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Tribalism in Science (and Economics)

from Blair Fix

If you ask the average person what ‘science’ is, they’ll probably answer something like ‘it’s what we know about the world’. To the lay person, ‘science’ is a body of facts.

To the trained scientist, however, ‘science’ means something different. It’s not a body of knowledge. It’s a method for determining what’s true and what’s not. To determine the way the world works, science appeals to evidence.The ideal of science is beautifully summarized by the motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba. It means ‘take nobody’s word for it’. In science, there is no authority. There are no gods, no kings, and no masters. Only evidence.

In this post, I reflect on how ‘taking nobody’s word for it’ cuts against some of our deepest instincts as humans. As social animals, we have evolved to trust members of our group. Among these group members, our instinct is to ‘take their word for it’. I call this the ‘tribal instinct’.

When we do science, we have to fight against this tribal instinct. Not surprisingly, we often fail. Rational skepticism gets overpowered by the instinct to trust members of our group. If the group happens to be powerful — say it dominates academia in a particular discipline — then false ideas get entrenched as ‘facts’.

This is a problem in all areas of science. But it’s a rampant problem in economics. The teaching of economics is dominated by the neoclassical sect, which has managed to entrench itself in academia. Among this sect, I believe, tribal instincts trump the rational appeal to evidence.

Recent empirical work highlights this fact. Neoclassical economists, it seems, pay deference to fellow members of their sect. But before getting to the fascinating empirical results, we’ll take a brief foray into evolutionary biology. This will help us understand why skepticism and the rational appeal to evidence so often get trumped by the tribal instinct to believe members of our group.

Our evolved sociality

While economists like to pretend otherwise, humans are social animals. We spend the vast majority of our lives in groups, and much of our time is spent negotiating social relations. Like all other social animals, we’ve evolved to behave this way. Sociality is an instinctual behavior.

In my opinion, the best explanation for the evolution of sociality comes from
multilevel selection theory
. Like orthodox Darwinism, multilevel selection theory appeals to ‘survival of the fittest’. The difference, however, is that multilevel selection looks at many ‘levels’ of selection. Orthodox Darwinism, in contrast, is concerned only with selection between individuals. One individual out-reproduces another, and so passes more of its genes to future generations.

Multilevel selection keeps this selection between individuals, but adds other units of selection — both smaller and larger. At the smaller level, there is selection between cells within organisms. This explains how multi-cellular organisms evolved in the first place. At the larger level, there is selection between groups of organisms. This explains how sociality evolves.

To explain the evolution of sociality, multilevel selection proposes that there must be competition between groups. The fiercer this competition, the stronger the selection for sociality. Like Darwin’s original theory of natural selection, the premise of this group selection is simple. Here’s how David Sloane Wilson and E.O. Wilson put it:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. (Source)

If there is strong competition between groups (especially if larger groups beat smaller groups), we expect sociality to evolve. The catch is that strong selection at the group level seems to be rare. We infer this because a minuscule fraction of all species are eusocial (or ‘ultra-social’).

Yet when group selection does happen, it produces potent results. Ultra-social species may be rare (in terms of the number of species), but they are spectacularly successful. In The Social Conquest of the Earth, evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson observes that the few ultra-social species that do exist — bees, ants, termites … and humans — dominate the planet (in terms of biomass).

Natural selection for tribalism: ‘taking somebody’s word for it’

With group selection in mind, let’s think about how the human instinct for tribalism — ‘taking somebody’s word for it’ — might evolve.

Imagine that you’re a member of a small tribe of hunter gatherers. A member of your tribe returns from a scouting mission and warns that a rival tribe is about to attack.

What do you do?

Do you take the scouts’ word for it? Or are you skeptical until you see the evidence first hand?

Let’s imagine how these two options might play out.

If you (and every other member of the tribe) take the scout’s word for it, then you immediately prepare for battle. If the scout was lying, the worst thing that could happen is that your tribe needlessly prepares for battle. This wastes your time, but little else. But if the scout was telling the truth, your tribe potentially avoids a devastating defeat (worst-case scenario … everyone dies).

Now imagine your tribe is filled with skeptical scientists. You (and every other member of the tribe) take nobody’s word for it. Seeking first-hand evidence that a rival tribe is actually approaching, each tribe member leaves the camp undefended. If the scout was lying, you avoid needlessly preparing for battle. But if the scout was telling the truth, your tribe potentially gets massacred by its rival. Viola, your tribe of skeptics is eliminated from the gene pool.

If we repeat this scenario a few hundred thousand times, we can see how selection for trust of group members would occur. The groups that follow the ideals of science — ‘taking nobody’s word for it’ — slowly get wiped out. The groups that reject the ideals of science and ‘take a tribe-member’s word for it’ win out.

The point I want to make with this parable is that in many situations, trust of group members is a more adaptive trait than rational skepticism. This is certainly the case with warfare — violent competition between groups. And as Peter Turchin convincingly argues, warfare may have been the driving force behind human sociality. Warfare rewards groups that are able to function collectively, and punishes those that are not.

Tribalism in science

In light of the evolution of sociality, it’s not surprising that humans have an instinct to ‘take the word’ of fellow group members. What is surprising is our capacity for rational skepticism. Clearly we do have the ability to ‘take nobody’s word for it’. Science depends on this ability. But it’s by no means our dominant instinct.

