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Cherry-picking economic models

from Lars Syll

How would you react if a renowned physicist, say, ​Richard Feynman, was telling you that sometimes force is proportional to acceleration and at other times it is proportional to acceleration squared?

cartoon-hand-picking-cherry-24380737I guess you would be unimpressed. But actually, what most mainstream economists do amounts to the same strange thing when it comes to theory development and model modification.

In mainstream economic theory,​ preferences are standardly expressed in the form of a utility function. But although the expected utility theory has been known for a long time to be both theoretically and descriptively inadequate, mainstream economists all over the world gladly continue to use it, as though its deficiencies were unknown or unheard of.

What most mainstream economists try to do in face of the obvious theoretical and behavioural inadequacies of the expected utility theory, is to marginally mend it. But that cannot be the right attitude when facing scientific anomalies. When models are plainly wrong, you’d better replace them! Instead of mending the broken pieces it would be much better to concentrate on developing descriptively accurate models of choice under uncertainty.

Expected utility theory is seriously flawed since it does not take into consideration the basic fact that people’s choices are influenced by changes in their wealth. Where standard microeconomic theory assumes that preferences are stable over time, behavioural economists have forcefully again and again shown that preferences are not fixed, but vary with different reference points. How can a theory that doesn’t allow for people having different reference points from which they consider their options have a (typically unquestioned) axiomatic status within economic theory?

Much of what experimental and behavioural economics come up with, is really bad news for mainstream economic theory. It unequivocally shows that expected utility theory is nothing but transmogrifying truth.

But mainstream economists do not see this​ since they have the weird idea that economics is nothing but a smorgasbord of ‘thought experimental’ models. For every purpose you may have, there is always an appropriate model to pick.

ChameleonBut, really, there have​ to be some limits to the flexibility of a theory!

If you freely can substitute any part of the core and auxiliary sets of assumptions and still consider that you deal with the same theory, well, then it’s not a theory, but a chameleon.

The big problem with the mainstream cherry-picking view of models is of course that the theories and models presented get totally immunized against all critique.  A sure way to get rid of all kinds of ‘anomalies,’ yes, but at a far too high price. So people do not behave optimizing? No problem, we have models that assume satisficing! So people do not maximize expected utility? No problem, we have models that assume … etc., etc …

A theory that accommodates for any observed phenomena whatsoever by creating a new special model for the occasion, and a fortiori having no chance of being tested severely and found wanting, is of little real value.

  1. Helen Sakho
    September 2, 2019 at 12:46 am

    I would tell him that the cherries are already too sour to use. And that this is not normal by any seasonal measure anywhere in the globe.

    • September 4, 2019 at 2:24 pm

      That suggests the cherry trees have gone wild, or become merely ornamental.

  2. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    September 2, 2019 at 4:36 am

    Lars Syll is describing one aspect of the present mainstream economics and those people who still work in that framework. However, it is too simplistic to assume that they do not know its deficiencies. They know its deficiencies and they continue to use the defective theories. Syll must know this mechanism as historian and philosopher of social sciences but he does not show another half of the present problem of economics.

    All phenomena Syll shows (cherry picking from a smorgasbord, accumulation of behavioral anomalies, series of excuses and switching from a theory to another theory, piecemeal amendments, etc.) are clear symptoms that mainstream economics is at the last phase of its development and requires now a paradigm change. The problem that remains is to show the direction to a new paradigm. The most effective act is to show a new alternative theory. At this point, Syll stops speaking. In such a way he never changes the economics, because (as I have repeated) it takes a theory to beat a theory. Abstract and vague references to ontology do not help very much, because they are still an idea or orientation and not a theory.

    • Robert Locke
      September 2, 2019 at 4:40 pm

      ” In such a way he never changes the economics, because (as I have repeated) it takes a theory to beat a theory.”

      As an historian, I would never follow a “theory” that doesn’t exist or is not fully accepted as a new paradigm when it is just a hope. What are we taking about here, hopes or realities. Historians deal with people engaged in the economic process and what they say about it or how they have effected it. If historians had a scientific theory that would explain (where, for instance, a cannon ball would land if shot from gun, they would follow it rather than ask experienced gunners where it would land), but Yoshinori, you don’t have a new paradigm, therefore, I shall follow the people engaged in economic process when trying to figure out what is going on in an economic process and why.

      • Frank Salter
        September 2, 2019 at 5:22 pm

        If one applies proper scientific analysis to conventional economics there is NOT ONE valid theory. They all fail scientific testing, such as by the quantity calculus. What will become the new paradigm is analysis over time. Recognising time to be the major missing factor and observing variations in time properly does what is needed.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 3, 2019 at 3:05 am

        Robert Rocke
        it is natural that your are as a historian theoretically conservative in adopting a new theory. Historians admit a theory a paradigm only when a theory is accepted as paradigm (this is almost tautologically true). It is the limit of historians. As Hegel noted, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

        Putting historians’ observations aside, Robert wrote:
        I would never follow a “theory” that doesn’t exist or is not fully accepted as a new paradigm when it is just a hope.

        You are right for the first half of your claim. Nobody can follow a theory that does not exist. As for the latter half, you are free to think that you never follow a theory that is not fully accepted. However, if all researches are “historians” of Robert’s type, a paradigm change never occurs, because nobody accept a theory that is not fully accepted (if this expression means that it is accepted as a new paradigm). One of the duty and responsibility of researchers is to find a new but not well established theory and judge if it is worth to be studied or not and to be developed or not. Perhaps historians are not requested this work.

        One more point on Robert’s note. Robert talked about “a theory that doesn’t exist” and added that “Yoshinori, you don’t have a new paradigm.” But, an (accepted) paradigm and a theory that exists are two different things. In my case, I have a theory but it is not accepted as a new paradigm. You are confusing two different things. Even as a historian, it is necessary to admit that a new theory exists perhaps for a long time before it becomes a new paradigm.

        As for the theory and its existence, please read the book Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics. Everyone can read the Preface of the book at the page:
        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334508762_Microfoundations_of_Evolutionary_Economics

        This is the evidence that a new theory exists. I do not claim there are no other new theories. It is highly possible, but to prove the existence of a new theory, it is sufficient to show that a theory exists. Of course, judgment on the book (e.g. whether one admits it contains a new theory) may be positive or negative. If there are many economists who support the new theory, it will be accepted in the future as a new paradigm. Even my (or our) theory is not admitted as a new paradigm, it is necessary that some other new theory will be admitted as a new paradigm. If not, there will be no progress of economics.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 3, 2019 at 2:58 pm

        Robert Locke’s reply to my above post (seems to) appears far below as Robert Locke’s post at September 3, 2019 at 11:31 am which starts with “Yoshinori, you as a scientist”.

    • Craig
      September 2, 2019 at 6:47 pm

      Very nice observation.

