Near the end, their response says,

“If this new trend increases its foothold among universities as the means to judge scholarly and teaching competence, the university hands over the regulation of research, individual faculty expression, student life, and teaching autonomy to the vigilantism of outsiders, including members of other university faculties who have used ‘Duke lacrosse’ for their own political gain. Universities will also concede the content of the terrain of social justice that was opened by the social movements to what might be termed the therapeutic logics of student services, whose hailing of specific minoritized groups within the increasing class homogeneity of the research institution will enable it to become ever more blind to the multiple publics that continue to vie for recognition, access, and legibility.”

I take this issue as a serious, timely one. Conceptions of political correctness sometimes conflate what seem to be two meanings: 1) the attempt, through language, to recognize historically marginalized groups; 2) the censorship of offending points of view. The reason to point this out in particular is that Harris-Perry’s rigid statements could have a possible chilling effect, discouraging discourse. If what she asserts are true facts, then there is no reason to quibble over them, despite that it could turn out that they would not hold.

In the end, these contentions would not lead me to dissuade anyone from reading Harris-Perry’s book. While I would prefer a more rigorous and precise treatment of the arguments, Harris-Perry draws from a wealth of interdisciplinary evidence to help undermine and criticize common ideas about race and gender, as well as helping to expose the apparent sources of many of these problematic ideas. I find her writing style highly readable and her interdisciplinary approach interesting and enriching, helpful to dismantle problematic ideas about race, gender, and particularly fraught questions regarding African-American women in particular. Especially, the use of psychological evidence—and even more particularly, the cortisol studies—formed bases for very interesting arguments.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The subject matter is too important and Harris-Perry’s argument is too cogent to be ignored. Her unique approach provides a refreshing departure from more predictable fare, even as these questions seem to be undervalued as research imperatives.

Immaterial Models: How Models in Economics might Fail

Boumans aims to assuage concerns over the appropriateness of models. He wants to draw a clear distinction between theories and models, and that seems appropriate enough to me. However, I have questions that I am not sure he answers here.

First off, on pg. 265, Boumans informs us: “The relation of a dynamical model to the system of which it is regarded as the model, is precisely the same as the relation of the images which our mind forms of things to the things themselves.” It may be similar in some sense to how our eyes form images to represent reality, but there are surely many differences. Notably, we generally do not have to concern ourselves with whether or not we can rely on the images we see. Of course there are exceptions, but there is generally no need to continually test the abilities of healthy eyes to produce reliable images. This seems generally different from the case of models.

On pg. 262, Boumans explains that models are meant to provide us with a mathematical middle ground between oversimplifying to the point of losing track of the reality we aim to explain and overcomplicating the model to the point of discouraging critical inquiry into the accuracy of the model. I think that this is a mistake.

Here is the problem that I see: if a theorist can be convinced that they need not concern themselves with accurately explaining the reality of phenomena, this discourages possible progress, i.e. why move forward if we can be satisfied with apparently close approximations? If the point is not to get closer to realism, then why persist?

Then, on pg. 263, Boumans states, “In other words, to the extent that two physical systems obey laws with the same mathematical form, the behavior of one system can be understood by studying the behavior of the other, better known, system. Moreover, this can be done without making any hypothesis about the real nature of the system under investigation.” I see a few problems with what Boumans has to say here. First off, he assumes that some physical systems might obey laws with certain mathematical forms. He may be right, but his assertion here depends on that and he does not seem to prove the assumption true. Worse, when he describes how we can understand one system by virtue of understanding the other, in what way does he mean for us to understand the yet unexplained system? If he means anything beyond the fact that they appear to produce outcomes that are predictable by the same formula, he does not seem to show us how. If he does not mean anything beyond that the formula is predictive of outcomes, then what is his point? Is he saying that we should assume that the systems share commonalities because they produce the same patterns? If he is, then why? Finally, Boumans seems to assert that we can understand the behavior of the system being explained without making a hypothesis about the nature of the system, but how? If he means to say that we can predict the outcomes, then this merely seems to be a tautology: If we observe a pattern in outcomes, we can model the pattern to predict the pattern of outcomes. If, by “behavior,” he means something more essential to the system, then I do not see how he explains this.

