Home > Uncategorized > Economists — nothing but a bunch of idiots savants

Economists — nothing but a bunch of idiots savants

from Lars Syll

Let’s be honest: no one knows what is happening in the world economy today …

Policymakers don’t know what to do. They press the usual (and unusual) levers and nothing happens. Quantitative easing was supposed to bring inflation “back to target.” It didn’t. Fiscal contraction was supposed to restore confidence. It didn’t …

Most economics students are not required to study psychology, philosophy, history, or politics. They are spoon-fed models of the economy, based on unreal assumptions, and tested on their competence in solving mathematical equations. They are never given the mental tools to grasp the whole picture …

Good economists have always understood that this method has severe limitations. They use their discipline as a kind of mental hygiene to protect against the grossest errors in thinking …

Today’s professional economists have studied almost nothing but economics. They don’t even read the classics of their own discipline. Economic history comes, if at all, from data sets. Philosophy, which could teach them about the limits of the economic method, is a closed book. Mathematics, demanding and seductive, has monopolized their mental horizons. The economists are the idiots savants of our time.

Robert Skidelsky

Yes indeed — modern economics has become increasingly irrelevant to the understanding of the real world. In his seminal book Economics and Reality (1997) Tony Lawson traced this irrelevance to the failure of economists to match their deductive-axiomatic methods with their subject. As shown by Skidelsky, it is as relevant today as it was twenty years ago.  


It is still a fact that within mainstream economics internal validity is everything and external validity nothing. Why anyone should be interested in that kind of theories and models is beyond my imagination. As long as mainstream economists do not come up with any export-licenses for their theories and models to the real world in which we live, they really should not be surprised if people say that this is not science, but autism!

Studying mathematics and logics is interesting and fun. It sharpens the mind. In pure mathematics and logics we do not have to worry about external validity. But economics is not pure mathematics or logics. It’s about society. The real world. Forgetting that, economics is really in dire straits.

Already back in 1991, JEL published a study by a commission — chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz — focusing on “the extent to which graduate education in economics may have become too removed from real economic problems.” The commission members reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,”  and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion they wrote:

The commission’s fear is that graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.

Not much is different today. Economics education is still in dire need of a remake. How about bringing economics back into some contact with reality?

And, of course, Paul Krugman and fellow ‘New Keynesians’ have been fast to tell us that although Skidelsky is absolutely right, ‘basic macro’ (read: IS-LM ‘New Keynesianism’) has done just fine, and that it is only RBC and New Classical DSGE macroeconomics that has faltered. But that is, sad to say, but still, nothing but pure nonsense!

  1. December 24, 2017 at 2:13 am

    Kreuger commission gives a right assessment of the economics education problem: It is producing “too many idiot savants skilled in techniques but innocent of real economics issues.”

    Many heterodox economists have tendency to accuse mathematics and other techniques as the origin of bad state of present economics, but the real problem lies that many young economists educated in the recent graduates school do not know the “real economic issues.” It is important not to confuse the two.

  2. Craig
    December 24, 2017 at 3:42 am

    Economists are not looking in the right place to find the specific significances that will enlighten them as to the equally specific and significant policy that will revolutionize and evolutionize economics. That policy describes the very process and expression of the new monetary and economic paradigm that will clear all of the frustration and confusion I have been reading here and elsewhere for the last years since the great financial recession began in 2008.

  3. December 24, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    What is the source of the wonderful Skidelsky quotation?

  4. December 25, 2017 at 5:40 am

    Harvard Business School’s description of the case study method:

    Pioneered by HBS faculty and one of the highlights of the HBS experience, the case method is a profound educational innovation that presents the greatest challenges confronting leading companies, nonprofits, and government organizations—complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues—and places the student in the role of the decision maker. There are no simple solutions; yet through the dynamic process of exchanging perspectives, countering and defending points, and building on each other’s ideas, students become adept at analyzing issues, exercising judgment, and making difficult decisions—the hallmarks of skillful leadership. Over 80 percent of cases sold throughout the world are written by HBS faculty, who produce approximately 350 new cases per year. Simply put, we believe the case method is the best way to prepare students for the challenges of leadership.

    It appears this method is one answer to economics’ lack of interest in or knowledge of economics (the events, not the theories or methods). Working with new business managers you mostly come away with one or the other impression. First, that the new manager is arrogant and oppressive. Second, that the new manager is terrified of everyone and everything in managing. Nothing in the case study method prepares MBA students for either of these experiences. It doesn’t prepare them because even with all the detail and discussion it’s still not managing. Talking about managing, critiquing managing, or role-playing management can help want-to-be managers learn. But it cannot teach them what to do and how to do it in actual management situations. That can be learned only via practice and feedback in actual managing. The same is true of the study of economics. The only effective way to learn about economic actions is to be involved in them, even if only as an observer.

    • robert locke
      December 25, 2017 at 8:01 am

      or victim!

      • December 26, 2017 at 10:22 am

        Correct, Robert. We can learn from victims of current management ideas. Especially, if we observe them directly while being victimized.

      • Rob Reno
        December 26, 2017 at 10:44 pm

        Eventually we are all victims (economists call it “externalities” and/or “transition costs”) as there is a larger social cost when predatory capitalism founded upon market fundamentalism and malignant managerial theory reigns supreme as does today.

  5. Helen Sakho
    December 25, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Dear Lars,

    In the spirit of Christmas, please allow me a few points to add to your original post! Please forgive me for the length of my comments this time.

    As presumably all readers here are literate enough as “idiot savants” or not, Economists or not, I will not bore them with basic principles and definitions of the glorious “science” of Economics (price versus value, scare goods, services and resources, elastic versus inelastic supply and demand curves, perfect versus imperfect competition, monopoly versus free markets, profit versus super-profits, the significance of an ever-increasing rate of profit even at times of crisis, and so on)

    I shall, instead, confine myself to building up a quick model based on two commodities which throughout the history of humankind have commonly and correctly been acknowledged as “scare, precious, essential” and amazingly enough (!) remain increasingly scare and invaluable, regardless of technological “miracles”, inflation, fiscal or monetary policies, state and/or society, accumulation or regulation regimes and so on. The model makes very few assumptions, and importantly, does not dilute its key points with useless, ridiculous and utterly bankrupt mathematical models to drain us all with technicalities that have historically restricted our students to sheer survival from brain damage, boredom, stress and anxiety, hallucination, and academic failure. On this Christmas day, I confess that personally, I have never seen the need to fail a student, be they students of Economics and International Business, or other disciplines within the whole of the Social Sciences.

    Now, let us consider two scare resources: Conscience and Air. They have a lot in common, and yet, they are fundamentally different. Both are “essential commodities” in more ways than one: they are necessary for life itself – without a Conscience, we have no memory (personal or social) of who we are, where we came from, and where we are heading to; and without Air, we are unlikely to survive for long. The former, has for a long time now, been compartmentalized and individualized and is subject to manipulation through marketing ploys at all levels (again, personal and social) and can therefore be numbed, depending on its original quality, or silenced, despite its quality through arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution, usually only under various forms of visible dictatorship.