      Wisdomics-Gracenomics: The New Paradigm Theory of Economics and The Money System

  3. Frank Salter
    September 2, 2019 at 10:19 am

    In mentioning Richard Feynman ,Lars Syll highlights the failure of economists to distinguish between abstract theory and concrete empirical evidence. By fitting equations to data sets they hope to discover some form of valid theory. It is a self evident truth that most import economic changes have occurred over time. This should demand the inclusion of time into economic theory but time is eschewed. Therefore, why would putative economic theoreticians ever expect curve-fitting to reveal a theory. After all there are an infinity of possible relationships and the inclusion of a so-called error term is self defeating. Unless this term is zero precludes a recognition of any validity. It is analysis from first principles and the inclusion of time which will unlock the underlying mechanisms. Furthermore the failure to exclude relationships, forbidden by the quantity calculus, produces close fits which can only be concrete relationships never theoretical one. The closeness of fit is then represented as validation of whatever the author thinks plausible.

  4. September 2, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    There is a simple way to wrap up the key problem: “empirical macroeconomis” is three lies in two words.

    Now, try “macroeconomic theory” :-).

  5. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    September 2, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    The following is what I have posted on August 29, 2019 as a comment to Lars Syll’s article
    https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/27/what-if-anything-do-p-values-test/
    It seems it has been put under “facilitation” but was not made public after 3 working days. It may have been too long. So, I post my comment in two parts. I post thse two parts as comments to the latest article by Lars Syll, because they are valid for his latest article.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 2, 2019 at 1:49 pm

      Lars Syll posted an article the title
      Marginal productivity theory–a dangerous thoght virus
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/23/marginal-productivity-theory-a-dangerous-thought-virus/

      It now counts 19 comments (to date at August 29, 2019). Nobody except me ever hinted how to replace marginal productivity theory and arguments around it. I have criticized Solow-Swan type production functions. I hinted in my post of August 27, 2019 at 8:31 am how it is wrong and flawed (indicating Felipe and McCombie 2013) and also noted there is now a theory of distribution that does not depend on marginal productivity concepts.

      In the last part of my comment (August 20, 2019 at 9:00 am to Lars Syll’s post
      We need more redistribution
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/we-need-more-redistribution/
      I wrote:

      Syll >> When a theory is impossible to reconcile with facts there is only one thing to do? scrap it.
      >I have an objection to this last but one sentence. When a theory is impossible to reconcile with facts, one thing is to scrap the theory, but another more important thing is to rebuild a new theory.

      In my comment of August 28, 2019 at 2:15 am to Lars Syll’s post
      What ? if anything ? do p-values test?
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/27/what-if-anything-do-p-values-test/
      I also wrote:
      >if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.

      However, Lars Syll continues to repeat the same claim in his articles as he did in his article August 20, 2019.

      Let me cite my comment on it :
      Lars Syll>> Our p-values mean next to nothing if the model is wrong. Statistical significance tests do not validate models!
      >Then, we should talk about models and about theories which lie behind them. Please start to argue how mainstream economics (not econometrics) is wrong and how to rebuild economic theory that can replace the mainstream economics. As I have stated in other post, if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.

      Lars Syll attacks mainstream economics. His attacks themselves are almost always right but he has no intension to search or rebuild an alternative. This is the very bad point of Lars Syll’s arguments. As I have repeated, “if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.”

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 2, 2019 at 2:02 pm

        Sorry for double posts. The first post did not appear more than 2 minutes and I tried if a shorter version goes. Please neglect the next post, because it is only a shorter version of the above post.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 2, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      Lars Syll posted an article the title
      Marginal productivity theory–a dangerous thoght virus
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/23/marginal-productivity-theory-a-dangerous-thought-virus/

      It now counts 19 comments (to date at August 29, 2019). Nobody except me ever hinted how to replace marginal productivity theory and arguments around it. I have criticized Solow-Swan type production functions. I hinted in my post of August 27, 2019 at 8:31 am how it is wrong and flawed (indicating Felipe and McCombie 2013) and also noted there is now a theory of distribution that does not depend on marginal productivity concepts.

      In the last part of my comment (August 20, 2019 at 9:00 am to Lars Syll’s post
      We need more redistribution
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/we-need-more-redistribution/
      I wrote:

      Syll >> When a theory is impossible to reconcile with facts there is only one thing to do? scrap it.
      >I have an objection to this last but one sentence. When a theory is impossible to reconcile with facts, one thing is to scrap the theory, but another more important thing is to rebuild a new theory.

      In my comment of August 28, 2019 at 2:15 am to Lars Syll’s post
      What ? if anything ? do p-values test?
      https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/27/what-if-anything-do-p-values-test/
      I also wrote:
      >if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.

      However, Lars Syll continues to repeat the same claim in his articles as he did in his article August 20, 2019.

  6. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    September 2, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Let me cite my comment on it :
    Lars Syll>> Our p-values mean next to nothing if the model is wrong. Statistical significance tests do not validate models!
    >Then, we should talk about models and about theories which lie behind them. Please start to argue how mainstream economics (not econometrics) is wrong and how to rebuild economic theory that can replace the mainstream economics. As I have stated in other post, if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.

    Lars Syll attacks mainstream economics. His attacks themselves are almost always right but he has no intension to search or rebuild an alternative. This is the very bad point of Lars Syll’s arguments. As I have repeated, “if we do not get an alternative theory, we remain trapped by the old theory and cannot escape from thinking within the realm of new classical economics thinking.”

  7. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    September 2, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Let me give an example. Although it has various problems, Solow-Swan type production function continues to be employed in various fields. One typical field is Growth Theory (including both Classical and ‘Endogenous’/New growth theories). The most famous notion is Solow’s residual. Solow found that this residual occupies a large weight in his Growth Accounting. He interpreted that this residual represents technological change (or productivity increase and others). Paul Romer’s New Growth theory has the same logical structure. Romer only introduced Research and Development (R&D) as a factor of the production function.

    No real alternative theories appeared (or if they have appeared, they have been ignored). As a result, almost all economists, not only mainstream economists but many heterodox economists, still argue in the framework of aggregate production function and on the assumption that residual represents technological change. I admit that this formula contains some truth because we can reformulate it as a quantity derived from an accounting identity (Herbert A. Simon 1979 On Parsimonious Explanations of Production Relations). The trouble with Classical and Endogenous Growth theories is this: Although they emphasize importance of technology, technology concept remains very abstract and primitive, and as a result those economists easily equalize technology with R&D. Such a mode of thinking produces an enormous distortion for developing countries’ development strategy.

    For developing countries, R&D and technology transfer are not the matter of prime importance but may economists including those in developing countries think that these are important for the development of their countries. Technology is important but R&D and technology transfer occupies a small part of the technology i.e. the whole set of product and production techniques. It is more effective and requires less money to try to induce more efficient production techniques by which we produce rudimentary goods including agricultural products.

  8. September 2, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Frank, what is the difference between physical motion and time?

    Yoshinori, what do physical structures, theories and models do? (In other words, what is the difference between them)? If my model of a theory is a train being directed to a result down a railway line, are the same theory and outcome being modelled if one adds other lines and points enabling future events to switch between them?

    • Frank Salter
      September 2, 2019 at 5:09 pm

      Physical and motion and time:
      To distinguish between in-motion or not-in-motion requires the passage of time. At a single instant in time, it is impossible to distinguish between the two states. They only become distinguishable by an observer of displacement which determines in-motion, or no displacement which determines not-in-motion. If you are speaking in relativistic terms the only meaning of motion is displacement with respect to an observer. There are no absolute origins.