On pg. 266, Boumans quotes Boltzmann (1892 [1974] pg. 9): “It seemed that nature had built the most various things on exactly the same pattern; or, in the dry words of the analyst, the same differential equations hold for the most various phenomena.” What does Boltzmann mean here, when he says that nature “seems” to do this? Does he mean that nature might or might not? Or are we right to read that Boltzmann thinks that the systems built on the exact same patterns seem “most various?” When Boltzmann attributes the second half of his statement to the dry analyst, what he says stands on firmer ground, and I find this part to be more egregious.

How do we know that these equations hold for the most various phenomena? How do we know that any equation holds for any phenomena? The theorist may be tempted to assert something like, “Well, very many phenomena seem to be consistent with equations that we attribute to them, so surely some of those appearances must reflect actual reality,” but is this not simply the makings of Popper’s infinite regress? Of course I am not so naïve as to suggest that nothing we discover could ever count as progress or knowledge, but I think it important that we take steps to acknowledge the limitations in our ability to discern any such thing.

Later, on pgs. 272 and 273, Boumans explains that mathematical models in economics are meant to help see reality, but I would argue that these models are limited. One problem arises as economists suppose to better understand economic behavior by closely inspecting the model. If we concede that the model need not be able to explain the mechanics in order to make predictions, then the economist who looks at the model in order to try to understand economic behavior can only do so in a particular arrangement of conditions. To repeat, if Boumans means that models somehow explain the mechanics of the system and can, therefore, predict behaviors in various conditions, I do not find his explanation here.

It seems to me that the recognition of patterns from one area to another can create distortion——it may be too tempting to stand pat, even if only temporarily, with a “close enough” approximation that seems apparent. It seems to me that this could lead to confirmation biases separate of the confirmation biases that are already likely. In this sense, there may be an advantage in developing a theory or model from observing the phenomena directly, even if there might be less efficiency in doing so. That is to say that there is a tension between rigor/potential precision and ease of exposition.

Also, as before, I take issue with the idea that trying to make predictions, without explaining why the predictions might work as they do, should be a wise thing. For example, if we do not try to explain the mechanisms underlying a phenomenon as best we can, then I believe that we are less likely to be able to predict what might happen given a shock to the system.

The Lives of Things

In the corner opposite to where I stood was a small wooden end table with a shelf in it. In the relative dark, I couldn’t see it well, but I could tell that it was covered in dust. I grabbed an old coffee mug from off the coaster that sat on the table and I blew the dust off. It flew through the air: a rapidly disintegrating cloud of dirt and memories.

I remembered that mug, only because it was the one my grandmother had drank from after she had served me rice and bulgoki. Grandma was short—about 4’8”—and she knew how to love more than any human I’d ever known and have known since. As a small child, I would go to her house to eat all I could, to watch cable television, to listen to grandma softly sing old Korean songs as she gently stroked me. That was a long time ago.

I wasn’t sad. My grandma had lived a long time, but the house was different now. It wasn’t their house anymore; the house had long ago been taken over by an external force. It was superficially tidy in most places, albeit growing dusty, but they hadn’t managed to keep the house up in all the ways that it needed. Houses have natural lifespans of their own if they are not meticulously maintained and manicured in order to retain their best form.

I wonder if grandma was content with the state of the house as it aged or if she had been displeased by its deterioration. She’d been a pragmatist—the kind of person who sees honesty as the most efficient way of dealing with the world, but also saw the wisdom in avoiding unnecessary confrontation. I’d only ever seen her fight once.

My dad made decent money for a long time, but somehow, we never saw much of it. The kids across the street always teased me for the clothes I wore, even though I’m sure my dad made more money than theirs did. How strange it is that kids should know or care about these things.

Grandma didn’t like dad, though. She didn’t say it, but you could feel the air go cold when they were in a room together. My dad persisted with his superficial charm, but grandma wasn’t confused by the magic show he put on. She only ever seemed to see people’s souls.

After he’d worked for the insurance agency for a couple decades, he’d decided that he wasn’t into it anymore, so we moved an hour away to the city. It was my senior year, so I was pissed, but I also had no say in the matter. Such is the nature of being a child.

He worked that job until he simultaneously became the most productive employee and became the most disillusioned employee. Everyone at home had grown angry with everyone else. Truthfully, it seemed to me that everyone always had been, and because I was the oldest child, it was basically all my fault, but what could I do about it now?