    On the one hand, (The vast majority of mainstream Economists have always had two hands, just in case their misleading arguments need private redemption or face punishment via public mutilation) Air, although truly polluted now everywhere (please double check me on the historically unprecedented CO2 emissions) is not (yet) bottled for sale on a mass scale.

    So, what is to be done?
    There is nothing we can do about Economists, Social Scientists and students who are imprisoned, tortured or who have lost their lives because they had a Conscience, and therefore “chose” to die honourably, or are currently silenced by force, facing an unknown future.

    What can mainstream Economists do to redeem their Conscience (assuming they have any left)?
    The following are some suggestions in order of “severity”:
    • Abandon their tenured positions, pensions, research grants, funding criteria (funding regimes) to work as “invisible labour” in the numerous shadow economies of “global cities”, (please check for yourselves the main growth sectors open to this and the group immediately below) but the average wage is currently extremely low by any currency, the hours are unbearably long by any measure, the market is extremely competitive due to an ever-increasing supply of cheapened and vulnerable labour,
    • Or, if they have “legal status”, and can, therefore, work as “visible labour” without fear of arrest, detention and deportation to face poverty, famine, war or genocide again as in above group, they can enjoy a reasonable standard of living in the same cities, but need to be warned that they will be competing against the same group as above sooner or later,
    • Those Economists who worked for the IMF, the World Bank, The WTO, or other institutions attached to these; and who influenced, directly or indirectly, Structural Adjustment Programmes and the like, have only two choices: to volunteer to stand trial for Crimes against Humanity, alongside world leaders who are currently under investigation for the same, or to change their religion to avoid going to hell as some of the same key leaders, who pushed the button illegally (against the then UN) and flattened the whole of the Cradle of Civilisation (therefore modern civilization) in 2003 (and still ongoing) have done (not to mention previous episodes of mass killing and devastation in other parts of the world carried out by their immediate predecessors or counterparts in other parts of the world, including, the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and beyond. I am confining myself here only to the last few decades of history, since the start of this phase of the so called “globalisation”.)

    My own feeling is that they, and their students attached to various branches of the “science” of Economics, (honest fortune telling is more accurate and certainly more fun in my experience) will profitably choose to lend their deadly “skills” to advise the chain of beneficiaries of large scale “redevelopment” of the flattened countries and areas on the one hand, and to an equally large scale “redevelopment” of whole areas ruined by floods, fires, hurricanes, mudslides, etc. on the other. So, in the end all is good for them. Decades of future unregulated, unbridled construction contracts guaranteed, with the added bonus of lots of new ideas for contracts for new business ideas to market new products to help us all survive polluted air, the deafening and suffocating noise of construction everywhere, and various associated diseases and problems (blood pressure, fatigue, allergies, stress, anxiety, early dementia, drug addictions, depression, insomnia, cancer, heart disease (the list is just too long for this piece) while dreaming of becoming just that little bit closer to one of the eight people in the world whose wealth equals that of half the world (feel free to double check my assertion, please). Plus, of course, the added advantage of offering each and every national state a little bribe called “social housing” to house the poor, the homeless and the needy in return for further deregulation of planning controls to allow the construction of new luxury developments with dreamlike facilities for the ultra rich. Before we forget, they also have another excellent, more comfortable, extremely well paid option. They can, to take just one example, join the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which is extremely well resourced and runs numerous “charity” projects. All they have to do is remain silent about British foreign policy, enjoy unpaid internships (new slavery), and be subject to a number of other very minor restrictions. (Please double check for yourselves).

    I wish to dedicate this piece to my hard working, main PhD supervisor, friend and colleague Professor Grazia Ietto, an Economist and a founding member of this blog, who is currently lost in Rome (!), but will hopefully successfully negotiate a peaceful and profitable deal with the Pope for her stubborn former student (all I seek for myself is guaranteed redemption, if available?) but would not refuse a little funding please for my students who mostly remain trapped in the shadow economies of this world and are in desperate need for minimum funding to survive everyday life, so that they can finish their studies in various global cities, while retaining their health (body and soul) and conscience.

    And to my close and exceptional friend and colleague, Distinguished Professor of Cultural Geography, Don Mitchel, who will forever have my eternal friendship and respect, with a sincere apology for not responding to your last email. I am sure you can guess the reasons. I promise to write back at the very first opportunity.

    As for me, I am grateful to still be alive and guided by the ancient Goddess Ishtar. Feel free to look her up to understand Why, I have a feeling you, too, might need her sooner or later!

    Wishing you all a peaceful and terror free 2018, regardless of its source.

    Helen Sakho

  6. Edward Ross
    December 27, 2017 at 12:00 am

    To some extent I ember Joan Robinson’s quote “The reason to take an interest in economics is to avoid being duped by economists. Thus I find the above conversation very interesting and from my practical experience and observation I support the HSB approach when it is combined with Ken Zimmerman’s emphasis on the need for practise and feedback in actual managing.

  7. December 27, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Yes, we are all victims, in certain times and circumstances. And, frauds, cheats, and victimizers, in certain times and circumstances. No one is entirely innocent. It’s all about balance. How much, when, and why are each of us one vs. the other? Economists, too are both victims and victimizers. Victims of a stilted and largely irrelevant education establishment, and psychological attack in the form of a skewed moral code favoring the study of only capitalism. But also, victimizers of a strong economy and functioning culture. And safety and security for every American. While doing the things their training tells them is right and correct, American economists are surely aiding in the destruction of the United States.

    Opposing economist tricksters is important. But so is dealing with political, financial, media, and military tricksters. All this going on while Republicans are doing all within their power to destroy public education in America.

    • December 27, 2017 at 12:12 pm

      American economists are not simply victimizers. They are freaking villains that deserve to be drawn and quartered. They created the myth of post-industrial society and promoted de-industrialization of America that costed us a half-a-trillion trade deficit a year – almost a second Pentagon.

      • Dr. Helen Sakho
        March 9, 2018 at 7:14 pm

        I understand the sentiment.
        I do beg to differ though.
        They, like their State and (most citizens) are honest enough to accept, enjoy, trade in or simply surrender (the very poor) to, I believe, the only currency in the whole Western world which clearly states “In God We Trust”?
        So, at least all is clear and transparent.
        It’s the “secular”? European states and currencies that are more confusing, don’t you think?!

      • March 9, 2018 at 7:55 pm


        Maybe the European economists simply cannot find people who would pay them enough to be wrong, but no EU state is in such dire position because of somebody’s pipe dream. (If they are in dire position, it is because of greed of both politicians and population.)

      • March 10, 2018 at 4:07 am

        Several states in the EU are clearly in a rather more dire state than the USA because of the “Euro” pipe-dream. The true problem is that they victimize themselves – all they really have to do is to get out of the Eurozone, but they don’t – a far less painful option than staying in, but they don’t. European countries have no economic problems in particular except for the Euro pipedream, rather nightmare, which is rather more than enough though.

      • March 10, 2018 at 10:51 am

        You are right – but that is a political rather than an economic pipe dream. There is an economic solution though that allows staying in EU.