Doing science, I argue, is a precarious act. The scientist must foster rational skepticism and suppress the instinct to conform to the ideas of the group. At the same time, testing scientific theories often requires large-scale cooperation. Experiments in particle physics, for instance, involve the cooperation of thousands of people. These scientists must maintain skepticism while simultaneously having faith in the actions of fellow group members.

This balancing act can easily veer in the wrong direction. Thus we should not be surprised when tribalism prevails, and false ideas get ensconced as ‘facts’. And we should celebrate (because of its improbability) when the rational appeal to evidence wins the day.

Measuring tribalism in science

Here’s a fun idea: what if we scientifically studied tribalism in science? It would be quite simple to do. To study tribalism, we’d measure the degree to which scientists hold the following ideals:

Ideal of Tribalism: Take group members’ word for it.

Ideal of Science: Take nobody’s word for it.

Of course, we can’t directly ask scientists which ideal they hold. They’ll almost certainly respond that they respect the ideals of science. The problem of tribalism, I suspect, is an unconscious one. Scientists know (or at least profess to know) that they should respect evidence. But tribal instincts get in the way. For instance, a scientist might selectively interpret evidence (or even ignore it entirely) based on the ideas of his/her group. In most cases, the scientist will be unaware of what’s going on.

To test for tribalism, we need to measure unconscious bias. Here’s one way we could do it. We test if scientists’ agreement with a given statement is affected by its attribution.

If tribalism dominates, we expect scientists to agree with a statement if it is attributed to a member of their tribe. Conversely, they should disagree with the same statement if it is attributed to a non-member of their tribe.

Here’s a fun example applied to the most tribal of human activities — organized religion. Suppose we asked American Christians if they agree with the following statements.

“God is great.” — Pope Francis

“God is great.’ — Osama Bin Laden

My guess is that agreement would drop precipitously when the statement is attributed to Osama Bin Laden. His ‘God’, after all, is not the Christian God.

Conversely, suppose we asked physicists if they agree with the following statements:

“The Earth is round.” — Stephen Hawking

“The Earth is round.’ — Donald Trump

Because there’s overwhelming evidence that the Earth is round, we expect 100% agreement with both statements. In other words, the evidence trumps physicists’ loathe for Trump (who is clearly not a member of their physics tribe).

These are toy examples, meant to illustrate the extreme between tribalistic and scientific ideals. But they illustrate a point. If the ideals of science dominate a discipline, attribution shouldn’t affect scientists’ agreement with a statement. Conversely, if the ideals of tribalism dominate a discipline, attribution should strongly affect agreement with a statement. Scientists should be more likely to agree with a statement if it’s attributed to a member of their tribe.

Measuring tribalism in economics

This brings us to the results that you’ve been waiting for — the evidence of tribalism in economics.

Mohsen Javdani and Ha-Joon Chang recently conducted a survey of economists that mirrors the logic described above. Javdani and Chang asked economists if they agreed with a given statement. With one exception, the statements came from members of the mainstream tribe in economics (the neoclassical sect). But unbenounced to the economists, Javdani and Chang randomly switched the attribution of the statement from its original (neoclassical) source to a heterodox (non-mainstream) source. Javdani and Chang then tested how this change in attribution affected economists’ agreement with the statement.

Before getting to the results, let me frame my expectations. After studying economics for a decade, I’ve come to believe that the field is incredibly tribal. It’s dominated by a sect of neoclassical economists. Among these economists, deference to authority (prestigious members of the tribe) is everything. Evidence is an afterthought. In-house critic Paul Romer puts it this way:

Progress in the field [of economics] is judged by the purity of its mathematical theories, as determined by the authorities.

Given my experience in economics, I wasn’t surprised when I read Javdani and Chang’s results. They found that agreement with a given statement strongly depended on its attribution. Economists were more likely to agree with a statement if it was attributed to a mainstream source versus a heterodox source. Here’s their results:

javdani_chang
Evidence for tribalism in economics. This chart shows the difference in economists’ agreement with a statement when attribution was changed from a mainstream to a non-mainstream source. The table below shows the economists to which each statement was attributed. The first name is the actual source. The bold name is the non-mainstream economist. Source: “Who Said or What Said?” by Mohsen Javdani and Ha-Joon Chang.

To interpret this chart, look at the sign of the plotted point. If it’s positive, agreement increased when the statement was attributed to a non-mainstream source. If it’s negative, agreement decreased. All but one points are negative, meaning economists agree more with a statement if it is attributed to a mainstream economist.

These results nicely demonstrates how tribalism dominates economics. Most economists are members of the neoclassical tribe. And rather than ‘take nobody’s word for it’, economists preferentially take fellow tribe-members word for it.

Rationalizing tribalism

Perhaps even more interesting than Javdani and Chang’s results, is neoclassical economists reaction to these results. I recently posted the above figure on Twitter, causing a bit of a firestorm. Here are some of the reactions:

Many of the heterodox economists listed are … known to not know much of value so brand name capital is either minimal or negative. Real finding of paper is there aren’t ten heterodox economists that are even well known.
(Source)

The Econ Nobel is a good indicator of being within the scientific consensus, if anything it’s less of an appeal to authority than trusting a random heterodox academic on economic[s] because “they’re an economist”. (Source)

I’m … not sure that reliance on authority is necessarily fallacious if authority only granted on basis of expertise and judgment earned through years of careful study. (Source)

Rather than refute the study’s findings, these reactions demonstrate that mainstream economists know little about the ideals of science. Among members of the tribe, deference to authority is the ‘rational’ course of action. And we all know how neoclassical economists worship rationality.