Dad started to sleep a lot and mom went back to work, but I was dealing with my own existential crisis having gone from all my friends in a more diverse high school to one with a lot of rich kids that I wanted nothing to do with. Grandma had other concerns.

One day, when my mom wasn’t home yet, grandma came over and she started yelling at dad. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember my surprise. I didn’t know what was going on or whether there was a real problem, but I knew that grandma must be right. My parents would divorce a few months later.

The bottom of the coffee mug was shiny. I wonder what’s been the last drink from it. When I’d gotten a little older, I’d sometimes been around during a big celebration during which grandma drank. Her big, wrinkled smile seemed to occupy her whole face and she’d laugh in her sly, sweet way. I put down the coffee mug and walked toward the kitchen.

Centered above the china cabinet was an old photo of my grandfather. He’d looked very normal. Around that photo were various photos of the rest of the family, but grandma was in hardly any. I looked from photo to photo, trying to find her late, weathered face, until finally, I saw her smiling with her middle daughter.

As I whimpered, Jenny turned to me, not knowing how to react to my contorted, moistened face.

Fear and Trembling

Hugo is shaking. He’s not yet aware of how he’s feeling, but he’ll become more aware and it’ll increase his anxiety and self-consciousness. He’ll question himself, thinking that there’s something wrong with him; he’ll want to know what’s wrong with him, and he’ll realize that he doesn’t have an answer except to think that he seems to exist. Sometimes, Hugo questions even his existence. He’s right to do so, but his reasons are the wrong ones. His questioning of his existence is merely a distortion of the problem, if we assume that there’s legitimately a problem.

Hugo’s paternal grandmother—”Nanny,” he calls her—has always had a tremor. She’s an old, displaced Connecticutian, full of Catholic sanctimony and guilt to go with an air of undeserved superiority over her fellow Southern military townies. So Hugo’s mom always said that he got his anxiety from “the other side’s kin.”

How is this happening? What did I do? Again? It’s not the same. But Hugo’s not exactly right. In fact, each time has been different from the last. Hugo’s not reliving the same nightmare; he’s forming escalated spirals in a chaotic universe, spewing entropic residue over unwarned experiences of relatively innocent witnesses. It’s the unmitigated, perpetually deepening tragedy that’s Hugo’s recent life.

It’s getting worse. There you go, Hugo.

Hugo stands, unpresent, his eyes fixed staring forward, failing to see anything, as his thoughts take over his mind. Metacognition is a hell of a drug, and Hugo’s not exactly going to meetings.

Hugo’s head rotates uniformly toward his right shoulder, his jaw stuck and unhinged. He looks up slightly, quickly snapping his down head into his hands before shrinking into a fetus behind the old, rust-colored couch, his feet bent at a 45-degree angle. It’s like an awkward imitation of a Michael Jackson music video.

Smack! Smack! Smack! Hugo’s arms flail as his legs redden beneath his pants, vaguely forming handprints on his thighs, like Elementary School students’ craft projects meant to look like Thanksgiving turkeys.

Rarely in Hugo’s life has he been physically violent, despite his tendency to be consumed by anxiety and insecurity to a point prohibitive to consideration of others. Rarely, Hugo had engaged in self-harm or bursts of violence thoughtlessly directed at himself. It was reactionary, as though he had been calibrating his external world to coincide with his inner self.

Once, in middle school, Hugo had been sick for a few days when a kid had ridiculed him for the last time. Hugo grabbed the kid by his shirt and ran him down the row of desks, before ending at the wall, saying, “Please stop being such a jerk!” The substitute teacher who was in class that day felt baffled and helpless: What do I do now? But Hugo and the other boy weren’t a problem for the rest of the class period.

Today, Hugo’s propensity for self-harm, like his ever-graduating neurosis and ill mental health, is growing, promising to test the limits of Hugo’s masochism.

Economic Laws and Clarifying the “Inductive Problem”

Underlying Cartwright’s and Hoover’s positions seem to be common understandings. First, both seem to acknowledge that philosophical arguments on economics have something to do with differences in degrees of accuracy between physical sciences and economics.

On pg. 141, Cartwright tells us, “What happens in the economy is a consequence of a mix of factors with different tendencies operating in a particular environment. The mix is continually changing; so too is the background environment.”

On pg. 151, she claims, “Economists simply do not know enough to fill in their law claims sufficiently.”