        As I propose since 2004, it is Compensated Free Trade (CFT). If you provide your email address, I would send my latest (2017) publication on CFT. You can also look up the Robert Skidelsky Project Syndicate October 24 2017 article about resurgence of Formula 7 of Bretton Woods. Two paragraphs are about CFT. He says though that CFT would not help Greece. But that is correct only for CFT applied by the USA. Nothing prevents Greece to impose a surplus limit on Germany.

      • March 10, 2018 at 12:13 pm

        The Skidelsky article is called “Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment.”

        This is what he writes:

        “To redress this state of affairs, the economist Vladimir Masch suggests that the US should pursue a plan of “compensated free trade” (CFT), which essentially amounts to a unilateral activation of the scarce-currency clause. The Trump administration would set a ceiling on the US trade deficit each year, and then impose limits on major US trading partners’ surpluses. This would largely affect China, Japan, Germany, and Mexico, which contributed $347 billion, $69 billion, $65 billion, and $64 billion, respectively, to the US’s $737 billion trade deficit in 2016.

        Under Masch’s CFT arrangement, it would be up to each surplus country to limit its exports to the US. Countries could exceed their export quotas only if they paid a fine equal to the difference between the value of their actual and allowed exports. And if they tried to export more than allowed without paying the fine, their surplus exports would be blocked.

        The problem with this plan is that it puts no pressure on Germany to reduce its surpluses with other eurozone countries. “

  8. Rob Reno
    December 28, 2017 at 5:58 am

    [T]he age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of [the world] is extinguished for ever.
    ~ Edmund Burke (1790) cited in Bernstein (2004), A Perilous Progress, 185.

    Economics (and many economists) have lost their soul. What once had a public purpose has been rendered sterile and meaningless. What once was a project with both theoretical and social import has been reduced ideological caricature of the real economic world leaving aside the history that made their ideas relevant to real society and public good. Economic “science” has become sophistry. “[I]n their scholastic introversion, in their thoughtless alliance with new business elites determined to use public policy for private rather than communal ends, in their pursuit of a desiccated market paradigm [market fundamentalism] that ran the risk of rendering the very foundations of a democratic and free commerce as themselves objects of profit making and accumulation, this new generation of specialists refashioned a social science apparently disconnected from and seemingly unengaged with the social and political world in which they lived. (Bernstein 2004, 183; 184)

    • December 29, 2017 at 10:06 am

      Rob, the meaning of the cited text from Bernstein changes a bit when we consider the two sentences before your quote. “The world of politics and power ultimately took matters out of their hands, and they, determined to remain true to a professional and an intellectual code that had grown only more venerable with time, assiduously cultivated alternatives of an altogether different sort. These “humble, competent people” applied themselves to these new agendas with the same capability and determination that had distinguished the efforts of generations of their forebears.” Economists, in other words were not the powerful shapers of policy they presented themselves to be. They were caught in historic changes beyond their control or understanding. Their biggest error was not examining these changes more closely and offering alternatives to them. They were not and are not today malevolent. At times lazy and certainly dishonest with themselves and others. But those are common enough failings for all humans.

      • Rob Reno
        December 29, 2017 at 11:15 pm

        Thanks Ken, I don’t think I ever implied malevolence as a motive of economists historically. If I somehow did, my apologies. My understanding of Berstein is similar to yours. They started with good intentions in which they sought to be “expert” advisors to the state in creating a professional elite along with the training institutions to perpetuate their agendas of creating an administrative state in which wise politicians listened to their “expert” advice on economic issues. The “sophistry” comes in per Berstein when they confused the toolset as the ends rather than means to a wider societal goal. Nelson’s Economics as Religion fills in context missing in Bernstein. Each has a piece of the mosaic. Reading Nelson on Gary Becker we see the most degenerate (and in my mind socially destructive) application of this self-referential toolset as both means and ends ignoring wider reality of history, ethics, and spiritual truth.

  9. December 29, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    How do we work ‘cross-posting’? There has been some interesting chitchat on https://rwer.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/heretics-and-mainstream-defenders/#comment-129653

  10. December 29, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    I should have noted that this is another current Lars thread about a similar topic – the nature, state, and future of economics.

  11. December 30, 2017 at 11:22 am

    Just published this on another thread on this blog, “Why not make the rich compete?” I think it’s relevant here.

    “But the more important question is why are human groups unable to deal effectively with such disruptive (to the group) actions and actors? Humans developed tools and techniques to do this job thousands of years ago (e.g., isolation, banishment, ostracization, ceremonial death). Americans have known and used such tools and techniques throughout their history. Over the last 30 years, however Americans seem to have become inept in both understanding and using these. So, the sociopaths and psychopaths are taking over.”

    When I speak about evil or malevolence, this is it.

    Rob, agree with your comments. Do you have solutions in mind?

    • Rob Reno
      December 31, 2017 at 3:46 am

      Rob, agree with your comments. Do you have solutions in mind? ~ Ken Zimmerman

      Only tentative ideas and a couple specific business startup ideas implementing new business models. I don’t want to wear out my welcome here, so have been considering writing such ideas on my blog, Narrenschiff.rip when I can find the time to organize my thoughts.

      Your question might just be enough to move me off my dead center of indecision 😄 U think I need to discipline myself and start writing in a more disciplined manner.

      • Rob Reno
        December 31, 2017 at 3:47 am

        “U think I need” should just be “I think …”

      • January 1, 2018 at 9:51 am

        Try these out. In terms of Homo Sapiens evolution any culture or philosophy that elevates individual achievement or survival above and before group solidarity and security must be removed. Thus, most of current economic theory must be banned, permanently. And those who teach and were taught it forbidden to apply it. Banned also is every form of libertarianism or individual self-interest theory or practice. Civics (citizenship) education must be required for all Americans from K-12, and throughout adulthood. Such education would provide a balanced and honest view supporting the belief that while individuals are important with rights that must be protected their welfare can never supersede that of the nation (the group). This hierarchy must be institutionalized in the Constitution and in federal, state, and local laws. Clearly this will generate conflict, perhaps even warfare. But 2 million years of evolution show humans survive by group, not individual selection. Individual selection is a threat to human survival.

      • Rob Reno
        January 3, 2018 at 6:02 pm

        One of the reasons we are counseling and financially supporting our two daughters to pursue their science and medicine academic careers and practice in Canada and to emigrate is because we fear the US is increasingly becoming a culture where violence is seen as a viable method of problem solving by certain extremist groups (think right-wing militia movements and NRA). The destructive culture wars (which mainstream economics has fueled indirectly) have elected a demagogue that represents the most debased moral, ethical, and fundamentalist (economically and religiously) elements of American society. Our Founders did not fight for such despots as Trump and the ignorant masses that are his sycophants. If it comes to the point where civil society resorts to violence to solve its economic and cultural divisions I want my children and grandchildren to be elsewhere. If it reaches that point it is already to late.

        As for banning mainstream economics I don’t see that as the way forward either. If we as a society are not able, through civil discourse and public education and lawful wise legislation of changing the course of predatory capitalism, which is swiftly undermining the very foundations of democracy in the US, then the cause is lost and we will reap what we collectively have sown.

        Selectionism, in light of evo-devo is a poor foundation upon which to build the intellectual frameworks required to meet the challenges facing us today. It is like trading one flawed “just-so” story for another. Evolutionary theory us itself currently undergoing a resynthesis, and unless one studied the history of evolutionary theory one might never know.