A broader problem?

Lest we be too hard on economics, I think Javdani and Chang’s findings would probably replicate in other social sciences, and to a lesser extent in the natural sciences. But I suspect that the results would be less spectacular. My experience is that economics is far and away the most tribal of disciplines.

I’d like to see this type of research extended to all disciplines, and studied over time. Given our evolutionary heritage, we should expect to find tribal instincts at work in science, even when scientists profess to respect only the evidence.

The ideal of science — to take nobody’s word for it — contradicts our social instincts. It’s far easier to believe people we trust — members of our tribe. That science works at all is something we should marvel at. And when we fall short of the ideals of science, we shouldn’t obfuscate. We should admit that we’ve given in to base urges, and that we need to do better.

  1. Mike Ryan
    October 8, 2019 at 10:31 pm

    Economics isn’t science.

  2. Rob
    October 9, 2019 at 2:08 am

    Food for thought from a personal conversation with a friend who is a retired professor of philosophy form Kent State University. The discussion was about science, methodology, and the limits of reductionism:
    .

    Reductionism has three types; the first two are philosophic, and the third is a common scientific strategy. Ontological reductionism denies the being of higher levels of reality: “So-called spiritual reality is nothing but a psychological experience; psychological experience is nothing but a biological process; and a biological process is nothing but a set of biochemical events.” Epistemological reductionism claims to explain a higher-level science wholly in terms of a lower-level science, for example, “Scientific theories using psychological terms can, in principle, be reduced to scientific theories using only biological terms; in the future scientists will be able to explain biological terms solely in terms of chemistry and physics.” So-called “non-reductive materialism” accepts ontological reductionism but rejects epistemological reductionism. Methodological reductionism says, “In order to have a coherent and rigorous science, we exclude any hypotheses about spirit. For the purposes of this research program, we restrict our conclusions about spiritual experience to the language of neuroscience.” Note that religionists and atheists can in good faith co-author reports of methodologically restricted research. Nevertheless, methodological reductionism may be problematic, too, because it raises a crucial question in the philosophy of science. Science, Scientia in Latin, means knowledge, which implies knowledge of the region of reality that it addresses. It would be absurd to claim to plumb the meaning of human action by the methods of chemistry. Should not the method appropriate to a given region of reality be attuned to that region itself? This observation does not imply that chemistry says nothing important about action, but it does imply that the meaningfulness of what chemistry tells us depends on a prior understanding of action itself. Making a commitment to a scientific method on account of its quantitative precision or other epistemological advantages can hobble access to the region to be known. (Jeff Wattles, personal communication, 2/14/2013, emphasis added.)

    .
    While not desiring to get into a debate about the rather narrow definition of science given in this post/article, I note it is a fact that this is one among many definitions give by scientists themselves and is not universal and itself has a historical context. Indeed, history is messy and simple right answers are not always so simple and easy.

    • Craig
      October 9, 2019 at 7:05 pm

      Correct. Reductionistic “science” needs to be transcended and that can be done without resorting to religious dogma. Self awareness EXISTS no matter to what one attributes it or does not attribute it to.

      Current economics doesn’t consider philosophy except to consciously or unconsciously affirm the current paradigm so it is stuck in either compartmentalized social or hard sciences which tribally resist integration of their particles of truth. As I have said here many times Wisdom is the integration of the truths etc. in opposing and/or compartmentalized perspectives, and paradigms are quintessential integrative concepts because they are a SINGLE MENTAL concept that transforms and creates an entirely new PLURALISM/TEMPORAL UNIVERSE PATTERN. Hence Wisdom/integrative thinking TO THE LEVEL OF paradigmatic perception must be the goal in economics.

      • Rob
        October 9, 2019 at 11:23 pm

        Craig, your own religion is preached dogmatically on this very forum, I do believe ;-)

      • Craig
        October 10, 2019 at 12:57 am

        Sometimes it takes a “road to Damascus” type cognition on the reality of the existence of self awareness to snap people out of their habitual pre-occupations with abstractionism.

        Either that, or having someone utterly violate them physically or emotionally to make them aware of the fact that, in the human world, morals and even ethics (the rational consideration of morals) EXISTS!

        And, without it becoming an obsession of course, underlies and under cuts every other consideration…in every area of life and living.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 10, 2019 at 11:54 am

        Craig, your obsessive contention that your belief is the only integrative philosophy and everyone else, no matter how reasonable their questions are wrong, is itself the sign of a zealots religious zeal and fanatical insistence one is right and everyone else is fundamentally wrong. The endless cycle of lip-service then ignore honest criticism never modifying one’s worldview or learning something new; these are the signs of a dogmatically held belief. You are not being intellectually consistent and that too is a warning sign of fanaticism. When a so-called “scientist” refuses to honestly face the facts of reality and be self-correcting, preferring a bad (erroneous) theory to no theory, they are acting like a religious zealot; they science has become a religion. When a so-called “scientist” distorts history for polemical and rhetorical purposes, despite historical evidence to prove they are twisting truth and fact, their science is a religion not true science. The strength of science is that in the long turn it does self-correct. Religion too self-corrects but over a much longer and slower period of time for it lacks the necessary institutions and cultural norms to impose such self-correction without creating sectarianism and schisms. Science has it schisms too but these schisms are more open to self-correction by the larger scientific community over time.