  9. September 2, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    Frank, my point was that motion is in space-time; time is an abstraction. As Yoshinori hasn’t yet risen to the challenge, let’s take up the theme from another discussions.

    2.3.1 A brief look in the rear mirror. [Rob quoting Christian in https://rwer.wordpress.com/2019/08/29/modern-macroeconomics/#comments%5D

    “As every science aims at uncovering the truth, each science has to answer the two basic questions as to what constitutes truth and how to find truth.”

    [Christian Mueller-Kademann, 2019, Uncertainty and Economics : A Paradigmatic Perspective, Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy.]

    So truth is modelled statically by a right angle [representing absolute difference] and dynamically by the quarter hours swept out by the hands of an old-fashioned clock with the passage of time. The theory it models has the following properties:

    a. We can only theorise what is represented, i.e. if a representation exists.

    b. The representation is absolutely different [different in kind] from that which is represented.

    c. If that which is represented exists, it also represents itself.

    d. If that which is represented does not exist, it is different in kind from an existent.

    e. The representation of a non-existent is different in kind from that of a non-existent.

    f. A representation may represent another representation, if that exists.

    g. The representation of a representation may represent yet another representation, including the representation of its kind.

    h. Motion exists, and can therefore be represented, but is different in kind from both an existent or non-existent (being in a way both) and a representation, being the condition for formation or recognition of these.

    i. Truths of a new type are generated [c.f. a new hour on a clock] if the group of representations is completed and a new one begun. [Motion is subject to Newton’s Laws of Motion where changing an accelerating force creates a new set of relationships between position, speed and acceleration. C.f. Arthur M Young’s “The Geometry of Meaning”].

    i. The theory of Truth is thus modelled by the truth of a right-angle or motion through a true right angle.

    j. A Truth is generated by assigning the representation of an existent to a static representation of that representation, and communicated by assigning what is represented by the second representation to a third representation (perhaps in another language).

    k. A Falsehood is generated by the representation assigned being either non-existent or to the wrong representation or one of the wrong kind.

    In Information Science the capacity of a representation to represent is determined by the ability to divide information into ‘bits’. These can be found by their making absolute distinctions like the subdivisions on a metre rule, which unambiguously mark not positions but areas in between them. The measuring instrument for communicating information is a sine wave (graphing the position of a rotating clock), which has not two but four unambiguous distinctions: going up or down through zero, and about to change from unchanging to going up or down. If one wants more information capacity in space one has to have more detectable subdivisions, but in a communication system one has to speed it up in time!

    The conditions for truth listed above were first modelled in the grammar of the scientific programming language Algol68. http://web.eah-jena.de/~kleine/history/languages/Algol68R-UserGuide.pdf. Although they correspond to the adjectives, nouns, adverbs and verbs of languages like English, the point of the scientific language was to put on record and ensure commitment to definitions of all the terms used, avoiding the changes of meaning through deceit and misunderstanding which bedevil everyday and economic use language.

    • Craig
      September 2, 2019 at 6:38 pm

      Space-Time is the moment experienced directly/consciously.

      The keys to discovering a new paradigm are:

      1) recognizing that coming into a new unit of time, i.e. experiencing space-time as an actual new personal reality is at least half of the battle won so far as paradigm perception is concerned

      2) conceptual opposition to current actual realities and/or to current orthodoxies

      3) discovery of a new tool and/or insight

      4) having the personal will and courage to express what #1 enables and #’s 2 and 3 reveal.

      5) recognizing that #1 is a paradigm shift itself of inestimable power, to wit: the kingdom of heaven is within and “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

      And please, PLEASE don’t make the personal and scientifically arrogant assumption that #5 is a religious statement. Religion is grasping for stasis. Wisdom is process, dynamic, interactive and integrative mental free flow.

      • Craig
        September 2, 2019 at 6:51 pm

        Forgot to include:

        A single pungent, resolving simplicity is worth a lifetime of contemplating complexities.

    • Frank Salter
      September 3, 2019 at 6:59 am

      On space-time:
      Time is not an abstraction per se. In my analysis, I use 𝘵 to represent time as an abstract quantity. The relativistic view of observers observing objects travelling at different velocities has been described as the view of 4-dimensional space-time experienced by beings who can only observe in 3-dimensions. But time proceeds inexorably onwards.

  10. Robert Locke
    September 3, 2019 at 11:31 am

    Yoshinori, you as a scientist and I as an historian deal with different subjects. I deal with people, what they think and do. You deal with theory and method used in economic science, about which historians usually know very little, although they might in studying certain individuals have learned a lot about their intellectual life. I first got involved, as an historian, in this debate between science and historical methods in the 1970s, when I saw NEH, new economic historians, use econometrics and neoclassical economic theory, to undo traditional interpretations of British and French economic history. From my own researches into French industrialization, from sources, I knew the NEH were wrong, and said so in my publications. Imagine my astonishment when one of the top revisionists, Professor Donald McCloskey admitted in 1983, that neoclassical economics was rhetoric. The revisionist had abandoned the field. (see D.N. McCloskey (1983), The Rhetoric of Economics Journal of Economic Literature 21 481-517. McCloskey’s is a fine example of how doubts have seized those who once were strong advocates of the new paradigm in neoclassical economics)

    I thought that was that, but like the God squad who seek a verification of His existence in the scriptures, the science squad in economics hold onto the citidals of power, in order to push new paradigms of justification in theories and methods. Its an incurable illness.

    I have spent my life studying people involved in the historical process. That is why I got involved with Professor Aoki, during the era when he studied firm types, with the Toyota Kata and lean production movements == they are about people involved in economic process at the firm level.

    Personally the game is over for me, although I have another paper coming out in Management Revue, end of the year, “Economics and the Shop Floor,” yes the same paper rwer published in its July 10th issue. I feel sorry for people that they have to endure this eternal search for the holy grail of theory and method at the expense of serious study of the people involved in economic process.

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 3, 2019 at 12:48 pm

      [T]he science squad in economics hold onto the citidals of power, in order to push new paradigms of justification in theories and methods. Its an incurable illness…. I feel sorry for people that they have to endure this eternal search for the holy grail of theory and method at the expense of serious study of the people involved in economic process. (Robert Locke)

      .
      That’s a keeper :-)

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 3, 2019 at 12:55 pm

      Histories of modern physics, mathematics and economics are themselves one of most stimulating acts of human beings. Why are you not interested in those histories? They are also a serious study of the people.

      Note for readers:
      Robert Locke’s post is (I believe) a response to my post at September 3, 2019 at 3:05 am.

      • Robert Locke
        September 4, 2019 at 8:28 am

        If you knew more about my writings, you would know that I use histories of mathematics to explain the evolution of the new paradigm in economic thought in my book, Management and Higher education since 1940 (Ch 1, on the New Paradigm), e. g., W. W. Sawyer “Algebra,” in Mathematics in the Modern World, Readings from Scientific American (1968), and Laurie Buxton, Mathematics for Everyone.”

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 4, 2019 at 9:13 am

        You are talking about Locke (Robert R.) Management and Higher Education Since 1940. The Influence of America and Japan on West Germany, Great Britain, and France. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, 329 p.

