Home > Uncategorized > Hard and soft science — a flawed dichotomy

Hard and soft science — a flawed dichotomy

from Lars Syll

The distinctions between hard and soft sciences are part of our culture … But the important distinction is really not between the hard and the soft sciences. Rather, it is between the hard and the easy sciences. Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. In my estimation, we have the hardest-to-do science of them all! We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building-problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences …

Context-MAtters_Blog_Chip_180321_093400Huge context effects cause scientists great trouble in trying to understand school life … A science that must always be sure the myriad particulars are well understood is harder to build than a science that can focus on the regularities of nature across contexts …

Doing science and implementing scientific findings are so difficult in education because humans in schools are embedded in complex and changing networks of social interaction. The participants in those networks have variable power to affect each other from day to day, and the ordinary events of life (a sick child, a messy divorce, a passionate love affair, migraine headaches, hot flashes, a birthday party, alcohol abuse, a new principal, a new child in the classroom, rain that keeps the children from a recess outside the school building) all affect doing science in school settings by limiting the generalizability of educational research findings. Compared to designing bridges and circuits or splitting either atoms or genes, the science to help change schools and classrooms is harder to do because context cannot be controlled.

David Berliner

Amen!

When applying deductivist thinking to economics, mainstream economists set up their easy-to-do  ‘as if’ models based on a set of tight axiomatic assumptions from which consistent and precise inferences are made. The beauty of this procedure is, of course, that if the axiomatic premises are true, the conclusions necessarily follow. The snag is that if the models are to be real-world relevant, we also have to argue that their precision and rigour still holds when they are applied to real-world situations. They often do not, and one of the main reasons for that is that context matters. When addressing real-world systems, the idealizations and abstractions necessary for the deductivist machinery to work simply do not hold.

If the real world is fuzzy, vague and indeterminate, then why should our models build upon a desire to describe it as precise and predictable? The logic of idealization is a marvellous tool in an easy-to-do science like physics, but a poor guide for action in real-world systems in which concepts and entities are without clear boundaries and continually interact and overlap.

  1. Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
    July 16, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    Lars, I expect Einstein & Newton would disagree, but Freud & many contemporary politicians would totally agree. I’m on your side.

  2. July 16, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    So what is the appropriate logic?

  3. Rhonda Kovac
    July 17, 2018 at 1:14 am

    I wouldn’t say physics, astronomy, chemistry, and the like are ‘easier’ than social sciences. For one thing, it’s comparing apples and oranges. The challenges, and targeted results, are different. I’m not minimizing the difficulties posed by the social world. But there you don’t have to infer what’s going on light years away. You don’t have to bring yourself down to the level of intra-molecular forces. And if you think economics is so complicated, take a look at cell biology sometime. Or neurophysiology.

    I think social scientists complaining about the relative difficulty of what they do to the natural sciences is a little bit of ‘the grass is greener’.

  4. Helen Sakho
    July 17, 2018 at 1:30 am

    Poor physics! Please advise people to read the basics of Einstein, and others.
    And I agree, except I would recommend reading the classical Welsh novel entitled ” How Green was my Valley”, which says it all really.

    • July 17, 2018 at 2:07 pm

      Having reacted to the apparent repeat of this below, I see that there you added “also” to your recommendation.

      Here it is a little clearer why you might be saying “Poor physics!” (having “to infer what’s going on light years away” etc). What Einstein doesn’t seem to have understood is quantum physics: how expanding energy seems to have condensed into localised matter in turbulence by catching its own tail, so to speak. Nor did Whitehead. Indeed, this remains a lacuna in physics, which having lost itself in its mathematics has not yet been able to explain gravity.

      • November 7, 2019 at 2:27 pm

        DT: Do you see any hope in any of the various ideas for improving physics? Is there any prospect for a theory of pohysics that would provide an exemplar for economics?

      • November 7, 2019 at 9:00 pm

        DM: ‘Pohysics’ intrigues me. Do you simply mean physics, or a physics using a logic embracing Edward de Bono’s ‘po’ value?