      • Craig
        October 10, 2019 at 7:45 pm

        @ Rob

        What is your (and anyone else’s) best guess about what the new monetary and financial paradigm concept is? It’s never brought up here. Very unscientific.

  3. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    October 9, 2019 at 5:00 am

    In science, it is ideal that there must be no authority, no gods, no kings, and no masters. At this point, I agree with Bair Fix. I am firmly against neoclassical economics. But the proposition “only evidence [matters]” is too simplistic a claim.

    Whether a phenomenon is interpreted as evidence depends on the theory we believe (all facts are theory laden.). In spite of Bair Fix’s statement, a science is in fact a body of knowledge which comprises methods for determining what’s true and what’s not. Simply stated, a science is a system.

    Economics is also a system of concepts, observations, questions, methods of measurement and descriptions, explanations that relate various observed facts. The antagonism between neoclassical and heterodox economics is a question which system of the two is better as science by which to understand the economy and to evaluate policies. Tribalism is a necessary consequence of the system characteristics of sciences. The same thing occurs in physical sciences too, when they face a paradigmatic choice. To depict tribalism among economists is not very useful (although an interesting topic) to re-orient actual economics to a better and more correct science. The first comment to this post (of Bair Fix) represents a typical reaction to this depiction. To disseminate distrust of economics in general is not a good way for the reconstruction of the economics. Without good economics, we all suffer.

    • Craig
      October 9, 2019 at 7:19 am

      What about no monopoly paradigm on the most powerful and significant factor in all of economics? And what about allowing a completely problematic and illegitimate business model (private for-profit finance) to dominate everyone and virtually all other business models?

    • Robert Locke
      October 9, 2019 at 8:46 am

      “with bad economics we all suffer,” and since I believe that a good economics is not in the creative provenience of man; the science project should be abandoned, and replaced by historical knowledge specific to time and place.

      • Frank Salter
        October 9, 2019 at 10:24 am

        I agree with the quotation. I disagree with the “creative” assertion. I agree with the use of “historical knowledge” as this is the empirical evidence.

        It is the failure of economists to apply the scientific method. I suspect because they do not understand its requirements such as the quantity calculus. What is worse they appear to ignore what they can not understand. Proper application of the scientific method reveals there is no quantitative analysis of conventional or heterodox analysis which is valid. With all the dross removed there is virtually nothing to think about which remains. Then they will be able to make sense of what is possible. As Sherlock Holmes asserts “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This is of course is why science has progressed.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        October 10, 2019 at 7:01 am

        Robert Locke
        do you think that no theory is better than a bad theory? I believe that a bad theory is better than no theory.

        To cite a parable, history of economics is similar to that of astronomy. Present mainstream economics can be compared to astronomy before Copernicus. It was fundamentally wrong, but it could be a basis or a trigger of Copernican revolution. Without accumulated knowledge of Ptolemaic system no Copernican revolution was possible. And hence no modern science.

      • Robert Locke
        October 10, 2019 at 11:06 am

        YOSHINORI, why is it that people in economics invariable turn to the achievements of physical science to “prove” the same “progression” can be expected in economics? A small kid would see through such arguments.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        October 10, 2019 at 3:57 pm

        Robert,

        each science trails its own pass. But, seen from an aspect, physics gives a good example how sciences progress.

        In astronomy, even after Copernicus, majority of astronomers stayed on geocentric system. Tycho Brahe was one of them. His observation technique was excellent and raised the accuracy of observation by a digit, from 10 angle minutes to 1 angle minute. This provided Kepler the firm basis of his new system, i.e. elliptic movement and others.

        (1) Neoclassical economics is a theory which is built on a wrong basis, but has accumulated a corpus of knowledge concerning various economic phenomena including economic history and we can use this knowledge.

        (2) Many mainstream economists are unsatisfied of the actual state of economics. They are feeling something wrong.

        (3) Many anomalies are depicted. ect. ect.

        These are indications that actual mainstream economics is approaching an impasse. We can expect that a new paradigm change is approaching.

  4. Jorge Buzaglo
    October 9, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    “Ultra-social species may be rare (in terms of the number of species), but they are spectacularly successful. In The Social Conquest of the Earth, evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson observes that the few ultra-social species that do exist — bees, ants, termites … and humans — dominate the planet (in terms of biomass).”

    The most “successful” species do not seem to be particularly “ultra-social”. From Wikipedia:

    The most successful animal species, in terms of biomass, may well be Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, with a fresh biomass approaching 500 million tonnes, although domestic cattle may also reach these immense figures. However, as a group, the small aquatic crustaceans called copepods may form the largest animal biomass on earth. A 2009 paper in Science estimates, for the first time, the total world fish biomass as somewhere between 0.8 and 2.0 billion tonnes. It has been estimated that about 1% of the global biomass is due to phytoplankton, and 25% is due to fungi.

    Humans comprise about 100 million tonnes of the Earth’s dry biomass.

    I quote now from my RWER paper (paecon.net/PAEReview/issue85/Buzaglo85): “As said by biologist R. C. Lewontin about the risk of evolutionary scientism: ‘… a story can be invented that will explain the natural selective advantage of any trait imaginable … They are just stories. Science has been turned into a game’.”