        Seems very interesting! I have ordered a copy which will arrive on September 18. I will learn about it.

      • Robert Locke
        September 5, 2019 at 8:28 am

        Yoshinori, that’s the book, which is a continuation of the arguments I developed in The End of The Practical Man, 1984. One Dutch management scholar called these two books “pioneering” because they not only opened our minds to recent development of a new paradigm in management science but also discussed its limitation. I went through these thought processes in the 1980s, perhaps, seen from today’s perspective, this is what made them “pioneering.”

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 5, 2019 at 9:44 am

        Robert,

        “but also discussed its limitation” part seems very important.

        If I cite a dictum of Nobuatsu Ichikawa (system engineering pioneer in Japan). He wrote a small book “For breakthroughs” (1996, in Japanese). In a part of the book, Ichikawa points that one of necessary conditions for a breakthrough is to know the possible limit that an actual theory or system has. Most researchers think there are still some margin of further development but those people have, according to Ichikawa, no chance to achieve a breakthrough. This must apply to economics.

    • Frank Salter
      September 3, 2019 at 1:53 pm

      I would claim that there is no “science squad” in economics. If there were the discussion would be completely different. Applying scientific methodology would have meant that it was known and understood that there is neither conventional nor heterodox quantitative analysis with any validity. As Yoshinori Shiozawa keeps reminding us it is necessary the discuss justifiable hypotheses. That would see economics becoming scientific. I commend this to all participants on this forum.

  11. Ken Zimmerman
    September 3, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    Yoshinori and Robert.

    Anthropology is the study of humanity. Its origins are in the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. In my view, anthropology is a clear refutation of the notion that science and history deal with different and mostly irreconcilable subjects.

    Since the work of Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social anthropology has been distinguished from other social science disciplines by its emphasis on in-depth examination of context, cross-cultural comparisons (socio-cultural anthropology is by nature a comparative discipline), and the importance it places on long-term, experiential immersion in the area of research, often known as participant-observation.

    Cultural anthropology emphasizes cultural relativity and the use of findings to frame cultural critiques. Historically, this is particularly prominent in the United States, from Boas’s arguments against 19th-century racial ideology, through Margaret Mead’s advocacy for gender equality and sexual liberation, to current criticisms of post-colonial oppression and promotion of multiculturalism.

    In the United States anthropology is often defined as being “holistic” and based on a “four-field” approach. There is an ongoing dispute on this view; supporters consider anthropology holistic in two senses: it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.); also many academic programs following this approach take a “four-field” approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology or social anthropology. Some leading non-American anthropologists today dispute both the definition of anthropology as holistic and the “four-field” approach, viewing these as artifacts from 19th century social evolutionary thought that inappropriately impose scientific positivism upon cultural anthropology. As a result, both the four-field approach and debates concerning it have been exported internationally under American academic influence.

    Let’s consider anthropology’s four fields.

    Biological or physical anthropology seeks to understand the physical human being through the study of human evolution and adaptability, population genetics, and primatology. Subfields or related fields include anthropometrics, forensic anthropology, osteology, and nutritional anthropology.

    Socio-cultural anthropology is the investigation, often through long term, intensive field studies (including participant-observation methods), of the culture and social organization of a people. Including language, economic and political organization, law and conflict resolution, patterns of consumption and exchange, kinship and family structure, gender relations, childrearing and socialization, religion, mythology, symbolism, etc. US universities sometimes refer to it as cultural anthropology. British universities have tended to call the corresponding field social anthropology, and for much of the 20th century emphasized the analysis of social organization more than cultural symbolism. In some European countries, socio-cultural anthropology is known as ethnology (a term also used in English-speaking countries to denote the comparative aspect of socio-cultural anthropology.) Subfields and related fields include psychological anthropology, folklore, anthropology of religion, anthropology of economics, ethnic studies, cultural studies, anthropology of media and cyberspace, political anthropology, and study of the diffusion of social practices and cultural forms.

    Linguistic anthropology wants to understand the processes of human communications, verbal and non-verbal, variation in language across time and space, the social uses of language, and the relationship between language and culture. It is the branch of anthropology that brings linguistic methods to bear on anthropological problems, linking the analysis of linguistic forms and processes to the interpretation of socio-cultural processes. Linguistic anthropologists often draw on related fields including anthropological linguistics, socio-linguistics, cognitive linguistics, semiotics, discourse analysis, and narrative analysis.

    Archaeology studies the contemporary creation, distribution, and form of artifacts (materials modified by past human activities), with the intent of understanding distribution and movement of populations, development of human social organization, and relationships among contemporary populations; it also contributes significantly to the work of population geneticists, historical linguists, and many historians. Archaeology involves a wide variety of field techniques (remote sensing, survey, geophysical studies, coring, excavation) and laboratory procedures (compositional analyses, dating studies (radiocarbon, optically stimulated luminescence dating), measures of formal variability, examination of wear patterns, residue analyses, tree rings, etc.). Archaeologists’ focus initially was materials produced by prehistoric groups but today also includes modern, historical and ethnographic populations. Archaeology is usually regarded as a separate (but related) field outside North America, although closely related to the anthropological field of material culture, which deals with physical objects created or used within a living or past group as a means of understanding its cultural values.

    And all these fit sometimes neatly, sometimes with jagged, pointed edges. But they do fit. In my case, coursework ranges from participant-observation and network analysis to side-scanning radar and radiocarbon dating to semiotics and hermeneutics.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 3, 2019 at 12:44 pm

      Ken, please try participant observation of economists’ society. Does it have a positive effect in understanding the problem of the on-the-edge economics? What do you advice Lars Syll from the accumulated knowledge by participant observation?

    • Robert Locke
      September 4, 2019 at 8:09 am

      The problem I have had in discussions with anthropologists and sociologists is that they try to impose a knowledge system they develop on the past. I’m interested in what people living in the past say about the past, so I go to the sources, never beginning with the so-called social scientists whose work is filled with anachronisms. I am usually impressed with what people think about the times they are living through. Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years and some of those from whom I have learned the most have too.

      • September 4, 2019 at 9:47 am

        This has been my experience too, though due to lies and scorched earth policies the sources are often archeological.

  12. September 4, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Re my September 2, 2019 at 5:46 pm on science involving commitment to unambiguous terminological definitions, it seems Craig and Frank didn’t read beyond the first line, and Yoshinari declined to read as far as the challenge to him in the second.

    Robert’s intervention, presuming the economist Yoshinori was a scientist dealing with “theory and method”, offered history dealing “with people, what they think and do” as an antidote to
    the inhumanity of current economics. Ken joined in, advocating anthropology as “the study of humanity”, in which (as I just suggested) archeological methods play a big part.

    These raise an interesting question of perspective. Ken mentions all sorts of instrumental and detailed observations. I had in mind the ruins of a monastery in the vicinity of a town telling us a great deal about what people believed and how they lived. Robert mentions what people actually do. My type of science is concerned with how real and well as artificial people work, so what they could do in the future.

    What we have actually done in the past is only one way of seeing that we could do in the future. How our bodies are physically structured, empowered, physically activated and sensitively controlled is another, with the the truth of what is communicated through our senses being crucial, especially when that is being shared by governments and teachers.