  12. Edward Ross
    January 2, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    Firstly from experience I don’t think banning anything will achieve the desired results, rather I think it more important to explain to the public why the current mainstream economic theory is the cause their loss of employment and out of control cost of living. Apart from that I think you and the those who regularly contribute posts and blogs need to be congratulated for your efforts. Ted.

  13. Rob Reno
    January 3, 2018 at 7:10 pm

    “2 million years of evolution show humans survive by group, not individual selection. Individual selection is a threat to human survival.”

    Evolution is a fact. But the history of evolutionary theory, especially since the recent history of evo-devo’s validation of the core ideas and hypotheses of the nineteenth century experimental embryologists that were eclipsed by the Modern Synthesis, reveals that evolutionary theory is in a similar state of paradigm shift as economics. Just as some mainstream economists operate as though there are no problems with their theoretical framework while others are pointing out the glaring deficiencies, so too the same is playing out in the field of evolutionary biology.

    • Rob Reno
      January 3, 2018 at 7:20 pm

      Naomi Oreskes in her ground breaking study—The Rejection of Continental Drift—reveals how when Alfred Wegener proposed his theory that the earth’s crust moves the American scientific community almost unanimously rejected his ideas not based upon the evidence, but rather because of dogmatically held philosophical beliefs (e.g., uniformitarianism), lack of theoretical plurality, national pride (Wegener was German), overspecialization and lack cross discipline study (something Wegener was very good at), etc.

      She writes:

      Scientists are interested in truth. They want to know how the world really is, and they want to use that knowledge to do things in the world. In the earth sciences, this has meant developing methods of observation to determine the shape, structure, and history of the earth and designing instruments to measure, record, predict, and interpret the earth’s physical and chemical processes and properties. The resulting knowledge may be used to find mineral deposits, energy resources, or underground water; to delineate areas of earthquake and volcanic hazard; to isolate radioactive and toxic wastes; or to make inferences and predictions about the earth’s past and future climate. The past century has produced a prodigious amount of factual knowledge about the earth, and prodigious demands are now being placed on that knowledge.

      The history of science demonstrates, however, that the scientific truths of yesterday are often viewed as misconceptions, and, conversely, that ideas rejected in the past may now be considered true. History is littered with the discarded beliefs of yesteryear, and the present is populated by epistemic resurrections. This realization leads to the central problem of the history and philosophy of science: How are we to evaluate contemporary science’s claims to truth given the perishability of past scientific knowledge? This question is of considerable philosophic interest and of practical import as well. If the truths of today are the falsehoods of tomorrow, what does this say about the nature of scientific truth?

      — Oreskes, Naomi (1999) The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science. Oxford University Press

    • Rob Reno
      January 3, 2018 at 7:25 pm

      Whatever sympathy I had for Daly’s notion of continental drift was overwhelmed by the work of two giants of 20th century geophysics: Cambridge professor Sir Harold Jeffreys and Harvard professor Francis Birth. (Oreskes 2001: 112)

      In all science there is a strong “herd instinct.” Members of the herd find congeniality in interacting with other members who hold the same view of the world. They may argue vigorously about details, but they maintain solidarity when challenged or criticized by those outside their comfortable herd. If individual scientists stray too far from the accepted dogma of the day, that of the herd, they are gently (or not so gently) ostracized. The herd instinct is strengthened enormously if the paymasters ar members of the herd. Strays do not get funded and their work, sometimes highly innovative, is neglected as the herd rumbles along. When leaders of the herd decide to strike out in new direction, the herd often follows. Before the 1960s, Harry Hess, Tuzo Wilson, and Bob Dietz, all respected leaders of the North American geologist herd, decided to shift directions and the herd soon followed. (Oreskes 2001: 125)

      By contrast, if the innovaters are not part of the herd it becomes very much more difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. Over the years I have seen examples of the herd mentality in many fields of science. (Oreskes 2001: 125)

      Long ago, the geologic herd overcame the physicist herd in the battle about the age of the earth. They now have a comfortable confidence that they have found truth in plate tectonics, even if there are a few troublesome details yet to be dealt with. (Oreskes 2001: 127)

      ~ Oreskes, Naomi. Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Boulder: Colorado: Westview Press; 2001; p. 112; 125; 127.

      • Edward Ross
        January 4, 2018 at 3:44 am

        In reply to Naomi Oreskes and Rob Reno please note that my comments are mainly based on first hand particle experience not academic theory this is not to ridicule academic theory, but to demonstrate the importance of practical before debating theory. The main points are while working as a volunteer in a remote part of the West Sepik of Papua New Guinea throughout the 1970s creating a farm training school for the local young men and then later as supervisor for road construction. In this area earthquakes were common, that sometimes caused tidal waves. or sometimes when cutting a road through a ridge under 1000 feet much of the material was decaying coral. Also if flying from the coast at Aitape to the highlands it was easy to observe how one plate was pushing under another creating a dramatic rise in the terrain from just above sea level to 11000 feet. The point I am trying to make briefly is that from experience and observation I believe their is an almost unlimited amount of real evidence that Tectonic plate movement is a reality not a fiction. Then the comments on the heard instincts , from one who has had some experience in agriculture one of my main concerns with mainstream neoliberal economics is heard reaction to follow the leader. Here I recall the following experienced many years ago when working on land development, On Avery hot day the shepherd was driving a mob of sheep to fast along a cliff top the result was that when the leaders smelt water they jumped over the cliff and the rest followed to their destruction. Thus the way I see it is the challenge today for economics is to stop the leaders from leading the rest of us to jumping over the cliff to destruction. Therefore the question becomes how to get economists and the public to think fore themselves. To some extent some economists on their blogs have already outlined the need for an education that teaches economists and the public how to think should be the firs step to reforming economics.

      • Rob Reno
        January 4, 2018 at 5:48 am

        Wow Edward, what a great comment! Yes, I agree with your points. Wegener was a pragmatic man, who based his theory on personal observations. So too du Toit and other European gealogists who argued the continents move. Here is where the analogy parts company though in my view. In terms of plate tectonics the general public were not involved, but when it comes to mainstream economics it has popularized on the vulgar popular level as a secular religion of the all powerful market holding at evil socialism. This crude idea of the market permeates conservative popular culture and even some educated elite. It is a culture war.

  14. Rob Reno
    January 4, 2018 at 6:37 am

    [T]he challenge today for economics is to stop the leaders from leading the rest of us to jumping over the cliff to destruction. Therefore the question becomes how to get economists and the public to think fore themselves. To some extent some economists on their blogs have already outlined the need for an education that teaches economists and the public how to think should be the firs step to reforming economics. ~ Edward Ross

    I think the greater threat is from the CEOs and self-serving boards of corporations, and the wealthy 1% shareholders that are driving capitalism to its own destruction, and few even listen or care about what economists say except to use the mainstream economic ideology as cover for their rapacious greed. They have used their billions to corrupt US democracy via the ever revolving door of lobbyist to government job to business job and back to lobbyist to essentially bribe politicians with money to fund their war chests so they can get elected again. And many Americans were so cynical and so blinded by secular consumerism that they sat on their asses while Trump was elected. Many of the middle-upper class in their white-collar jobs didn’t raise a finger while the corporations were outsourcing blue-collar jobs abroad. Sure, we read it in the news, but then we went on with our daily lives. Didn’t even lift a finger to ask, is this right and can we do something for our fellow blue-collar workers?