        Assuming the former, I have long only been able to know other people’s ideas for improving physical theory by reading of them, but I encountered problems as an apprentice to which decades later I have found logically satisfactory solutions, though no doubt editors if not professionals would think them too simple. The Wheatstone Bridge circuit descriptively matches physical flows in economies, but the best exemplar I can offer in terms of physical theory is how an electron doesn’t circulate round a battery circuit but is released from one side other battery and comes to rest in a hole created by the migration of an ion to the other side. One can liken that to you giving me credit in the form of physical goods and you, as my supplier, being monetarily credited with having supplied me.

        When it comes to monetary sub-systems functioning as government or price control systems you are into piggy-backing information on such flows at four levels (the linguistic equivalent of Newton’s four levels of motion) to provide the different types of feedback involved in the cybernetic (navigational) exemplar of control.

  5. Rhonda Kovac
    July 17, 2018 at 1:33 am

    “If the real world is fuzzy, vague and indeterminate, then why should our models build upon a desire to describe it as precise and predictable?”

    It’s not that the world is necessarily fuzzy, vague, indeterminate, but that it only looks that way to us.

    Prior to 1953, the process of DNA replication was “fuzzy, vague and indeterminate”. Once, however, Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure with complementary nucleotides, the process then became clear and predictable.

    • July 17, 2018 at 12:11 pm

      That’s more or less what I’ve just been saying to Dave Marsay on what is axiomatisation good for. In retrospect, one can deduce DNA from chemistry and geological history and ultimately from the Big Bang. Likewise the structure and possibilities of economics. Below, I’m sympathetic with what Frank Salter is saying, except that in practice precision is not necessary: we simply need to know that something is going wrong in time to do enough to avoid it and counteract the effects of the “medicine”.

      • November 7, 2019 at 2:32 pm

        We seem to have identified a foundational difference in our starting points here. Keynes observed that prior to about 1905 physics generally assumed that there was some underlying law-like reality which was being observed, but that this assumption isn’t actually necessary. Consequently, if true it would be an axiom of mathematical physics, not mathematics as such. But how would you prove it?

        More generally, is ‘radical uncertainty’ something that people create or somehting which people ignore, at their potential peril?

      • November 7, 2019 at 8:06 pm

        Yes, DM, my starting point is an axiom of mathematical physics: the Big Bang, assuming Newton’s axiom that motions continue in the same direction unless changed- which they are by reducing density as the universe expands. To interpret that one must appeal first to Pythagoras’s Theorem (to explain ripples and one dimensional numbers as abstractions from complex numbers) and thus to the topological character of particle spray. Or one can say it is Aristotle taking the First Cause as explaining the things caused, as against Hume’s incoherent imagined things (i.e. things as seen by Newton) as causes. The first works out, the other doesn’t. Keynes was wrong. One doesn’t necessarily need a particular axiom but a deductive chain does require at least one physical axiom and axiomatic agreement (justified by its evidence in a later epoch) on how to represent both its truth and its falsehood. One can empirically see how far the initial deductions are still true in survivals from later epochs.

        Surely something cannot be radically certain if it hasn’t happened yet? The same thing therefore cannot be radically uncertain. I recently mentioned Shannon on this. Send a clean message and it can pick up random noise en route. But send a mix of encoded messages and what looks like random variations in amplitude disappear in a Fourier interpretation.

  6. Helen Sakho
    July 17, 2018 at 1:36 am

    Poor physics! Please advise people to read the basics of Einstein, and others.
    And I agree, except I would also strongly recommend reading the classical Welsh novel entitled ” How Green Was My Valley” which says it all really.

    • July 17, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      Delightful! Which part were you thinking of? The injured lad learning that John Stuart Mill was a real thinker, or one of my wife’s ancestral family having a fight in a back garden? And of course the context of mining communities surviving by supporting each other amid ghastly abuse of them and despoilation of nature: just to to save for capitalist “profits” a few pounds which the hell-bound “cannot take with them” and we now know had been made from thin air?