    • Jorge Buzaglo
      October 10, 2019 at 1:12 pm

      Humans have “outcompeted” many species, and might in time exterminate nearly all of them. Would this make them/us particularly “successful”? It would be in that case a posthumous success…

      In my view natural selection of groups /races/nations/species, social Darwinism, and biological determinism are dangerous/lethal, already falsified theories.

      • October 10, 2019 at 1:21 pm

        Yes, Jorge. Echoing my response to Egmont below, “Too true”.

      • Jorge Buzaglo
        October 11, 2019 at 3:00 pm

        Some more detail on biomass:

        “Of the 550 gigatons of biomass carbon on Earth, animals make up about 2 gigatons, with insects comprising half of that and fish taking up another 0.7 gigatons. Everything else, including mammals, birds, nematodes and mollusks are roughly 0.3 gigatons, with humans weighing in at 0.06 gigatons.” The research appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.(from Wikipedia)

  5. Meta Capitalism
    October 10, 2019 at 6:05 am

    Religion can be defined as that which one holds to be of supreme value. You are every bit as much devoted, dogmatically, to your religion Craig which you preach (post) on this forum incessantly. You merely dismiss any reasonable response like any other zealot who holds to their religious beliefs fundamentally. You fit the definition to a shoe.

    • Craig
      October 10, 2019 at 8:04 am

      Do you disagree with any of my policies?

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 11, 2019 at 4:07 am

        You can have the last word.

      • Craig
        October 11, 2019 at 5:14 am

        Yes, I can…unless you can come up with a better paradigm and its effects.

  6. Craig
    October 10, 2019 at 7:52 am

    “Religion can be defined as that which one holds to be of supreme value.”

    That’s a fair if incomplete definition of religion. Can you come up with a better supreme value than grace as in love in action/policy?

    I have nothing whatsoever for or against religion per se, only the obsessive contention and dis-integrativeness it too often degenerates into. I agree with the particles of truths many express here like MMT and financial instability. I only wish their advocates would step up mentally and integrate their own theories with the philosophical concept behind the new monetary paradigm…which concept they are already, if unconsciously, are in agreement with.

    • Meta Capitalism
      October 10, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      Craig, your obsessive contention that your belief is the only integrative philosophy and everyone else, no matter how reasonable their questions or honest their critique are wrong, is itself the sign of a zealots religious zeal and fanatical insistence one is right and everyone else is fundamentally wrong. The endless cycle of lip-service then ignore honest criticism never modifying one’s worldview or learning something new; these are the signs of a dogmatically held belief. You are not being intellectually consistent and that too is a warning sign of fanaticism. When a so-called “scientist” refuses to honestly face the facts of reality and be self-correcting, preferring a bad (erroneous) theory to no theory, they are acting like a religious zealot; their science has become a religion–scientism. When a so-called “scientist” distorts history for polemical and rhetorical purposes, despite historical evidence to prove they are twisting truth and fact, their science is a religion–scientism– not true science. The strength of science is that in the long turn it does self-correct. Religion too self-corrects but over a much longer and slower period of time for it lacks the necessary institutions and cultural norms to impose such self-correction without creating sectarianism and schisms. Science has it schisms too but these schisms are more open to self-correction by the larger scientific community over time.

      • Craig
        October 10, 2019 at 7:35 pm

        I’m unapologetically evangelical about the new paradigm and its aligned policies and regulations, but I’ve done none of what you accuse me of above.

        “your obsessive contention that your belief is the only integrative philosophy and everyone else, no matter how reasonable their questions or honest their critique are wrong,..”

        I agree with much of what people say here, and I don’t make people wrong unless they attack me with ad hominem or false critique first. I do assert that virtually no one here thinks on the integrative level of the paradigm and that is an observable fact.

        “The endless cycle of lip-service then ignore honest criticism never modifying one’s worldview or learning something new; these are the signs of a dogmatically held belief.”

        Some of the theory and policies of Keen, Hudson, Mosler, Brown, Douglas etc. are in my book. That is not lip service, it’s being integrative. Almost no one here actually engages me on policy or philosophy. That is largely because their own theories and reforms fit fully and seamlessly within my theory of the new paradigm. I’m the only one here suggesting that the particles of truth etc. in Keen’s Minsky financial instability hypothesis, Hudson’s financial parasitism, Brown’s Public Banking and MMT integrate with each other on the paradigmatic level. Tribalism is probably part of the reason for that.

        I’ve altered my thinking many times in numerous and even fundamental ways. Synthesis/integration IS change…and that is what I advocate.

        “The strength of science is that in the long turn it does self-correct.”

        Correct. And when a new paradigm comes into the awareness of virtually everyone as a result of one of the signatures of all historical paradigm changes, namely a new tool or insight, such change can broaden vastly, especially in our interconnected high tech world.

        How do you disagree with the policies and philosophy I advocate?

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 11, 2019 at 4:05 am

        Do you every ask yourself why no one will engage you regarding policy and philosophy? You say you have altered your thinking, but one would never know given the overwhelming repititious nature of the content of your posts. It has become so reflexively stereotypical that one could quite literally automate your replies to virtually every topic posted on this blog (it would make a fun intro to programming assignment), but take some solice you are not alone, you do have Salter’s company to console you.

      • Craig
        October 11, 2019 at 5:11 am

        When you engage me about your disagreements with my policies and philosophy, and show that you can come up with better and more universally beneficial ones I will embrace them. Until that time your recent posts are nothing but ad hominem.