    What I shared about scientific language (and elsewhere about Myers-Briggs findings, on the origin of personality differences in incomplete development or use of our capabilities) was therefore very much about human behaviour, with the emphasis on FUTURE behaviour.

    With an architectural rather than a detailed perspective, the requirement of multi-processing computers to physically exist, have power, input/output, switchable interconnections, encoded signals and a file index system (language) by means of which different functions can be switched on and activated is met not only by computers but our own bodies. While at the observational level the micro-structures look different, the subatomic (electro-chemical) processes involved appear to be identical.

    Yoshinori was quite right to respond to Lars’ complaint about economists “cherry-picking” (and Robert to echo): “It takes a theory to beat a theory”. This is true also of theories of science.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 4, 2019 at 3:04 pm

      Re: Davetaylor1’s post at September 2, 2019 at 3:21 pm

      I do not understand what Davetalylor1 really wants to ask/argue by his question: what do physical structures, theories and models do?

      If physical structure comprises economic structure, I have my own idea (although it is not very clear) on these three entities and relations between them. But I do not think it is necessary to argue in the way that he did in his post at September 2, 2019 at 5:46 pm on science involving commitment to unambiguous terminological definitions.

      For me, the necessity to keep contents (concepts, measurement, propositions, and logical relations between propositions) of a science unambiguous and the necessity to make science method or research program clear and precise are very different things. Research program evolves as the research progresses. It starts as something very fuzzy, vague and ambiguous but it becomes much clearer as research progresses successfully. If it is unsuccessful, we should restart from different ambiguous questions and conjectures. Research is almost a groping process.

      Take a very simple example. In section 2.4 Minimal Price Theorem (fundamental Case) of our book: Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics
      https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334508762_Microfoundations_of_Evolutionary_Economics
      I knew by numerical experiments and others that the prices system will converges to the minimal system (Do not interpret these terms by the verbal sense, because they have a strictly determined meanings). I did not know that such a claim was ever made by anyone but I was confident that this conjecture is true. At the occasion that I wrote the book, I wanted to give a formal proof.

      At the first draft, I obtained the proof that the process converges from above (First Step of the proof of Theorem 4.10) but my explanation on the convergence from below appealed to geometric intuition. When reading the proof, I became dissatisfied by the explanation and I started trying to give stricter, more rigorous proof. By many trials and errors I finally arrived to a good route. I took me about 10 days but I have to say I was lucky this time. It is possible that I never arrive to a solution after many weeks. Even I have got a good logic for the proof, it took me three more days in order to re-arrange my exposition in a good order. The result now forms Second and Third Steps of the proof of Theorem 4.10.

      This is quite small, simple and primitive example how a research (in this case to get a proof of a theorem) proceeds. The result is given as a rigorous proof but to arrive to this result is full of unsuccessful trials and errors. From my experiences, it is almost useless to try to give any exact research methods and guiding principles.

      • September 5, 2019 at 10:18 am

        “I do not understand what Davetaylor1 really wants to ask/argue by his question: what do physical structures, theories and models do?”

        Very simply, Yoshinori, I was hoping readers like yourself would see the difference between transmitting forces, transmitting information and transmitting information encoded in the form of physical/iconic structures.

        I have to go out, so my apology for an ambiguity worrying you over scientific method must be brief. I was probably thinking of the teaching phase, the teachable outcome of science. My point anyway was that logic is a fundamental tool of scientific method, and that requires that terminology is stable.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 5, 2019 at 2:42 pm

        The series of “teachable outcomes” does not teach much how science develops. It has a strong tendency to teach that science has progressed almost always in a right direction. Great discoveries are often told as they were accepted as truth from the start of the new theories.

        As I have stated in my reply to Robert Rocke at September 3, 2019 at 3:05 am, the most interesting (even fascinating) phase of a theory is the period when it has been discovered and before it is accepted as established.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 5, 2019 at 2:47 pm

        Sorry for a typo. “Robert Rocke” should be written “Robert Locke”. I have made the same mistake in the reply at September 3, 2019 at 3:05 am itself. Please forgive me, Robert.

  13. September 4, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    Bill Mitchell said in a recent lecture the the paradigm shift is under way.

    • Craig
      September 4, 2019 at 4:12 pm

      Bill Mitchell is using the word paradigm shift to attempt to bolster MMT’s claim that it is such a phenomenon. Unfortunately it is just one of several reforms that are aligned with the actual monetary, financial and economic mega-paradigm change whose simple yet transformative operation is entirely expressed in the 50% Discount/Rebate monetary policy at the point of retail sale.

      Visualize a circle with smaller circles entitled MMT, Public Banking, Keen’s Minsky financial instability hypothesis and disequilibrium theory and Michael Hudson’s financial parasitism. Then place blogs like this one in a circle outside of the large circle representing abstract thinking about those reform circles inside the big circle. Finally, draw several circles entitled Anthropology, History, Sociology, Psychology outside of the large circle, and then put the words Wisdom/Grace in parentheses precisely in the center of the large circle and draw arrows from all smaller circles pointing toward (Wisdom/Grace) which of course is the discipline and the concept behind the new mega-paradigm.

      Aligned reforms are good, but “It’s the monetary, financial and economic mega-paradigm, stupid.”

  14. September 4, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    Lars begins: “How would you react if a renowned physicist, say, ​Richard Feynman, was telling you that sometimes force is proportional to acceleration and at other times it is proportional to acceleration squared?”

    So how was I supposed to react listening to the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spewing forth incompatible lies and other-party abuse in response to his defeat by a decent Parliamentary majority last night?

  15. Rob
    September 4, 2019 at 3:02 pm

    With an architectural rather than a detailed perspective, the requirement of multi-processing computers to physically exist, have power, input/output, switchable interconnections, encoded signals and a file index system (language) by means of which different functions can be switched on and activated is met not only by computers but our own bodies. While at the observational level the micro-structures look different, the subatomic (electro-chemical) processes involved appear to be identical. ~ Dave Taylor

    .
    It is naïvely easy to find similarities between a computer—a machine—and the human body on a superficial level, but the analogy quickly breaks down under the findings of modern molecular biology, developmental biology (evo-devo) and epigenetics and the flood of new scientific evidence that old machine metaphors (Woese 2005) qua architectural blueprints (Davidson 2006) qua genetic algorithms (Reid 2007) fail in light of the emergent properties of the whole organism and its relationship to its environment. When Carl Woese asks, “If not machine, then what is a cell,” we should pause and consider that he does not ask this question lightly or without some degree of knowledge on the subject he is addressing. And if even on the simple biology level of a cell the machine/computer/algorithm analogy-metaphor breaks down in light of reality, how much more when we consider the creative mind of homo sapiens? The economy is not a machine, but rather a social reality, nor does it run like a computer algorithm (Offer and Söderberg 2019), nor are human beings like ticks blindly following if-then genetic algorithms (Penrose 1990). These are the simplistic greedy reductionisms of a pseudo-science blinded to higher emergent realities (Clayton 2004).
    .
    The tired and thread bare canard that “it takes a theory to beat a theory” is rooted in an anachronistic ahistorical stereotyping of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm changes, which even he noted was not a law or was set in stone. Narrative Pluralism (Fullbrook 2016) makes this clear as does Prematurity in Scientific Discovery (Hook 2002).