      I’ve been fascinated to discover the quasi-factual sequels to this: miners emigrating in despair to South America and (it turns out) the Philadephia region of the US, where the master miner originated in Bryn Mawr and took some of my wife’s family with him. Spackman is a rare name in Britain, but the Philadephia telephone directory is full of them.

  7. Frank Salter
    July 17, 2018 at 6:26 am

    Reality is very different from what the blog describes. In general, economists wear blinkers of their own choosing. They shy away from inconvenient truths.

    My analysis is the counterexample to what is set out above. I demonstrate that it is the failure to engage with time in a physically meaningful manner which prevents precision. My mathematical analysis describes all the choices which could be made in manufacturing. Then the maximising of output for the expenditure of minimum effort (THE invisible hand) constrains what is actually done. The predictions are fully in accord with empirical fact. They explain why aggregation in macroeconomics works.

    Now for the shying away from valid analysis — so far no-one has engaged with my analysis in any meaningful way. Lots of “you can’t be serious” but little else. What is the problem? A possible answer is the belief that “economics is really hard” (as outlined in the blog) excuses/justifies sloppy analysis. It does NOT!

    Reference:
    Salter F. M. (2017) “Transient Development” RWER-81

  8. Frank Salter
    July 17, 2018 at 6:38 am

    I would like to add another reference:

    Arouh, Albert (1987). “The Mumpsimus of Economists and the Role of Time and Uncertainty in the Progress of Economic Knowledge”. In: Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 9.3, pp. 395–423. doi: 10.1080/01603477.1987.11489631.

  9. David Harold Chester
    July 17, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    There is no soft science. You are getting confused with the expressions applied to BREXIT!

  10. July 18, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    I, to this day, still do not understand what it is economists think it is they are studying!

    • November 7, 2019 at 2:35 pm

      I was advised that economists, like physicists, come in two main camps: those who study economies and those who study economic theories. It pays to work out which is which!

  11. Helen Sakho
    July 19, 2018 at 12:29 am

    Because they don’t either! My advice would be to read a few old books on the philosophy and practice of all sciences, natural or social. On Economics, good books are recommended on this blog as a starting point, which you can then build on.

  12. July 26, 2018 at 7:54 am

    Hard and soft science is a western dichotomy. It’s not used in Asia, Africa, or Russia. Western philosophers, novelists, and some scientists see it as useful in helping to unravel the differences in various sciences and scientists in terms of how they do their work, what their work is, and the impacts of their work on western cultures. C.P. Snow developed a similar dichotomy he considered important in his lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow’s thesis is that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into the titular two cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities – and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.” Others found Snow’s dichotomy useful. And some find the hard/soft science dichotomy useful. Your posting goes over some of the ways the dichotomy is seen as useful. Point is, assessing this or any other dichotomy isn’t about truth or certainty. It’s about usefulness. Does the dichotomy in some way help us create, rebuilt, explain, or justify our culture?

    • Rob
      November 5, 2019 at 1:20 am

      Hard and soft science is a western dichotomy. It’s not used in Asia, Africa, or Russia. ~ Zimmerman Making an Absolutist Statement Refuted by Yoshinori Shiozawa’s Ow Use of “Hard/Soft” Dichotomy

      .
      Putting aside whether or not the hard/soft dichotomy is really useful or mere rhetoric and polemics (which I think it really is), Ken is simply wrong. To claim “It’s not used in Asia …” ignores that Shiozawa regularly uses this dichotomy in his polemics on this forum and he is a Japanese economist born and raised in Japan I assume. I have heard this dichotomy used in my discussions with Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese as well. Regardless of how the history of this dichotomy unfolds under more detailed examination, it is simply false to claim it is only used or believed in western societies.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 6, 2019 at 11:09 am