        Finally, whether I’m a zealot or not is irrelevant if the paradigm defining benefits of the concept and its policies I advocate are real.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 11, 2019 at 5:54 am

        Craig, I don’t want to curb your enthusiasm (evangelism), for the world needs idealists no doubt. You have already been asked by Ken provide concrete practical steps as to how you might achieve this reformation of capitalism that you envision. Unless I missed the only response he got was dismissive rhetoric. Why should I think I (or anyone else for that matter) would be treated any differently?

        Your ideals are sufficiently high, but your ideas are so impractical that they render your idealism pragmatically speaking, useless if you have no chance of convincing your fellows to actually adopt in practice your ideas. 

        I highly doubt that outside a closed utopian community you have much of a chance of convincing anyone, let alone society, to drop the current economic structure and adopt wholesale your ideas. 

        In other words, there must be intermediate steps to be able to implement even a small part of your ideal structure for economic behavior that your idealism envisions. 

        How to get there is as import and knowing where you want to go, for we (as both individuals and society) are evolutionary mortals.

      • Craig
        October 11, 2019 at 6:37 am

        “You have already been asked by Ken (to) provide concrete practical steps as to how you might achieve this reformation of capitalism that you envision.”

        Yes, and I told him we should directly address the individual and the small to medium sized business community in order to start a mass socio-economic movement that could herd the entirety of the political apparatus toward THE OBVIOUSLY SELF INTERESTED policies of the new paradigm. Everyone else here apparently thinks they’re going to change things by chattering endlessly with each other here and to ego-involved academics who do not have a concept of what a paradigm is current or new.

        “Your ideals are sufficiently high, but your ideas are so impractical that they render your idealism pragmatically speaking, useless if you have no chance of convincing your fellows to actually adopt in practice your ideas. I highly doubt that outside a closed utopian community you have much of a chance of convincing anyone, let alone society, to drop the current economic structure and adopt wholesale your ideas. ”

        My key policy, the 50% Discount/Rebate policy at retail sale immediately, empirically, mathematically and temporally doubles everyone’s earned income potential. It also immediately doubles the actually available business revenue for any enterprise. Oh, and it not only immediately, empirically, mathematically and temporally eliminates any possibility of price and asset inflation it accomplishes one of the major signatures of paradigm changes which is to completely invert the realities of the old/current paradigm. In this case from chronic price and asset inflation to beneficial price deflation.
        You don’t think a 100% raise might be attractive to virtually everyone? A 100% raise in presently available business revenue to enterprise? A $1000/mo. universal dividend at age 18 that is doubled by the 50% Discount/Rebate policy at retail sale? The lifting of transfer taxation for then redundant welfare, unemployment insurance and social security paid by all employed persons and every enterprise?

        “In other words, there must be intermediate steps to be able to implement even a small part of your ideal structure for economic behavior that your idealism envisions.”

        That is the orthodox mindset of reformists. Viral communication in a high tech world, the hope evoking nature of new paradigm concepts and historical paradigm changes are the destroyers of orthodoxies.

      • Meta Capitalism
        October 11, 2019 at 8:56 am

        Good luck, you are going to need it :-)

  7. October 10, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Tribalism is NOT the problem of economics
    Comment on Blair Fix on ‘Tribalism in Science (and Economics)’

    Blair Fix summarizes: “If you ask the average person what ‘science’ is, they’ll probably answer something like ‘it’s what we know about the world’. To the lay person, ‘science’ is a body of facts. To the trained scientist, however, ‘science’ means something different. It’s not a body of knowledge. It’s a method for determining what’s true and what’s not. To determine the way the world works, science appeals to evidence.The ideal of science is beautifully summarized by the motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba. It means ‘take nobody’s word for it’. In science, there is no authority. There are no gods, no kings, and no masters. Only evidence.”

    In more technical terms: “Research is, in fact, a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant)

    Economics claims to be science#1 but is merely what Feynman called a cargo cult science. As always and everywhere, there is the genuine thing and the look-alike: “They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. … But it doesn’t work. … So I call these things cargo cult science because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential.”

    The general public cannot spontaneously tell the difference between the genuine thing and the look-alike and this provides a comfortable ecological niche for the look-alikes in all walks of life from the ordinary impostor to the fake scientist.#2

    Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as economics. There are TWO economixes: political economics and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics, the scientific standards of material and formal consistency are observed.

    Political economics has produced NOTHING of scientific value in the last 200+ years. The major approaches — Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism, MMT — are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent and all got the foundational economic concept profit wrong.

    Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and NOTHING else. Theoretical economics, though, had been hijacked from the very beginning by the agenda pushers of political economics.

    Blair Fix thinks this is due to our evolutionary heritage: “When we do science, we have to fight against this tribal instinct. Not surprisingly, we often fail. Rational skepticism gets overpowered by the instinct to trust members of our group. If the group happens to be powerful — say it dominates academia in a particular discipline — then false ideas get entrenched as ‘facts’. This is a problem in all areas of science. But it’s a rampant problem in economics. The teaching of economics is dominated by the neoclassical sect, which has managed to entrench itself in academia. Among this sect, I believe, tribal instincts trump the rational appeal to evidence.”

    This evolutionary explanation is a bit silly. Economics is not science but the propaganda arm of the Oligarchy. The heap of inconsistent economic approaches has no truth-value, however, this does not matter much in the political realm where all that counts is propagandistic use-value. More has not been expected by the founders and funders of economics departments, chairs, and institutions. And this has always been delivered. Rockefeller called the university ‘the best investment’ he ever made.