    Unless the heterodox economists can speed up this renewal I have little hope form above (the ivory tower) as scientific revolutions usually take decades; and we don’t have decades before the sins of our greedy culture comes home to roost.

  15. January 4, 2018 at 9:57 am

    Just a few clarifying (I hope) comments. First, Oreskes is wrong about science. Science is neither a herd nor a search for truth. It’s an “evolutionary” process of “allowing” facts to reveal themselves. These facts evolve since they arise from an evolving species. They are also communal, since humans (who invent science) are communal. This means facts are not fixed. It also means they co-evolve. That is, they are the result of the interaction of humans with one another and with the nonhuman. The “problems” with science that Oreskes identifies are thus not problems with science but with humans in their interactions with the environment. Science as a communal institution of humans focuses on two actions – 1) examining a topic as many times (over and over) as possible with as many methods as possible; 2) attempting to be as explicit as possible about what is examined and why.

    Evolutionary theory is a human creation. And thus, evolves with the species. So, it’s always being “resynthesized.” Wilson is involved in evolutionary theory. To make that theory work we need to keep two things in mind. Biologically, humans are just one more animal that evolves like other animals. But humans are different from other animals in that it creates cultures, ways of life that are at times as powerful or even more powerful than biological evolution. The story of pirate society shows this clearly. That human biological evolution is by group, not individual is as certain a fact as science can construct. But how that is carried out in specific situations is largely cultural. When members of pirate society violated the egalitarianism of “pirate brotherhood” the result was that the offender(s) be left on a desert island or fed to the sharks. Our culture today is different from that of the pirates. What happens to sociopaths, psychopaths, or others who disrupt or attack American society today? They are isolated in hospitals, prisons, or similar facilities, or put to death if the attacks are heinous enough. Or they are just ignored and pushed out of most gatherings. Their words and philosophy banned or ignored. That’s what I’m suggesting.

    Finally, evolutionists focus on experiment of every sort. Theirs is not a theory from the ivory tower. They also consider themselves more craft persons than intellectuals. Darwin sets an example. Which brings me to an awareness that may upset some here. Liberal democracy – by which I mean democracy such as set out in the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution – is not necessarily a benefit for human survival. Evolution is about survival! Those groups that survive set the patterns for the future. In human evolution biology and culture either move in the same direction or they do not. The question is what are the consequences when cultural evolution contradicts biological evolution? I suggest liberal democracy does precisely that. It’s not an aberration that the most destructive wars and other human caused destruction of humankind have taken place since the advent of liberal democracy. Certainly, like culture, the direction of human biological evolution can change or be changed. But the issue is at what impact in terms of human survival. What’s going on now and has been happening for over 200 years in the “liberal” west is not a polite debate between different philosophies and academies. It is literally about human survival. We need to treat it as such. Liberal democracy makes that more difficult, or in the extreme impossible.

    • Rob Reno
      January 4, 2018 at 4:50 pm

      “Tradition has it that theories are carriers of knowledge about the real world…. Even if we have to acknowledge that the world is mind-independent, this does not in any way reduce the epistemological fact that we can only know what the world is like from within our languages, theories, or discourses. But that the world is epistemologically _mediated_ by theories does not mean that it is the _product_ of them.” (Syll 2016, 1, 5)

      I don’t think Oreskes said “science is a herd.” She did say scientists sometimes _behave like a herd_ and engage in “group think.” In my view she is correct; many young scientists are dependent on the approval of the older established scientists in the furtherance of their careers, and the good graces of their peers are very important. In other words, science is a social enterprise where how one is perceived by the group does matter and sometimes influences how the enterprise proceeds. I think we can find many examples of this within the scientific community. They act like humans with all their human strengths, weakness, etc.

      It is the truth about the real world (relative and provisional though it may be) that scientists want to know about. Given access to the same facts, two individuals can look at an issued and reach utterly different conclusions. All facts come with a interpretive framework from which we try to make sense of them.

      We know scientists as both individuals and as groups sometimes become dogmatic about their cherished theory. The reason in my view science eventually does progress is because of the communal aspect of the enterprise and intersubjective methodologies of science testing theory, again and again as you note, against empirical reality such that one scientist’s experience and theory is tested and confirmed or disconfirmed by another scientist.

    • Rob Reno
      January 4, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      “Biologically, humans are just one more animal that evolves like other animals. But humans are different from other animals in that it creates cultures, ways of life that are at times as powerful or even more powerful than biological evolution.”

      Much therein I agree with. You might enjoy Eva Jablonka et. al., “Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology, http://a.co/9JOOCF1).

      I think it is true culture can have a powerful and lasting impact on biological evolution.

  16. January 4, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    In short, as Rodney King said “Can’t we all just get along?” – and the answer seems to be ‘no’ – everything we know about human history suggests conflict eventually overtakes order – as in

    Scheidel, Walter. (2017). The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Merely hoping for for social order, justified by harking back to one or other ‘golden age’ is not much use.

    We also know that the primary aim of political activity is the production of order – safety and the possibility of a non-Hobbesian existence. World politics often fails, and seems to be failing now. The only way forward is to make it work, no?

  17. Edward Ross
    January 4, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Thank you Rob Reno for your comments on my post however there is this line that I want to further comment on ‘in terms of plate tectonics the public were not involved.’ From my perspective I believe this is true, therefore we have to ask why. Again from my observation and experience in the real world this approach was a deliberate attempt by the wealthy elite and their cohorts the neoliberal academics and politicians to indoctrinate the public into accepting the neoliberal ideological version of global warming without question. To my way of thinking these sort of neoliberal attitudes are what condemns neoliberalism and threatens democracy. .

  18. January 5, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Rob, I prefer this rather than Syll’s version. All humans (Homo Sapiens) know and understand through cultures.

    The words of Oreskes in her book, “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History Of The Modern Theory of the Earth” seem clear. She claims there is a “strong” here instinct in all science. And to ensure the point is made she uses the word 20 times in the book. Herd behavior is a short-hand referring to how individuals in a group can act collectively without centralized direction. Well established groups often tend to act as if a single institution. Groups in unsettled or transitory situations may reflect imitative action, since no established pattern to follow may exist. So, as with all groups, the scientific community may imitate one another. And certainly, have been socialized into the protocols of the community. But science communities are no more apt than others to take such actions in these ways. And portions of the protocols scientists learn in socialization demand such actions be limited and reflected on.

    I agree facts are, as I said constructed by humans within human cultures that evolve over time. As to scientific dogmatic tendencies, these are a part of all human societies, not just science. But again, I remind you that the protocols of scientific communities require these be questioned and examined. Sometimes that process is slow, since science has the tendency to be deliberate and conservative. But we should keep in mind that scientific consensus is within the community, not between scientists’ beliefs and the “real” world. For scientists “reality” is transitory and uncertain. “Reality” is a human construct.