        Rob, the practice of science in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe is simply more holistic than analytic than in the west. For example, healers in many parts of Africa and Asia had for centuries been practicing variolation or inoculation; that is, drawing pus from the sores of smallpox victims and introducing it into the bodies of healthy people. The recipients of the attenuated variola virus would typically contract a relatively mild, nonlethal case of smallpox and would thereby gain lifetime immunity from the disease. Jenner’s modifications were small, based on taking apart the disease. The Chinese historically made little distinction between what the west calls science and separately technology. For the Chinese both were simply science. China was the source of many very important technical innovations that eventually found their way to Europe (often via Islamic regions) and stimulated the Scientific Revolution. Not only the three listed by Lord Bacon (printing, gun-powder and the magnetic compass) but a hundred others—mechanical clockwork, the casting of iron, stirrups and efficient horse-harness, the Cardan suspension, and the Pascal triangle. Segmental-arch bridges and pound-locks on canals, the stern-post rudder, fore-and-aft sailing, quantitative cartography—all had their effects, sometimes earth-shaking effects, upon a Europe more socially unstable. But center stage in a people’s history of science are the Chinese artisans whose knowledge of nature was implicit in the momentous technological advances mentioned earlier. As Joseph Needham, the pioneer Western historian of Chinese science, declared, “the Chinese civilisation had been much more effective than the European in finding out about Nature and using natural knowledge for the benefit of mankind for fourteen centuries or so before the [European] scientific revolution.” According to Needham, It has been stated that the Hellenistic age’s greatest contribution to physical science was in mechanics, but “the world owes far more to the relatively silent craftsmen of ancient and medieval China than to the Alexandrian mechanics, articulate theoreticians though they were.” “We are,” Needham explains, “not here dealing with philosophers, princes, astronomers or mathematicians, the educated part of the Chinese population, but with those concerned with the obscurer expanses of the trades and husbandries. . . . We can no longer leave out of account the mass of the workers and the conditions under which they laboured. They were the human material without which the planners of irrigation works or bridges, or vehicle workshops, or even the designers of astronomical apparatus, could have done nothing, and not seldom it was from them that ingenious inventors and capable engineers rose up to leave particular names in history.”

        African science is even more holistic. For example, through the Atlantic slave trade, blacks had gradually transferred African plants (like sesame, Guinea corn, okra) and American crops transplanted in Africa (peanuts and capsicum peppers) to lands where they were enslaved. Whites discovered uses for slaves’ products only when they learned of external markets for them. This was clearly the case with peanuts. Blacks had often grown and marketed peanuts, but whites paid little heed until European chocolate manufacturers wanted the product for its bland oil. Furthermore, the presence of African crops in the Americas has usually been described as a matter of “seed transfer,” as if there were nothing more to it than dropping seeds in furrows in the ground and harvesting what they produce. The inadequacy of that picture can be seen most clearly in the case history of rice production in the United States. “African knowledge of rice farming,” Judith Ann Carney explains, “established . . . the basis for the Carolina economy.” Slaves with knowledge of growing rice had to submit to the ultimate irony of seeing their traditional agriculture emerge as the first food commodity traded across oceans on a large scale by capitalists who then took complete credit for discovering such an “ingenious” crop for the Carolina and Georgia floodplains. The key to growing African rice in the Americas was not seeds but “the sophisticated knowledge that is emblematic of a fully evolved wet rice culture.” “In an era of scientific racism and colonialism,” Carney concludes, “the denial of African accomplishment in rice systems provides a stunning example of how power relations mediate the production of history.”

        Since contact began between the cultures of China, India, Eastern Europe, etc. and the west, these older cultures have been pressed hard to change, to be assimilated by western ways of life, including science. Some assimilation happened quickly and violently. Others more slowly. But by the 19th century, everywhere the western model of science – measuring, testing, forming theories based on evidence, the search for physical laws – tended to displace systems of thought based on more intuitive approaches to nature and on religious beliefs. That began to change just in the last 50 years, but most Indian, Chinese, etc. “scientists” are still educated in the west and use the western approach and language of science. But the older cultures are beginning to reassert themselves in China, etc. In 20-30 years, these changes will, in my view show a re-birth of the older Chinese, Indian, etc. science.