Hoover, on pg. 26, points out, “These empirical equations are not laws. They are instead observational structures with few qualitative and no quantitative implications.” Hoover goes on to point out the loose association the equations have with the model, and as we will see later, he implies some difference between accuracy of measurements in physical sciences and those in economics.

Both also seem to point out that science is also not perfect, sometimes relying on ceteris paribus.

On pg. 27, Hoover says “It surprising to those of us brought up on the image of physics as the model of scientific certainty and scope that a number of philosophers of science have begun to argue that physics is more like economics than it is like its popular image.” He goes on to explain that science is rarely as accurate as a layperson might presume science would be, necessitating ceteris paribus assumptions.

On pg. 138, Cartwright points out, “We aim in science to discover the natures of things; we try to find out what capacities they have and in what circumstances and in what ways these capacities can be harnessed to produce predictable behaviours. The same is true in theoretical economics. Regularities are secondary. Fixed patterns of association among measurable quantities are a consequence of the repeated operation of factors that have stable capacities arranged in the ‘right’ way in the ‘right kind’ of stable environment: regularities are a consequence of the repeated successful running of a socio-economic machine.”

I think that these are important considerations, and I think that they show flaws in science, as well as how economics may be even more complicated than some sciences.

Economics seems to rely more heavily on ceteris paribus assumptions, in terms of degree and frequency. A difference seems to be that physical sciences are often accurate enough that there is less compulsion to employ ceteris paribus explanations than there often is in economics.

That said, I also notice that Hoover and Cartwright make statements that, earlier in the semester, I would have referred to as “inductive.” I am beginning to think that this is too simple a way to put it. Instead, I would like to describe what these kinds of arguments run into as the “inductive problem.”

On pg. 138, Cartwright says, “One set of regularities — the more concrete or phenomenological — is explained by deducing them from another set of regularities — the more general and fundamental.” Below, I will visit the problem I see in such a statement.

On pg. 21, Hoover states, “But I would like to … treat laws as true, universal generalizations subject to the caveat that we mean nonaccidental generalizations (that is, generalizations not like the one about the ages of the people in the lecture hall) and that we know what those are when we see them.” Why would we know what laws are when we see them? More below.

On pg. 24, Hoover claims “With all the measuring equipment in the world and the most powerful computers, prediction of the exact path of the banknote based on Newton’s laws and initial conditions is not possible.” Why is Hoover so sure?

I will take this opportunity to flesh out my view on the “inductive problem.”

I want to start by saying that I would rather commit a type II error than a type I error. I feel that most academics, most scientists, most economists, and most philosophers might be similarly inclined. In fact, I think that most people would see the sense in being hesitant to suggest a change away from what seems to have worked best until now.

That said, I have tried to make the case that induction and falsificationism are the same thing. This is a little blunt; I admit that this is too simple a thing to say. More accurate would be to say that, in practice, induction and falsificationism are the same, except that falsificationism tries to assuage us by taking on a different logical form and by causing us to go through more hoops.

What is the problem with induction, after all? The problem seems to be that we cannot rely on our limited informational bases. If we see a hundred white swans, what keeps the next from being black? Are swans the same color in Australia, the United States, Africa, Antarctica, or Mars? Will they look the same tomorrow? Is someone actually going around and painting all the black swans white? On the other hand, what if someone painted a white swan black?

In the case of falsificationism, the idea is to find a black swan. If you simply find one black swan, then, by modus tollens, you prove that not all swans are white. In trying to find a black swan, if you fail to find it, then, by Popper’s system, your theory continues to be impervious to some criticism. But is this not also too simple?

Well, Popper concedes as much, but simply, I would argue that this does too much to undermine the idea in an important way. After all, what are we to do? Popper would have us try different experiments in different contexts in order to falsify our theory, but which falsification counts? How many falsifications do we need? In what context? Eventually, what seems to me is that we simply start trying to falsify the theory as many times as we can and in as many contexts as possible. In practice, how different is this from induction? What both ideas suffer from is an inability to rely on relevant information and perhaps an over reliance on generalizing from individual cases. It seems that we cannot be sure about any result or what the result might imply.

Lakatos provides some relief in the form of his idea about having multiple paradigms, or Research Programmes (this is the proper title he gives it, right?), competing with one another such that you simply go with whichever is working best for your purposes, but this seems to do nothing to solve the problem that induction and falsification share. Instead, Lakatos merely seems to provide us with a somewhat improved reconception.