    I like Jablonka’s and Lamb’s book. But genetics in evolution has not been the exclusive focus of anthropologists and biologists for the last 25 years. Although Jablonka and Lamb make that point clearer for all to view.

    Spender7, One statement in Scheidel’s book sticks in my mind. “Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources.” In other words, angry words do not change the distribution of resources.

    Edward, has democracy facilitated or hindered Home Sapiens survival?

    • Rob Reno
      January 5, 2018 at 8:32 pm

      “I prefer this rather than Syll’s version. All humans (Homo Sapiens) know and understand through cultures.” I may have missed something for I have no idea what “Syll’s version” is when contrasted with the idea that humans know and understand through cultures. What do you understand to be Syll’s version?

      Since it has been years since I read Oreskes and Grand (2001) I pulled it off the shelf and gave it quick read. Some clarification is called for. Oreskes and Grand were editors; the book was an anthology of the reflections of the scientists who participated in the plate tectonic revolution. The author who wrote the “Afteword” that used the “herd instinct” metaphor was Gordon J. McDonald. My apologies for having not made that clearer and my mea culpa that my own memory attributed the quote to Oreskes when she was just the editor. That said, Ken, there is much I can agree with in your comments, but I find your need to misquote and distort the intended meaning of McDonald’s use of an metaphor a bridge to far for me. Word counts are irrelevant to the meaning of their usage. I don’t think the author was using the term “herd instinct” in a literal biological meaning of the term. He used it as a metaphor, and very apt one at that. He went on to provide case examples. Metaphors, like parables, are useful up until the point they are reified or taken literally.

      The core of his usage of this metaphor is that there exists within the scientific community a natural human tendency to want to be part of and accepted by one’s group peers. Younger scientists feel the need to earn their standing and are hesitant to challenge accepted ideas; more established scientists sometimes become dogmatic (even anti-scientific slinging ad hominin at valid criticisms of established theory) in defending their pet theory. In otherwords the polished papers and sanitizd consensus doesn’t reveal the way the messy process of sausage making actually works, which reveals something important about how science _actualy_ creates “consensus” within a given field. When one looks behind the curtain of polished papers and current consensus from a historical perspective one begins to see, albeit through a glass darkly as each “history” is only “a history,” how scientific knowledge is generated. As it turns out it is not so neat and clean as we sometimes tell ourselves. And the take away I have gained from these studies is that humility is called for and that a certain degree of doubt is good for the creative process of scientific discovery to flourish. Without it human hubris and the need to conform easily settles into complacent dogmatism. In other words _how_ the sausage is made is as important as that it _does get made_.

      I highly recommend you read Oreskes introduction to her book The Rejection of Continental Drift titled “The Instability of Scientific Truth.” I think her insights in many ways dovetail and agree with many of your points. Perhaps my quote didn’t do justice to the fullness of her analysis, and that is my fault. I am not attacking science per se; as Oreskes notes, “All _science_ is socially structured, both the good and the bad, and so is the peer review system that adjudicates between them…. Historical case studes can illustrate how the development of a particular idea – including our best science – reflects the contraints of historical situations (Oreskes 1999, 4-5).”

      There is much gold to be mined from your comments below, with a few caviats:

      The claim that “’Reality’ is a human construct” is fraught with many levels of ambiquity and philosophical paradoxes. I am not even sure quantum physicists would completely agree with that. But back to the field of plate tectonics. Scientists operate on _faith_ that there is an _objective reality_ independent of their mind that is ameniable to empirical testing. No doubt, how we perceive that postulated world of material things and beings is constained by human perception, mind, philosophical assumptions (conscious or unconscious), and culture. Science’s strength is by testing our ideas, hypotheses, and theories empirically and in a community of other scientists we are able to use intersubjectivity (shared verifiable claims about the material world) to weed out those hypotheses that are falsifiable. The irony here is some ideas that were declared “falsified” are later found to be resurrected at a later time and declared true. Don’t get me wrong; creationists are pursuing a lost cause if they think the age of the earth is going to radicaly change from ~4.5 billion years to ~5,000 years old anytime soon—if ever.

      “Herd behavior is a short-hand referring to how individuals in a group can act collectively without centralized direction.” Again, don’t want to over use a metaphor, but rather base my view on actual human behavior within a given scientific field. I don’t think a given scientific field is leaderless and without a “centralized direction.” In every field of science there are the “leaders” so-to-speak who have a powerful influence on how the younger less established scientists within the field think, act, and behave. These are the established (and famous) professors who often teach the young graduate students. I can find examples of just such professors using ad hominem to denigrate heterodox ideas to duly impress their graduate students what the consensus truth is opposed to those who are wrong. Then, later, after the graduate student participates in the plate tectonic revolution documenting how such less than scientific teaching influenced them and their younger peers from actually seriously entertaining such heterodox views. Siminars are a great place to see this phenomenon, granted that a field is undergoing some kind of “revolution” that gives rise to such questioning by the fields rebels and mavricks (See Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology by Oren Harman et al., http://a.co/73wEqxb). In other words institutional trends don’t emerge spontaneously but are brought about by thought leaders in the given community. I believe the history of science does reveal a cluster or “pattern” if you will of how these consensus are built that transcends any given field (See Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect by Ernest B. Hook, http://a.co/1Wv1KCk).

      “[G]enetics in evolution has not been the exclusive focus of anthropologists and biologists for the last 25 years.” While this is correct, I do think that a given paradigm – population genetics – has excluded other viewpoints from being given due consideration. The Modern Synthesis was more of a constriction than a synthesis (Provine 2001, n.5). We frequently hear in popular culture of the new discovery of a “gene” for this or “gene” for that when the very definition of a gene is contested nowdays on a fundamental level. Bean bag genetics is dead; long live epigenetics! (See Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense by Sheldon Krimsky et al., http://a.co/6znbEsG) The recent rise of Evolutionary Developmental Biology has, as Gould (2002, 1065-1066) so colorfully notes, “discombobulated the confident expectations of orthodox theory” due to the discovery of “deep homology.” (Held 2017, n.6)

      Many of the old controversies within the field of biology have returned with a vengeance, having never really gone away. I am curious as delve deeper into the history of economics if will witness the same pattern playing out? Preliminary indications are that I will.

      Reference List

      1. Agutter, Paul S. and Wheatley Denys N., _. Thinking about Life [The History and Philosophy of Biology and Other Sciences]. United Kingdom: Springer; 2008; p. v-vi.