      • Rob
        November 6, 2019 at 2:51 pm

        Ken, I am well aware that there are cultural differences in social context that influence how individuals approach science. A careful reading of, for example, the history Continental Drift and the American vs. the European response to Alfred Wegner’s theory reveal such. But then, that is not what you said, is it, really:

        Hard and soft science is a western dichotomy. It’s not used in Asia, Africa, or Russia. ~ Zimmerman Making an Absolutist Statement Refuted by Yoshinori Shiozawa’s Ow Use of “Hard/Soft” Dichotomy

        “It’s not used in Asia …” [insert our country] is nothing more than a stereotype. An absolutist statement; hardly true and hardly informative or indicative of a “scientific attitude” in my view.

        Don’t you think it would have sufficed to simply say, sure, it there are exceptions, rather than acting like a pedant and piling on more stereotypes?

        You know Ken a display of specialized skill does not signify possession of real knowledge. Cleverness is not a substitute for true character. A simply recognition of a rather untrue generalization would have sufficed.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 7, 2019 at 2:24 am

        Rob, my comments are decidedly not original. As I attempted to indicate most are from historians of Chinese, African, etc. science much more involved and knowledgeable that I. My own view is I agree with most of their conclusions. There is a fine line between stereotypes and efforts to capture the configurations of cultures which are, to some extent always moving on to new things. In most instances these historians balance well the need to reveal a culture’s main configurations with the need not to miss the changes if and when they occur. In the spirit of constructive critique, it’s always good to receive news of instances in which these historians have mishandled this balance.

      • November 7, 2019 at 2:46 pm

        Ken, You say “the western model of science – measuring, testing, forming theories based on evidence, the search for physical laws – tended to displace systems of thought based on more intuitive approaches to nature and on religious beliefs.”

        As a mathematician I can’t help noticing that many ‘westerners’ have a somewhat simplistic view of ‘measuring’, ‘testing’, ‘evidence’ and what constitutes a good ‘search’ strategy. Would it also be true to say that a western model of science has displaced .a more credible approach – such as Needham commended and such as (it seems to me) was practiced by ‘boffins’ of old?

        More generally, are there any western sub-cultures that you think ‘better’ than the mainstream?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 8, 2019 at 12:47 am

        Dave, I’m not certain what you mean by simplistic. It’s my view that humans through the creation of their ways of life over time invented “the empirical” and “the mythical or magical.” They use both and slip back and forth between them as they choose as necessary. This is difficult to perceive in the west because the empirical has been elevated to the always preferred and “better” option. While the mythical or magical has been relegated to the lives of non-scientific inferior cultures. But even in the west, both continue to be applied by people, and slipping between them continues. According to Tambiah (1990) anthropologists propose that “a person can in a certain context behave mystically, and then switch in another context to a practical empirical everyday frame of mind.” This legacy poses two problems of immediate concern for anthropology: how do we get beyond the artificial dichotomy that separates Western and non-Western forms of knowledge, simultaneously discrediting and romanticizing the latter; and how are logical/empirical and mystical/magical aspects of thought related, in all traditions? Perhaps we have begun to see that the distance separating the scientist and the shaman is not so great as was once imagined. But the evolutionary opposition of science for “the West” to myth and magic for “the rest” is far from dissolved; Western self-conception remains profoundly involved with images of rational “self” versus mystical “other.” Several trends in late 20th anthropology, to be sure, have continued to erode this dichotomy. Ethnoscientific fieldwork since the 1960s has brought into view empirically elaborate nomenclatures and classification systems from a wide range of “traditional” societies. In other words, it appears the structures of reason in myth and magic are not fundamentally different from those of science. Other anthropological work shows ecological adaptation in non-Western societies as systemically reinforced by symbolic structures or cosmologies. With the upsurge of multidisciplinary interest in “traditional ecological knowledge,” models explicitly held by indigenous people in areas as diverse as forestry, fisheries, medicine, physical geography, climate change, governance, economics, family, etc. are being paid increasing attention by western science specialists, who have in some cases established extremely productive long-term dialogues with local experts. They are also spreading beyond anthropology.