    • September 4, 2019 at 11:05 pm

      Rob prejudices his response by citing a claim that a computer is a machine. It is not. It is an information processor, with error-detecting and avoiding/correcting facilities in parallel with its main processing in the same way as the chemical processes we experience as feeling are to switching on and off (by the same means by which antibodies multiply to neutralise antigens) particular subsystems of our nervous systems. As I tried to make clear, the analogy appears to break down if one looks at the structural differences, but not when one understands enough about electro-chemical processes and osmosis to understand that electrical forces operate in the same way wherever they occur.

      Unsurprisingly, as no-one else seems to have followed this line of inquiry, I’ve had to discover comparable examples for myself. Like synaptic growth between “firing” cells and the transfer of metal between the contacts of old-fashioned car spark generators; nerve cells being relaxation oscillators in which pulses carry information by sensory conditions varying their frequency; cells being batteries energised or de-energised by adding acid or impurities to their electrolyte. The likes of Clayton and Hook are students of what other people say, not of how the world actually is. Again, one gets a very different perspective on narrative pluralism by reading Isobel Myers-Briggs’ “Gifts Differing”. Fullbrook rightly has people seeing different things, but these are relevant to different problems, and being able to see the whole picture rather than only bits of it – and thus to be able to inter-relate the bits – is just one of them. The system “panorama”I have developed enables me – as Tony Lawson put it – to re-orient economics, revealing how we have been tackling its practical problems from the wrong end. I am glad to say Fullbrook himself also does this – albeit one-dimensionally – in his new book, “Market-value: its measurement and metric”.

      • Rob
        September 5, 2019 at 12:51 am

        Rob prejudices his response by citing a claim that a computer is a machine. It is not. ~ Dave Taylor

        .
        I refute this nonsense thus:
        .

        In his strikingly original paper of 1936, Turing characterized the intuitive idea of a computability in terms of a the activity of an abstract automatic computing machine. This machine, now called simply the “Turing machine,” figures in modern theoretical computer sciences as the most fundamental model of computation…. In 1936, Turing also described one of the most important scientific ideas of the twentieth century, his “universal computing machine”–a single Turing machine that, by making use of what we now call “programs” stored in its memory, can compute everything that is computable in the intuitive sense (or so Turing persuasively argued). (Copeland et. al. 2013, viii, in Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond. MIT Press)

        .
        Somebody needs to wake Turing, Gödel, and Church up out of his graves and inform them they got it all wrong! Or at least to let those MIT guys know a “computer” ain’t no “machine”!
        .
        Seriously, Dave reveals the true depth of his delusional thinking in that he actually thinks, actually believes, a computer is not a machine. The simple fact because it mechanically processes 0s and 1s and then translates these bits with higher level programing languages doesn’t change the fact it is a machine. The very history of computer science bears witness to this as does the very term Turing machine. Truly, Dave, you are self-deluded. He reveals the fundamental confusion, repeatedly in his rambling nonsensical babbling about crystals and ALGOL 68, between an algorithm and human mind and thinking. The confused babble about ALGOL 68, for anyone trained in computer science and knowledgeable of many other high-level programing languages, is silly and misleading.
        .
        Dave is no computer scientist that is for sure ;-)
        .
        He is unable to distinguish between a mechanical procedure and a non-mechanical procedure, let alone, apparently the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but constantly developing (Copeland et. al. 2013, 2-6) and drawing upon insights that transcend mere computable algorithmic procedures. Of course, Dave knows more than Church, Gödel, Turing, and Penrose all put together in his confident infinite wisdom. Remember, he also thinks and asserts dogmatically despite the evidence the term religion was invented by early Christians despite the fact it was used extensively in Latin predating Christianity altogether. What can one say when blind dogmatism, despite all evidence to the contrary, rules the nest of one’s mind.
        .
        Whence does he think in his self-deluded assertion above comes all the historical debate between minds far greater and far better informed than him of whether or not man is a computing machine (aka Turing machine) or not?
        .

        However, Wang reported that in 1972, in comments at a meeting to honor von Neumann, Gödel said: “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit ” (Wang 1996, 189). In discussion with Wang at about that time, Gödel amplified this remark: Even if the finite brain cannot store an infinite amount of information, the spirit may be able to. The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit. If the brain is taken to be physical and as a digital computer, from quantum mechanics there are then only a finite number of states. Only by connecting it to a spirit might it work in some other way. (Gödel in Wang 1996, 193) Some caution is required in interpreting the remarks recorded by Wang, since the context is not always clear. Nevertheless Wang’s reports create the impression that, by the time of his note about Turing, Gödel was again tending toward a negative answer to the question, “Is the human mind replaceable by a machine?” (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)
        .
        (….) The mathematician Jack Good, formally Turing’s colleague at Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime code-breaking headquarters, gave a succinct statement of the Mathematical Objection in a 1948 letter to Turing:
        Can you pin-point the fallacy in the following argument? “No machine can exist for which there are no problems that we can solve and it can’t. But we are machines: a contradiction.”
        .
        At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning Entsheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393).
        .
        At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture, in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning the Entscheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393). (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)

        .
        This is not the first time on this forum Dave has resorted to blind faith of ex cathedra dogma, nor, do I suspect, it will be the last. Clearly Dave cannot distinguish between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften, forever conflating the two in his own mind.

      • Rob
        September 5, 2019 at 12:58 am

        Dave’s level of understanding of current theoretical biology is as erudite as his assertion a computer is not a machine.

      • Rob
        September 5, 2019 at 1:35 am

        Rob prejudices his response by citing a claim that a computer is a machine. It is not. ~ Dave Taylor

        .
        I don’t want to pick on you Dave, but your foolish dogmatism has reached a level of absurdity that is stunning. You are falsely asserting a computer is not a machine. Have you somehow forgotten computers and the computer programs composed of diverse computer languages are all the creative inventions of human minds?
        .

        In his 1964 postscript, Gödel emphasized the contribution of Turing’s definition to the generality of the incompleteness results:
        .
        In consequence of later advances, in particular of the fact that, due to A. M. Turing’s work, a precise and unquestionably adequate definition of the general concept of a formal system can now be given, the existence of undecidable arithmetical propositions and the non-demonstrability of the consistency of a system in the same system can now be proved rigorously for every consistent formal system containing a certain amount of finitary number theory. Turing’s work gives an analysis of the concept of “mechanical procedure” (alias “algorithm” or “computational procedure” or “finite combinatorial procedure”). This concept is shown to be equivalent with that of a “Turing machine.” (77-72)
        .
        According to Gödel, then, Turing provided a precise and unquestionably adequate definition of the general concept of a formal system. Turing does so, Gödel says, by providing a conceptual analysis, an analysis of the concept of a finite and mechanical procedure. (Copeland et. al. 2013, 11)

        .
        You are clearly blind to your own prejudices which you then psychologically project onto others.