    This and NOT biologically entrenched tribalism is the built-in bias of economics. Economics is controlled with the usual incentives of prestige and money. Economists are the useful idiots of the Oligarchy which selects their agenda pushers systematically and rewards them handsomely.#3, #4 Arrow, Debreu and other members of the Cowles “tribe” were awarded the “Nobel” for the “proof” of the superiority of the market economy, i.e. for an impressive PR stunt and not for a scientific achievement.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    #1 About the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” see
    https://axecorg.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-real-problem-with-economics-nobel.html

    #2 The economist as storyteller
    https://axecorg.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-economist-as-storyteller.html

    #3 How to spot economics trolls
    https://axecorg.blogspot.com/2019/07/how-to-spot-economics-trolls.html

    #4 Economics, math, pluralism, and corruption
    https://axecorg.blogspot.com/2019/09/economics-math-pluralism-and-corruption.html

    • October 10, 2019 at 1:11 pm

      Unfortunately this snook in before my response to Meta-Capitalism and Craig on religion.

      Egmont, I’m sympathetic to your position, which fits in with the post-Machiavellian history of the Protestant reformation promoting ownership law and the growth of owned-money Capitalism. I am much more in agreement with your Klant quotation than the Blair Fix one. However, I dispute your assertion that “Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and NOTHING else.” Even allowing probability as a measure of the proportion of instances which are absolutely true or false, the point of that is that the theory is not useful (and can even be harmful) insofar as it is not true. So the truth of its usefulness has to be part of the story.

      The first question is, to whom? To politicians, or to everybody? What use is your bald assertion unless you too are pursuing your own (academic) agenda?

      The second question is indicated by Klant’s “Research is, in fact, a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.”

      So is science JUST research? Doesn’t it include expressing the findings in a form which can be understood and therefore taught: not indeed as providing true ‘facts’ but as true enough for a given application, or to be understood as the best available hypothesis, probably useful for FUTURE applications if subject to continuous discussion of its theoretical and future, not least with students?

      • October 10, 2019 at 1:15 pm

        I don’t know where this last line came from. For ‘future’ I was intending “formal and material consistency”.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      October 10, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

      What do you propose as theoretical economics that challenges to explain how the actual economy works? This is the most important point. Criticizing neoclassical economics alone does not bring a new economics i.e. theoretical economics that explains how the actual economy works.

  8. October 10, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    This is Humpty Dumpty talk: “Words mean what I say they mean”. You guys are mistaking religion for theology, which may conclude negatively as well as positively: either that there is no God or that (our not being in a position to know) any form of belief is as good as any other.

    Religion – re-ligaturing, literally re-tying – is about grateful (free) commitment to a person who (historically) saved our life, paid off our mortgage, freed us from slavery. Some of us believe the history told in dramatic form (after deliberation that continues as we mature from children through busy to thoughtful adults) and celebrate it, much as Britons less justly celebrate the warrior Churchill. Our reminding ourselves and our children of the history and that “It is right and fitting, always and everywhere to give you thanks”, is not religion per se (about gratitude for the past and hope for the future, as against self-centred politics promoting ingratitude and fear of retribution), but an on-going theatrical re-presentation of Judaic and Christian history, echoed in Mohamed’s freeing and education of the Arabs.

    (Our one God is the same. It is our theologies which differ, feed tribalism and need updating in light of modern understanding of Words, Personalities and State transitions).

  9. October 10, 2019 at 11:45 pm

    Yoshinori Shiozawa

    You say: “What do you propose as theoretical economics that challenges to explain how the actual economy works? This is the most important point. Criticizing neoclassical economics alone does not bring a new economics i.e. theoretical economics that explains how the actual economy works.”

    True indeed and basic methodological stuff: “The moral of the story is simply this: it takes a new theory, and not just the destructive exposure of assumptions or the collection of new facts, to beat an old theory.” (Blaug)

    So, a Paradigm Shift is indispensable. Economics has to move from false Walrasian microfoundations and false Keynesian macrofoundations and false heterodox Pluralism to true macrofoundations.

    For details of the big picture see cross-references Paradigm Shift
    http://axecorg.blogspot.com/2015/02/essentials-cross-references.html

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

  10. Ken Zimmerman
    October 13, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Blair, you weave an interesting story. But observations by anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, and others tell a somewhat different story. Unlike their non-Homo ancestors, humans did not evolve as a social (community) species. Human evolution gave the species extraordinary creativity and imagination, which allowed humans to plan and create, and via planning and creativity survive. Humans invented sociality about 20,000-30,000 years ago to deal with the needs of survival (e.g., food, shelter, clothing, reproduction). Once sociality was created, humans’ extraordinary creativity and imagination did the rest. Creating bands, then villages, then towns, cities, etc. Also invented was culture, which tells each human who they are, where they belong, and what’s expected of them. So long as human population remained relatively small, humans created few big divisions among members of the species. But as population size grew, so did the number and variety of divisions among groups of humans (tribes as you call them). While human imagination created government, language, economics, and religion, it also created conflicts large and small among the various cultures humans created. Humans invented philosophy to explain humankind and the world around it, and from it invented science, which, to use Einstein’s definition, “…is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Leaving us to conclude that the critical problem humans face is investigating the nature of everyday thinking. A primarily historical question.