    • Craig
      November 8, 2019 at 1:48 am

      Ken,

      The process you are describing is the interdisciplinary process of wisdom whose pinnacle human result is the unitary, flowing thirdness state AKA grace in the west. When in doubt integrate…and keep on integrating…until you experience satori-self as a beingness and then cultivate that state until you realize tat tvam asi, thou art that, that art thou.

      The cosmos for all practical purposes IS in the flow state, and while science is a great discipline to note its many manifestations, to fall into dualism via it is just as foolish as falling into literalistic pre-scientific forms of mysticism.

      Grace is the concept and experience behind wisdom, scientific breakthrough, the new monetary paradigm of gifting, every historical paradigm change and temporal reality as a whole.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 8, 2019 at 10:41 am

        Thanks for this input, Craig. Gives me more insight on where you’re coming from.

  13. Gerald Holtham
    November 5, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    Y’know, I think Lars is wasting his time criticising economists, poor dabs. After all they don’t cost much. The real villains are the astrophysicists, who get us to build enormous telescopes and even launch them into space, at the cost of billions. And what do we get? We are told there are four fundamental forces. They’ve got one theory for one of them and a different incompatible theory for the other three, Can they join them up? Only with string theory that posits about 11 dimensions that cannot be accessed. Talk about indulging in pure mathematics based on unrealistic assumptions with no explanatory power and quite untestable! As someone said – not even wrong. But it gets worse. it turns out that the force of gravity cannot explain formation of galaxies so they posit dark matter, which does not interact with anything perceptible and is therefore indetectable. We only know it’s there because otherwise our theory would be wrong or incomplete. Well duh!! Hold on, we haven’t finished. All that dark matter should mean the expansion of the universe is slowing down under the force of gravity. So they had a look and no, it’s speeding up. So what do they do? They say there must be another mysterious force called dark energy! Not related of course to any known force. Did Occam write in vain? How many theoretical entities are we allowed to invent before admitting we haven’t got a clue?
    Yes, yes, there are few local successes. General relativity is good enough for GPS to work and we can land rockets on comets in our solar system but don’t they understand these are small scale and partial and their whole system needs changing? So is astrophysics a science, a pseudo-science or a conspiracy against the public? Or is it just extremely difficult and the poor devils are doing their best?

    Does anyone still want to talk about “economists”?

    • November 5, 2019 at 8:29 pm

      One can appreciate Gerald’s sarcasm, but it seems he is an economist and so costs the damage done by “toys for the boys” and extra-terrestrial exploration in dollars rather than in poor people’s lives ruined by his incompetent if not dishonest profession. As I indicated above (July 17, 2018 at 2.03pm), the physicists have assumed the mathematics of gravity must be complicated and so have not seen the simple explanation staring them in the face. As for black matter and energy, is there any economist who has even read – never mind understood – Shannon’s explanation of the representation of information, and of redundancy in it? Are you aware, Gerald, that pi cannot be completely expressed in arabic number format (a part of it being effectively a random number) and that Pythagoras’s Theorem proves that 1 is equal to a sine wave with only 4 “hard” values (i.e. max and min and when transiting zero); and that a signal which is apparently random when displayed as a graph of amplitude against time is anything but random when graphed against frequency (i.e. 1/time). One can hardly blame physicists for thinking the last just a mathematical relationship, as I remember it being pointed out about 1970 that until the then recent invention of spectrum analysers it had it never been seen for real.

  14. Gerald Holtham
    November 6, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    There is a great deal in economic literature that can be, should be and has been harshly criticised. I believe, for example, that macroeconomics took a fundamental wrong turn about 45 years ago with “representative agent” theorising and for everything of interest learned since then at least one thing has been forgotten so little net progress made. Moreover the dominance of the new classical school led to a methodological extremism where you could do economics only one way if you wanted to get published in important journals, though that is slowly changing. I don’t need to be told economics is difficult to do well and has often been done badly. Yet criticism to be constructive must be focused. It doesn’t get us anywhere to damn all economics as an “incompetent and dishonest profession” . It also gets us nowhere to write off all known methods of testing empirical propositions. I suspect people who batter everything and everybody indiscriminately actually know as little about economics as I know about astrophysics.