  16. September 5, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    Rob, you forget that for Turing (as for Babbage before him) a computer was envisaged as a machine, with his hypothetical tape recorder replacing gears. Back in 1938 even Shannon discovered the automation of logic in mechanical switching for a telephone exchange. However, in 1948 Shannon presented a remarkably complete theory of information, its encoding and its communication, and Shockley produced working transistors. It takes time for the implications of such major advances to be worked out, and first hand experience helps. I entered the scene as early as 1953 and finished my scientific apprenticeship trying out transistors and the new types of computer circuit made possible by them. I later retrained in maths, statistics and computing, researching reliability and the structure of multi-user computer languages and databases before being enlightened during further retraining in communications systems by introduction to Shannon’s information theory (which incidentally is about how to achieve reliability in communication) as late as 1971. I don’t think you have forgotten similar experience, Rob: I just think you have never had it to reflect on.

    What I have shared, then, is a conclusion gradually reached over more than sixty years, not a prejudice. Ultimately it is the conclusion that energy preceded the matter from which mechanisms are made, and exists independently of it in mass-less electromagnetic radiation (e.g. photons): the most efficient medium for transmission of information. This is not a quibble about the meaning of words but a substantive conclusion according with the evidence.

    I cannot stop you disagreeing disagreeably with me, Rob, but if your own personality or prejudice prevents you learning from the experience of others, that is your problem, not mine.

    • Rob
      September 5, 2019 at 10:36 pm

      As Dave retreats into psychobabble and obscurantism …
      .

      Ultimately it is the conclusion that energy preceded the matter from which mechanisms are made, and exists independently of it in mass-less electromagnetic radiation (e.g. photons): the most efficient medium for transmission of information. This is not a quibble about the meaning of words but a substantive conclusion according with the evidence. ~ Dave Taylor

      .
      Humans invent languages and then machines to run them on Dave. It is a simple reality that your obscurantism and hubris cannot hide.
      .

      Rob prejudices his response by citing a claim that a computer is a machine. [followed by] stop … disagreeing disagreeably ~ Dave Taylor

      .
      Freud was definitely right ;-)

    • Rob
      September 6, 2019 at 2:49 am

      If trials of three or four simple cases have been made, and are found to agree with the results given by the engine, it is scarcely possible that there can be any error.
      — Charles Babbage, On the mathematical powers of the calculating engine (1837)
      .
      In order to determine the time at which the planets were formed and to calculate the cooling of the terrestrial globe, he engaged the services of four or five lovely, sweetly complexioned ladies; he had several globes of all sorts of materials and of all sorts of densities heated to red-hot, and these they held by turns in their delicate hands, reporting to him the degrees of the heat and the periods of cooling; and upon this fragile basis, he erected the most audacious of edifices. (Chevalier D’Aude, Via Privée du Comte De Buffon, cited in Pascal Richet (2007) A Natural History of Time.)

      .
      Of course, in light of modern computer science we well know there are errors (see Miscomputation). Of course, like all humans in all time, we are prisoners of our own times to one degree or another.
      .

      Shannon Information Theory and Some Unanswered Questions
      .
      Signal to noise ratio [in biology] can only be defined with reference to receiver’s perception.
      — (Innes Cuthill, pers. comm., 2003, emphasis added)
      .
      The ‘‘mathematical theory of communication’’ (Shannon, 1948) completely abstracts away (1) the origin and maintenance of information channels and (2) the meaning of information [emphasis added].
      .
      (….) The fact that organisms are engaged in communication and signaling, sensing, and acting on their environments (including other organisms) entails the existence of myriad channels of information. These channels are not arbitrary in their origin, structure, source, and targets, but arise and change in the course of evolution. They provide channels by which a particular organism can perceive and manipulate its world; it seems reasonable, therefore, to assume these carry information that is meaningful for an organism—useful for its survival and reproduction (Nehaniv, 1999).
      .
      ‘‘Biological semantics’’—or, terminologically better, biosemiotics—cannot be developed with absolute notions of meaning and relevance that are somehow independent of any organismal embodiment. The huge differences between organisms’ bodies and environments entail that these notions are well defined only when considered with respect to specific organisms or at least specific species.
      .
      Dropping Some Conceptual Baggage
      .
      For purposes of understanding biological sensing, signaling, and communication, classical information theory is applicable, but by itself is incomplete. (Modeling Biology: Structures, Behaviors, Evolution (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology) (Page 245-247). The MIT Press.)

      .
      You assume a lot Dave. You assume what others know and don’t know.[1] You assume a computer is not a machine; you assume information theory is applicable to biological phenomena like a mechanical key and lock, but in fact, it is not. That does not mean that information theory in all its incarnations is not useful, or does not play a significant role in helping us understand the world around us. It simply means that in the real world meaningful distinctions matter or else science descends into mere story telling, and when we believe our own stories are concrete reality[2] we delude ourselves at our own expense. Mathematics is the language of science; abstraction is indispensable to thinking about the material world when trying to understand it. But it is a fundamental category error to abstract from biological reality those qualities that allow us to differentiate say, a tree or frog, or human from a rock, or mountain, or computer and then falsely conflate the two as though they are the same in essentially every way when they are clearly not.
      .
      The distinction between a machine and an organism is a real one despite the fact that it is fashionable in both the past and present for mechanistic materialists to blithely make the category error as though it is a scientific fact—which is scientism after all. The Laplacian Dream of the Universal Machine lives on today.
      .
      This distinction is a perennial issue as anyone with a smitten of historical knowledge knows. But as humankind increasingly uses creative mind-imagination and the tools of mathematics and science to delve ever deeper into the secrets of nature we are encountering some mind boggling conundrums which raise as many questions as our scientific revelations answer.
      .

      Simplicity was time and time again comprehended as mathematical in nature. For example, Leibniz championed a “law of continuity,” that natura non operator per saltum, or nature does not manifest itself in large and abrupt changes. That infinitely small quantities—that is, calculas (Bos in Grattan-Guinness 1980 in Mirowski (1989, 18))
      .
      I have long felt that surveys of textbooks offer our best guide to the central convictions of any era. What single line could be more revealing, more attuned to the core commitment of a profession that bathed in the blessings of Victorian progressivism, and aspired to scientific status in Darwin’s century, than the epigram that Alfred Marshall placed on the title page to innumerable editions of his canonical textbook, Principles of Economics: “natura non facit saltum.” (Gould 2002: 576, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory)

      .
      Underlying all the sciences is a thread of perennial philosophical issues that have been debated (sometimes vociferously) and settled, only to be resurrected again in light of new scientific discoveries. The idea of gradualism vs. saltationism is one such idea that has influenced historically fields of science running from physics, to into earth sciences, into evolutionary theory, on into economics itself. Understanding why such ideas had such a powerful grip upon fundamental critical assumptions is rooted in the struggle of science to break free from the ecclesiastical stranglehold the early church had upon “freethinkers,” and in turn how this struggle continues in metamorphized form even today.
      .
      Today, in light of modern molecular biology, epigenetics and developmental biology (in another age called comparative embryology or Entwicklungsmechanik) Lamarck is having his revenge from the grave for saltation is very much a biological reality in light of modern empirical scientific findings in the these fields. It is very easy to overlook the meaning this implies for theoretical biology if one is historically autistic. From debates about hereditary variation being random vs. biased and/or facilitated, to speciation being gradual vs. saltational (e.g., hopeful monsters), to the causal mechanism(s) themselves and the relative roles they play (e.g., survival of the fittest vs. arrival of the fittest) its all on the table again in a very real way:
      .

      Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed. — Thomas Henry Huxley
      .
      One of the most influential books on the philosophy of science is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. One of the claims in Kuhn’s book is that science does not proceed in an orderly, linear and polite fashion, with all new findings viewed in a completely unbiased way. Instead, there is a prevailing theory which dominates a field. When new conflicting data are generated, the theory doesn’t immediately topple. It may get tweaked slightly, but scientists can and often do continue to believe in a theory long after there is sufficient evidence to discount it.
      .
      We can visualise the theory as a shed, and the new conflicting piece of data as an oddly shaped bit of builder’s rubble that has been cemented onto the roof. Now, we can probably continue cementing bits of rubble onto the roof for quite some time, but eventually there will come a point when the shed collapses under the sheer weight of odd bits of masonry. In science, this is when a new theory develops, and all those bits of masonry are used to build the foundations of a new shed.
      .
      Kuhn described this collapse-and-rebuild as the paradigm shift, introducing the phrase that has now become such a cliché in the high-end media world. The paradigm shift isn’t just based on pure rationality. It involves emotional and sociological changes in the psyches of the upholders of the prevailing theory. Many years before Thomas Kuhn’s book, the great German scientist Max Planck, winner of the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics, put this rather more succinctly when he wrote that, ‘Scientific theories don’t change because old scientists change their minds; they change because old scientists die.’
      .
      We are in the middle of just such a paradigm shift in biology.
      .
      (The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance” by Nessa Carey)

      .
      Scientific revolutions, like the continents, do move, but at a painfully glacial rate for participants (hence all the cantankerous human emotions). The claim that the happen overnight is like the expectant father walking into the room and exclaiming, “Wow, that happened fast!” ignoring the nine grueling months of labor ;-)
      .
      Metaphors matter and when science reifies its metaphors, sometimes epistemically trespassing into other domains making judgments outside their field of so-called expertise and oblivious to ongoing scientific revolutions going on therein, they blunder twice the more:
      .

      Epigenetic Algorithms
      .
      Mechanical metaphors have appealed to many philosophers who sought materialist explanations of life. The definitive work on this subject is T. S. Hall’s Ideas of Life and Matter (1969). Descartes, though a dualist, thought of animal bodies as automata that obeyed mechanical rules. Julien de la Mettrie applied stricter mechanistic principles to humans in L’Homme machine (1748). Clockwork and heat engine models were popular during the Industrial Revolution. Lamarck proposed hydraulic processes as causes of variation. In the late nineteenth century, the embryologists Wilhelm His and Wilhelm Roux theorized about developmental mechanics. However, as biochemical and then molecular biological information expanded, popular machine models were refuted, but it is not surprising that computers should have filled the gap. Algorithms that systematically provide instructions for a progressive sequence of events seem to be suitable analogues for epigenetic procedures. (Reid 2007: 263)
      .
      A common error in applying this analogy is the belief that the genetic code, or at least the total complement of an organism’s DNA contains the program for its own differential expression. In the computer age it is easy to fall into that metaphysical trap. However, in the computer age we should also know that algorithms are the creations of programmers. As Charles Babbage (1838) and Robert Chambers (1844) tried to tell us, the analogy is more relevant to creationism than evolutionism. At the risk of offending the sophisticates who have indulged me so far, I want to state the problems in the most simple terms. To me, that is a major goal of theoretical biology, rather than the conversion of life to mathematics. (Reid 2007: 263, in Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment. The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.)

      .
      [1] You assume I don’t know who C. Shannon, or C. S. Peirce, etc. is or what they theorized about, but you are wrong. You assume I don’t know what a computer is when I have spent nearly 50 years studying computer science on many levels, writing compilers, developing new computer languages, studying and applying information theory to a diverse range of fields ranging from AI to modeling biology and comp. neuro. In other words, you assume to much as ask to little. But you have a theory to hawk and hell or highwater you are going to hawk it despite its blatant category error.
      .
      [2] Whitehead put it thus:

      The answer, therefore, which the seventeenth century gave to the ancient question … “What is the world made of?” was that the world is a succession of instantaneous configurations of matter — or material, if you wish to include stuff more subtle than ordinary matter…. Thus the configurations determined there own changes, so that the circle of scientific thought was completely closed. This is the famous mechanistic theory of nature, which has reigned supreme ever since the seventeenth century. It is the orthodox creed of physical science…. There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’ This fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy. (Whitehead 1967: 50-51)

      (….) This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities…. The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematics, for the use of mathematics. The great characteristic of the mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions; and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions which you want to think about. The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. (Whitehead 1967: 54-55)

      Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. These are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century. (Whitehead 1967: 55) (Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World.: The Free Press; 1925; c1967 pp. 50-55.)

      • Rob
        September 6, 2019 at 3:41 am

        Fat fingers and a typo, meant to type “I have spent nearly 40 years studying computer science …”

  17. September 6, 2019 at 9:02 am

    Rob may have some expertise in searching the internet for what he sees as authoritative objections to whatever I say, but I am surprised he is allowed to continually disregard every one of the Guidelines for Comment (here up right): particularly the third and last ones.

    • This blog is renowned for its high level of comment discussion. These guidelines exist to further that reputation.
    • Engage with the arguments of the post and of your fellow discussants.
    • Try not to flood discussion threads with only your comments.
    • Do not post slight variations of the same comment under multiple posts.
    • Show your fellow discussants the same courtesy you would if you were sitting around a table with them.

    • Rob
      September 6, 2019 at 10:30 am

      Rob may have some expertise in searching the internet … ~ Dave Taylor’s Erroneous Assumptions

      .
      It’s called a library Dave. The citations come from a library and notes in a database that come from a library, you know, information :-)
      .
      But unfortunately information is useless when a mind is already filled with preconceived opinions, settled ideas, and long-standing prejudices rooted in unexamined assumptions, of pet theories.

      • September 6, 2019 at 3:56 pm

        Okay, Rob, you have access to a decent library and database, whereas I have had to create my own, in which Whitehead has several places of honour. Here I’m interested not so much in quoting him as pointing (as an old electronics reliability expert) to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in your Humean (17th century) “computer science” interpretation of “The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”. You know: ascribing concreteness to the computing rather than the computer. Without a computer you would have no computing to ascribe.

      • Rob
        September 6, 2019 at 10:00 pm

        [A]scribing concreteness to the computing rather than the computer. Without a computer you would have no computing to ascribe. ~ Dave Taylor Putting his Confused Words in Another’s Mouth

        .
        So now you resort to putting false characterizations in the mouths of others. You know full well what you are doing. You are attempting now a twisted narrative technique misrepresenting the words of others for argumentative purposes. You call yourself a Christian, even engaging repeatedly on this site in classical apologetics. You should note:
        .
        Falsehood is not a matter of narration technique but something premeditated as a perversion of truth. The shadow of a hair’s turning, premeditated for an untrue purpose, the slightest twisting or perversion of that which is principle—these constitute falseness.

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