      Notes: In the first chapter of About Life we defined science, provisionally, as a way of satisfying our curiosity by formulating qusestions about what we observe and answering them dispassionately, without making value judgements…. For example, the word ‘science’ is used regularly in television programmes, magazines, websites and broadsheet papers, but it seems to be used in different senses. How can we interpret the word when its meaning varies? (Agutter 2008: v)

      For most people, most of the time, ‘science’ means knowledge of a certain sort1: a collection of facts and beliefs that helps us to explain and predict the observable world coherently. A science textbook is a repository of such knowledge. When you study science at school or university you learn some of it. But ‘scientific knowledge’ changes continuously…. Indeed, many different factors influence the way in which science changes: political, economic, religious, and so on. Therefore, a ‘scientific fact’ — a ‘scientific truth’ — is not constant or absolute or ‘eternal’. Historians of science can tell us how, and in part why, our understanding of nature has changed over time. If we are to understand what science is and in what sense it can claim to provide ‘truth’, we need to understand why it changes. (Agutter 2008: v-vi)

      1 The Latin scientia is usually translated as ‘knowledge’. Prior to about 1800, ‘science’ denoted knowledge and understanding in general; for instance, what are now loosely called ‘the humanities’ were called ‘moral sciences’. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, what we now call ‘science’ was labelled ‘natural philosophy’. The word ‘scientist’ was invented in the 1830s by William Whewell, first president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but was not widely accepted until well into the 20th century. (Agutter 2008: v)

      2 A ‘scientific fact’ may be here today but gone tomorrow as new evidence gives us greater understanding and corrects mistaken notions. (Agutter 2008: vi)

      2. Endersby, Jim. A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2007; pp. 424-425.

      Notes: The history of science suggests that science does not deal in eternal, unchanging truths, only in provisional, short-lived ones. It makes sense to evaluate today’s science in the same way we judge that of the past, accepting that today’s scientific breakthroughs may eventually be discarded or, more likely, will simply become uninteresting because they have become part of the routine background knowledge that every scientists takes for granted. (Endersby 2007: 424)

      So does that mean that modern science has not improved on older science, or that scientific accounts of the world are no better than other kinds of explanations? Does the history of science suggest, to take an example that is back in the news yet again, that Darwin’s theory of evolution really is no better than Creationism? Obviously not, because although scientists can never be certain that they have arrived at the final truth, they do have good reasons for becoming increasingly confident that they are on the right track. As new experiments produce evidence that supports a theory, it becomes increasingly likely that the theory is substantially correct. Some details may need changing in the light of new evidence, but the major hypotheses underpinning the theory become increasingly well established. (Endersby 2007: 424)

      As we have seen, science is a social activity, carried out by communities of researchers; it takes evidence to persuade your peers that your theory is right. At the same time, there are glittering careers to be made in demolishing established theories, so scientists are always on the look out for surprising new evidence that might challenge teh prevailing wisdom. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution by natural selection has gained strength — despite occasional setbacks — during the 150 years since Darwin first published it. There is now no serious opposition to any of its major premises within the scientific community, even though debates continue about many of its details. The controversies and discoveries I have been describing eventually put a great deal of flesh on the bare bones of Darwin’s theory, but they did not alter its major tenets. (Endersby 2007: 424-425)

      Does this mean Darwin can never be provded wrong? Of course not. Scientific truths are not dogmas founded on faith, but hypotheses founded on evidence. New evidence might always come along, but a mature, well-supported theory such as evolution by natural selection is most unlikely to be overturned. Scientists form a large, diverse community, with agreed standards of evidence and well-established mechanisms for testing and evaluating theories; if most scientists tell us there are genes, there almost certainly genes. They could all be wrong, but the odds are strongly against it. (Endersby 2007: 425)

      3. Weiss, Kenneth M. and Buchanan Anne v. The Mermaid’s Tale [Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things]. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2009; pp. 58-59.

      Notes: So what is a gene? The term was coined by the Danish plant biologist Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909 to refer to distinct functional something-or-others that were inherited, in the way that Gregor Mendel had demonstrated in his experiments with pea plants. Mendel used a vague German term, “Element,” that was a black-box term because nothing specific was known about what those inherited elements actually were, but the idea took hold that one unit corresponded to one function–like the yellow or green color of Mendel’s peas. It would take roughly a half-century of further research to discover the protein-coding nature of DNA, but that discovery nicely fit the existing concept of a gene: a stretch of DNA equals a protein: one gene, one function. That fact seemed so important to the nature of life that it became known as the Central Dogma of Biology. (Weiss and Buchanan 2009: 58)

      That phrase is still used now and then, but what we have described about how genes function shows that the classical notion of a gene is incomplete, to say the least. It is a simplified caricature of inherited function, and it doesn’t recognize the multiple functions of many proteins. Nor does it include the countless other codes, or their arrangement, or the different ways by which they work, which are contained in a genome. And we have only described a fraction of these functions. The limited one gene-one function view is still around, often implicitly in many areas of the life sciences. But it is a blinkered view that can lead to oversimplified ideas about how genes “cause” traits on the Devo scale among cells within organisms and about the working of inheritance with memory among organisms and species on the Evo scale. So much has been learned about the various functional roles of DNA sequence, and its modification, that there isn’t even a satisfactory single definition of the word “gene”–the word itself is no longer effective code for biological function! (Weiss and Buchanan 2009: 58-59)

      4. Ringo, John. Fundamental Genetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2004; p. 43.

      Notes: Dear reader, I have bad news for you: geneticists cannot agree on what a gene is, even though we do agree that genes are fundamental biological objects. Worse still, gene can change its meaning with context. Though this situation wants a strong remedy, none is available. The best I can offer you is a simple, natural concept of gene, contrasted with widely used, alternative concepts. (Ringo 2004: 43)

      5. Provine, William B. The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. Chicago: Chicago University Press; 2001; c1971 pp. 203-204.

      Notes: The evolutionary synthesis [i.e., Neo-Darwinian theory] came unraveled for me during the period since 1980. Historically, my examination of this period, after editing with Ernst Mayr “The Evolutionary Synthesis” (Mayer and Provine 1980), showed that it was not a synthesis, but rather a systematic diminuation of the factors in evolution, and I now call it the “evolutionary constriction” (Provine 1989). The unity of evolutionary biology inherent in the “synthesis” has been replaced by a much more interesting and fascinating complex of different levels marching to different drummers….

      In 1970 I could see the origins of theoretical population genetics as being an unalloyed good for evolutionary biology, and thus obviously a great subject for an historian. Now I see these same theoretical models of the early 1930s, still widely used today, as an impediment to understanding evolutionary biology, and their amazing persistence in textbooks and classrooms as a great topic for other historians. (Provine 2001: 203-204)

      6. Held, Lewis I. Jr. Deep Homology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2017; .
      Note: The modern Synthesis, which integrated genetics with Darwinian evolution, has been the predominant paradigm within evolutionary biology for much of the twentieth century. Architects of the modern synthesis predicted that natural selection as the primary engine of evolution should erase any homology at the genetic level between the 35 animal phyla, including arthropods and chordates. At this this scale of evolutionary time, natural selection would have “recrafted” the nucleotide sequences of each gene in the genome through the constant accumulation of beneficial and neutral mutations during the process of adaptation of each organism to a constantly changing local environment. During this same period, experimental embryologists were searching and struggling to find “grand homologies” or conserved embryological features between animals, such as the three germ layers shared by all bilaterian animals or the cleavage patterns shared by flatworms, annelids, and molluscs. Therefore, the discovery of deep homology was a major surprise for evolutionary biology and a major triumph for experimental embryologists.

      Yet the deep homology concept has not been fully grasped and incorporated into evolutionary theory, or into other areas of biology, including ecology, medicine, and agriculture. Like its predecessors, this latest book in Lewis Held’s trilogy will help lay the foundation for such a synthesis…. By doing this, the reader begins to realize that deep homology may be the rule, not the exception.