Home recording studio

Hugo was walking back and forth along the floor, unwittingly causing the wood to creak as he stepped. “First, I find a song that strikes something in me. Or, you know, not always. I mean, I feel like I could sample anything, really. Maybe not anything. I dunno.”

“You always start with a sample?” James asked.

“No, not always. I don’t have to. I’d say I do it half the time? No. Maybe like two thirds of the time. You know, it all depends.” Hugo spoke more loudly than normal. He smiled a lot and gesticulated in big, flowing motions.

After some quick, careful consideration, Hugo’s eyes got big and he snapped his fingers. Snap! “You know, I get into these moods. Every six months or so, I go back and listen to my beats and they all sound like shit. I mean, not all of them, but most of them, and usually there are obvious things that I was consistently doing wrong. There’s so much to this, you know? You have to learn so many things, but there are also so many ways to do it.”

“I see,” James said. He gently grinned.

“Like, I’ve learned all these styles. What I really try to do is to take the best and beat them at their own style.”

“Beat them? Like who?”

“Well, you know—”

“I don’t know. Who are your favorites? Who do you most admire?”

“Dr. Dre, J Dilla, Flying Lotus—”

James’s back straightened. “Wait! You mean to tell me you try to outdo those guys?!”

“Well, I’m not saying that I’m better than them!”

“Hugo, you’re fucking crazy, man.”

“Whatever. I’m just trying to do my best. I mean, my beats are pretty good.”

“Hugo, I constantly hear you working on them. Honestly, it makes me a little crazy, but I don’t complain because I want you to feel good about something. They’re good. You’re not Dr. Dre.”

Hugo’s neck and back lengthened. “I know that! Look, I’m not a narcissist.”


Hugo glared at James. His voice lowered. “Look. I think that if I just knew how to market these things, I could make a career making beats.”

“You think so? Why don’t you market them?”

“It’s just not my thing. It’s boring. I like making beats. I’m not a salesperson.”


“Well, I also don’t have all the tools, you know? And I could use some training. I could grow so much faster if I were properly trained. There are things that I know need work.”


“But my beats are pretty good!”

“They’re pretty good, Hugo. Maybe you’re right.”

“I dunno. I think so. Who knows?”

“Maybe I could find some way to help you or to get someone to help you.”

“Yeah! That’d be great! We could work together, Jim!”


Hugo plopped into the recliner across from Jams. James was sitting on the old, decrepit couch, not moving, before his body stiffened and he grew erect: “Hey, you know Michelle called.”


“On the house phone. I guess you gave Michelle my number?”

“Really? I didn’t even know we had a house phone.”

“Oh. Well, Michelle called.” James turned his head toward Hugo. “Well, who’s Michelle?”

“I wonder why she called. She’s an ex. I keep thinking that she hates me, but she never really seems to hate me.”

“Why do you think she hates you?”

“Maybe I don’t. I dunno. I’m just scared. I get scared.” The distance between Hugo’s irises widened, as though he were looking far off into the distance, far past the wall that impeded his view. “We had a pretty good relationship. The end was really stupid and it was all my fault, but I didn’t fuck it up. Well, no. I did fuck it up, but not in my usual way.

“I mean, I didn’t cause a giant disaster. I just walked away. I kind of just ignored her. I think I started dating someone else. I’m sure that happened. I don’t know why I would’ve intentionally chosen loneliness. Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, she was so good to me and she was really into me. For some reason, she really seemed to forgive me and to understand me.”

“So why’d you end it?”

Hugo cocked his head to the side, his neck stiff like a branch that had broken and fallen at an angle from a tree after a storm. He enveloped his head and neck with his bent arm as he massaged the back of his neck with his fingers. “I don’t really know. It was too perfect or something. I remember that she’d made fun of me for some little stupid thing. I don’t remember what it was. It was entirely innocent and I was just being stupid. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t avoid this terrible feeling. It was like my whole body was some toxic element. I would shake, you know? You know how sometimes my hands quiver?”

“I thought that was just when you were hungover.”

Hugo’s neck straightened as he looked at James. “Yeah. Well, not just.” He looked toward the floor. “She’d made this stupid joke, and I felt like she was gonna leave me. I’d always felt like she’d leave me, but this was like a big, meaty corpse on the pile of reasons why I was scared she’d leave me.”