    • November 7, 2019 at 9:58 am

      “I don’t need to be told economics is difficult to do well and has often been done badly. Yet criticism to be constructive must be focused”.

      Criticism to be constructive must be listened to. I didn’t damn all economics as an “incompetent AND dishonest” profession, I wrote “incompetent IF NOT dishonest”. But the point of that was not to damn, but focus on the reasons why economists tend to think entirely in monetary terms, without regard for their fellow citizens and even the earth which (so far) is still sustaining them. I think of them as incompetent in the way that medical doctors before the discovery of germs, disinfectants and immunisation were often quacks, allowing for some success with herbalism and isolation.

      I have been attempting these many years not to criticise economists but to show them the information science equivalent of immunisation, whereby systems are prepared in advance to deal with things going wrong before they do so. (The point of Shannon’s error-correcting logic and Weiner’s cybernetics). It is no wonder birth-rates are uncontrolled when Malthus’ thinking (1780, “they will starve anyway”) prevails, so economists don’t even consider the local information feedbacks necessary for individuals to see the need for self restraint. No wonder politicians don’t care when “classical” education in elite schools indoctrinates them with “winner takes all” and the four estates of Plato’s “Republic” (400 b.c.).

      But by 1999 the Information Science of my 1970’s had had its name stolen, so in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Howard D White could ” call your attention to the fact that, just as we have no textbook, there has also never been a general account of our field published in the American trade press. There is no paperback you can give to your uncle at Christmas and say, “Here’s what it’s all about.” In 2010 Lyn Robinson said what I’ve been saying all along in a little diagram as telling as Kate Raworth’s “doughnut”. She distinguished philosophies from paradigms and metatheories, theories, and artifacts and praxis. No wonder economists have got nowhere when they have not recognised that the metatheory underlying economics should be not Newton’s physical forces but Shannon’s physical communication of informative patterns. Unfortunately, assuming Newton, we still act “as if” power is everything, and truth nothing.

      • November 7, 2019 at 3:04 pm

        Dt, Is that fig 1 of http://informationr.net/ir/15-4/colis717.html ? If so, I might critique it on my blog. It may be that although we seem to start from very different palces, we might find enough to agree on to enable better economic outcomes, never mind how many angels fit on a pin-head.

      • November 7, 2019 at 7:20 pm

        Yes, DM. It maps very easily onto the modal structure of Algol68-R,, and what Yoshinori just had Hayek saying about algebraic theories (thinking of Hadamard’s “Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field” on algebraic numbers) is very relevant too.

    • November 7, 2019 at 2:55 pm

      Gerald, You say ” It also gets us nowhere to write off all known methods of testing empirical propositions.”

      There is a very lively debate in the statistics community about testing. Some of the proposals seem to me to be revisiting methods that had previously been ‘written off’ and recovering them from the various misunderstandings and mispractices that had grown up around them. So I guess it depends on on to whom the methods are ‘known’ and what grounds there are for thinking them effective.

      ‘Regress to progress’ seems to me – as an outsider – a motto worth considering for economics.

  15. Craig
    November 7, 2019 at 11:02 pm

    Economics is a soft science, that is for sure, however money is basically accounting which is not only one of humanity’s greatest tools, but as empirical a discipline as there is.

    Having said that what is needed is to break through the sound barrier with the fact that finance, that is private for profit money creation in the monopolistic form of Debt Only, is NOT a legitimate economic business model AT ALL. It adds additional costs before and during the productive process itself while actually producing nothing except destabilizing idiocies like derivative products, and increasingly also adds additional costs post retail sale which violates the economic sanctity of that point and exposes its external parasitical nature. Finally, there is nothing a private banking, financial and monetary system can do that a national publicly administered one guided by the new monetary paradigm and the ethical concept behind even the new paradigm can’t do much better not to mention less costly.

    If you want to evolve economics along the lines that heterodox economists say they want…then wake up to the fact that the new monetary, financial and hence economic paradigm of Gifting is what is necessary, stupid.

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