      • Rob Reno
        January 5, 2018 at 10:18 pm

        Addendum: Just because I share a quote doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with everything they say. Sometimes I provide them simply to show a contrast, for example, Endersby’s (rather arrogant) view:

        “[I]f most scientists tell us there are genes, there almost certainly genes. They could all be wrong, but the odds are strongly against it.” (Endersby 2007: 425)

        This is a prescription for creating sheep not independent thinking scientists. There was never a time when the bean-bag-genetics of DNA being “genes” lined up like beads on string was not contested — even by the scientist that coined the term “gene” itself! If those scientists that comprised the dominate research program at the time (i.e., population genetics) had a little more humility and historical awareness they might not have confidently proclaimed the part of the genome they don’t understand “Junk DNA,” which we now know is anything but junk. A little more humility might be called for, it seems.

    • January 8, 2018 at 10:26 am

      What Ken is saying here is on the whole interesting and constructive, if you take ‘facts’ (c.f. factory) as being what we make of our observations. What he doesn’t seem to grasp (or for rhetorical reasons declines to) is that facts are not reality: merely a reference to it. Facts are specific whereas reality is universal. Reality can change things and hence future representations, whereas ‘linguistic’ references to even momentarily perfect representations can’t. Of course I’m arguing this via its analogy with the facts of data in the reality of a physical computer, but the logic of the argument can be seen in Frege’s “Sense and Reference” logic of the 1890’s: I can’t reproduce his symbolism here but see his “The Basic Laws of Arithmetic (1967, Un. of California Press), p.37, #4 on “Functions of Two Arguments”. The logic refers to “argument-places” which have to be filled with data. Filling one of two such places leaves a function merely of the other, so [only] if there is a reality can the reference point to it. A nice touch in our Algol-68R system was to initialise unset words in a database in such a way that if you accessed them they spelt out the word “Fool”!

      At Rob’s addenda, I suggest he considers the argument (from Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication”, 1949) that conventionally meaningful languages can be encoded as binary numbers, hence minimally as the four possibilities of two digits. But DNA is made up of just four types of protein, hence the frequent reference to them as information. A gene may therefore be likened to a word so encoded, but as Shannon shows, the same word can mean different things in different contexts, and its probable meaning in a particular concept emerges as one spells out more and more of the context. I’m not sure biologists think of it this way, but the concept of genetic structure makes sense when you do. The same argument applies to my four agent-type model of economics, where the real economy is a word emerging from the emerging context of ecology, the monetary economy is another word (an adjective?) qualifying the type of economy, and money-making (Aristotle’s ‘chrematism’) is what emerges when (due mistaking error-avoidance for error-correction) the monetary controls become so effective they permit only reproduction of money.

      What shows up economists as “autistic” or “idiots-savants” is that all this has been around for a long time, but even the best of them don’t seem to have picked it up and run with it.

  19. Rob Reno
    January 5, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    Lars, the “pure nonsense” link in your post above appears to be broken.

  20. January 7, 2018 at 9:38 am

    Rob, great conversation. Just a few additional comments.

    For me it’s simple. Syll’s just too wordy for my taste. I’ve never thought it’s a good idea to repeat the same points 2-3 times. As to “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History Of The Modern Theory of the Earth” I assume the editors take responsibility for the overall direction of the book. Including the misuse of terms like herd and mischaracterization of science and scientists. I do not tolerate sloppy writers easily. There is no natural human tendency to want to be part of and accepted by one’s group peers. There is human evolution, which has worked based on between group selection. That does not imply either that the members of a human group respect or want to be respected by the members of the groups where they live. It does imply when the members of groups work together in the group, this improves the chances for survival of the groups and thus the species. This cooperation can be based on respect, or many other factors – as simple as fear. Humans competing as individuals thus reduce the chances of the species surviving. Precisely by improving their chances of survival contrary to group needs. As you suggest humans can and do exhibit hubris. There’s no reason to conclude it’s a “natural” part of human life. But it has a long history being constructed as part of human cultures. Much the same is the story for dogmatism. But the thing that concerns me about McDonald’s use of the word is found in the second example he cites. It’s one where he clearly believes the scientific “herd” is rejecting his theories because they are blindly following the herd. I am not a geologist. Nor do I know the history of plate tectonics. But in my view, McDonald’s examples don’t describe the scientific herd enforcing “law and order,” but rather the deliberation, slowness, and conservativism built into science over the last 400 years. The carpenter’s code – measure twice, cut once seems applicable – is even more important for scientists. McDonald, in my view appears to be working through some animosities about scientists he feels have not given his work due respect.

    I have not read Oreskes’ “The Instability of Scientific Truth.” But I have read “Merchants of Doubt,” and use many of its examples in my work. The message you cite comes through clearly in that book. However, Oreskes seems to me a little too interested in using the history of science to support certain beliefs she views as necessary and important politically. Such efforts are at best dubious.

    Everything humans construct is “fraught” with ambiguity and philosophical paradoxes. After all, ambiguity and philosophy are human constructs, too. But as I said earlier the purpose of scientific constructs is to allow facts to reveal themselves. An endless job, for certain. But one where scientists over time coevolve inferences with the facts, we hope. This is the origin of scientific constructs, uncertain and reversible but useful. Scientists pursue empiricism, as you suggest. But empiricism is also a human construct, and to paraphrase William James, one possible belief humans can assume. Science is a thoroughly pragmatic activity. Per Wilson, “I have an unromantic view of science and scientists. I regard science as a roll-up-your-sleeves activity, like gardening or construction work. I regard scientists as just like other folks. No one can be trusted on the basis of their job title—not scientists, politicians, priests, or self-righteous intellectuals…Science is largely a way to ensure accountability for factual claims.” And sometimes this is prickly work. But it does help us understand why scientists watch one another so closely and why consensus is the coin of the realm in building scientific knowledge. Scientific rebels and misfits are thus useful in science as sources of both questioning and defending consensus. As to whether science can ever unify itself, that’s a more difficult question. Right now, only evolutionary biologists are making any effort to unify the study of humans and the study of the rest of life. And their efforts haven’t progressed very far.

    I agree with what you say about scientific leaders and teachers. That’s one reason I so strongly disagree with how McDonald uses the word herd. As I noted earlier, human groups, including scientific ones at times act by imitation. “So, as with all groups, the scientific community may imitate one another. And certainly, have been socialized into the protocols of the community. But science communities are no more apt than others to take such actions in these ways. And portions of the protocols scientists learn in socialization demand such actions be limited and reflected on.” Science in the modern version is a protocol driven institution. It rests on the notion of making everything it does, all it investigates explicit. This is impossible in any complete or final sense, but it can be done in parts, and the parts can sometimes be cumulative. Science is not about truth. It is about looking at the world repeatedly and working to make the results of those observation explicit. This is how scientists co-evolve with facts.

    You are correct I think that genetics and genes have become a fad in the general population. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists like this attention. And hope to use it, as Wilson does to spark a wider interest in evolution and how it works. Especially, the new insights of the last 25 years

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