“You’re such a poet.”

“Well, I’d always been scared of her, and then she’d said this thing.”

“But why were you scared that she’d leave you?”

“I dunno, man. It’s just how I am. I’m scared that you’ll leave me, but not as scared and I don’t care as much about it. No offense.”

“No, no.” James’s mouth formed a downward-facing crescent.

“It’s just—I dunno. All the women eventually leave. My mom always left. She started leaving me when I was very small. I’d cry for her, to her, wanting her. All the time. When I was like two or three, I’d cry for what felt like hours at her bedroom door. I’d lay on the ground and shove my squishy little child hands under the door and wiggle my fingers. But it didn’t stop there. I did that for a while, but even as I got older, I’d go to my room and I’d cry for what felt like hours. I’d run away. Well, I wouldn’t really, but I’d try to. I’d announce that I was gonna, but no one cared. My mom would insult me and tell me that she couldn’t wait ’til I was old enough for her to be forever done with having to deal with me. She wanted to abandon me in a more absolute way. When I was really small, at one point, I even—or maybe it was at several points; I don’t remember—well, I basically intimated to her that I was feeling suicidal. Of course, I did it in a bratty, shitty way, and I think I was just kinda copying It’s a Wonderful Life, but you know her response?”

James slowly responded, his face like clay, “Tell me, Hugo.”

“She basically just defended herself. I told her I wished I’d never been born, and she just blamed me for what was going on, yelling at me, and she walked into her room, crying, leaving me stunned, shocked! I went to my room, and felt even more alone.”

“And you didn’t kill yourself.”

Hugo stared into James’s eyes. “I didn’t kill myself. But everyone leaves me, James. I’m the common denominator. I realize that. Whether the situation’s abusive or healthy or whatever. And when it seems too good to be true, maybe I don’t want to go so far down the rabbit hole that it’s completely traumatic when they finally do leave, so I guess I’m fucked. I can never be with someone who’s good to me. I guess I can’t really be with anyone.”

Hugo and James sat, silently in thought, not looking at each other.

Hugo suddenly started speaking, again, loudly: “But it’s not like I’m an angel, and I don’t trust my choices in women.”

“I’ll say.”

“You remember that girl I told you about?”

“Yeah. I mean, well, which one?”

“Damn, James. This shit was really awful. I was thinking about it the other day.”

James slapped his hands on his knees. He looked like a king in the wrong chair. “Hugo, who are you talking about? What are you talking about?”

“You know that time it got really bad?”

“Okay, Hugo.”

Hugo stared at James for a moment, his mouth agape. “Well, she would kind of verbally assault me and then run away. When I would respond, she would act as though I’d done something terrible to her. She’d tell me that she knew that she was a monster, but the moment anything happened between us, she would cry to her whole family and every friend about how I was abusing her.

“This was actually the girl who’d raped me.”

“Raped you? And quit saying ‘girl.’ But rape? Did she penetrate you?”


“Then, don’t call it rape, Hugo. That’s kinda fucked up.”

“Whatever, man. I said, ‘No,’ she didn’t respect it, she forced me inside her. It doesn’t matter. It’s not germane to the story.”


“You see, she would erupt in these very short-lived fits of rage, manipulation, and abuse, but then she would want to run away. I eventually began to insult her. I said terrible things. I became terrified of what I’d become, the things I’d started to say.

“It seemed to me like she viewed herself as a victim. I mean, this much was clear. I think that what really happened was that I started to view her as a victim. She couldn’t see herself being empowered. We’d talk about how she might view herself differently, but she would resist: ‘It’s not that easy.’ Well, maybe it wasn’t, but she didn’t want to try, either. She was more comfortable being the victim, so eventually I gave her what she wanted until she became the ultimate victim in some sense.

“I don’t mean that I killed her.”

“I know, but I also don’t think that’s ‘what she wanted.'”

“I guess you’re right.”Hugo’s mouth went sideways. “She started talking about how we were Twin Flames. In some way, she was encouraged by the abuse we both experienced. She was giddy about it. So I think I just complied with this idea of abuse, while also proclaiming that I wanted to marry her. I really did want to marry her, but I was also terrified of what we’d become.

“I guess we both thought that the intensity meant something other than that we loved each other and that we were intense people, abusing each other. I guess we were both really monsters.”

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