    Science is thus the result of human imagination and creativity. Its most frequent use is to deal with human problems and as a way for humans to create an understanding via models of what they are and what the world around them is. Above all science is a faith, an imaginary faith. One of the great physicists of the 20th century, J.C. Polkinghorne explained science as a “Quest for Natural God” in a 1983 Times Higher Educational Supplement, 10 June 1983. He said, “Twentieth-century science has a grand and impressive story to tell. Anyone framing a view of the world has to take account of what it has to say … It is a non-trivial fact about the world that we can understand it and that mathematics provides the perfect language for physical science: that, in a word, science is possible at all.” So, science is storytelling. Using mathematics and observation. It is about “framing a view of the world.” An accurate view is the scientist’s goal. But scientists don’t use the term reality. It has no significance in science. The theoretical physicist might begin her work with observation or with “assuming a universe of some specific form.” But from either beginning point the process continues the same. Compare observational data with other observational data. After hundreds or thousands of comparisons the scientist hopes to see patterns of relationships that can be expressed mathematically, if possible. From the other direction the assumed universe is compared with observational data. Again, searching for patterns of relationships that can be if possible, expressed mathematically. Mathematical expression is optional, however. Many sciences perform well (geology, biology) even though much of their work and results do not lend themselves to mathematical expression. But even if the scientist comes to believe she sees patterns of relationship, this conclusion remains always uncertain, never final or fixed. Over time the scientist might develop faith in the belief. But a faith that can be discarded.

    It’s also important to recognize that the process just described in not logical, clean, and tidy. Rather, it’s messy, uncertain, and often filled with strong and disruptive emotions. Depicted graphically, it often seems confused, going nowhere, and not able to accomplish anything of significance. Scientists establish what all can and should accept as fact via consensus. But it’s consensus about practice, not each fact or experiment. You should also note that when Pickering and others who study science use the term construction, they are attempting to bring our attention to how both science and science facts are created – they are constructed. In the case of Quarks, for example, high-energy physicists constructed them over a 50-year period. Pickering’s book is an attempt to describe the history of the construction process. It’s a fascinating story. Another useful example of this consensus construction process is found in “Merchants of Doubt,” by Naomi Oreskes, Chapter 3, Acid Rain. And, being a story about humans, it includes errors, some massive, falsehoods, and delusions.

    Science is invented to be useful to humans. Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. But neither the knowledge nor the process is static. The knowledge changes as we change how to observe the world. Knowledge is tied to what we observe, how we observe it, and what purpose we have in mind when we observe. The important thing is we try to allow the data to speak to us. To allow it to shine forth. We try not to speak for the data but from it. Science thus is also exciting, since it is discovery allowing us to link observations into an articulate (for the moment) story of actors and actions in many times and places. Most scientists are motivated not by wealth or power, but by the thrill of seeing or figuring out something that no one has before. Science is also useful. The knowledge generated by science is often dependable and valuable. It can be used to develop new technologies, treat diseases, and deal with many other sorts of problems. Science is ongoing. Science is continually reassessing its process and the accuracy of its facts about the world around us. Science will never be “finished.” Science is a global human endeavor. People all over the world participate in the process of science. We believe the earliest science was in ancient China and Egypt, and among Sumerians and Akkadians. About 5,000 BCE. But we must be careful not to mystify science behind abstractions and high-sounding elitism. In this vein science becomes an activity for the elites to further their ambitions. Science is at its heart experimental, involving hands-on trial-and-error actions rather than intellectualism. Benjamin Farrington warns us,

    In its origin science is not in fact so divorced from practical ends as histories have sometimes made out. Textbooks, right down from Greek times, have tended to obscure the empirical element in the growth of knowledge by their ambition of presenting their subjects in a logical orderly development. This is, perhaps, the best method of exposition; the mistake is to confuse it with a record of the genesis of theory. Behind Euclid’s definition of a straight line as “one that lies evenly between the points on it” one discerns the mason with his level.

    Much more of science comes from the worker at the bench and the craftsperson solving tangible problems than the elite scientist in the academy. Science can never be the source of “unchallengeable” knowledge, though portraying it so may please some scientists (e.g., physicists, chemists, mathematicians) who view their work and themselves as elites towering above the other sciences and particularly those people not involved in science. In 1903 – the era of relativity and quantum theory — it was two bicycle mechanics named Wright who gave the critical impulse to the science of aerodynamics. Not theoretical scientists of any sort. Science owes more of what it is to miners, masons, navigators, midwives, mechanics, armorers, bridge builders, etc. than to all the physicists, chemists, mathematicians, etc. who ever lived.

    Blair, are there what you call tribes within science? Yes, there are clearly cultural divides among scientists. For example, USSR and western scientists during the Cold War. Today, between evolutionary biologists and evolutionary anthropologists. Generally, these resolve over time and provide benefits in terms of greater public interest in a topic and more funding for observational research.

    • Craig
      October 13, 2019 at 4:58 pm

      The one thing science routinely forgets is: “Wherever you go, THERE. YOU. ARE.”

      “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot

      “Science is wonderful, terrifically interesting and necessary for a full understanding of the temporal universe, and it resides entirely within the digestive tract of Wisdom.” Craig

      When in doubt integrate particles of truth, highest workabilities, most relevant applicabilities and the highest ethical considerations in apparently opposing perspectives…and keep on integrating. Craig

      “Thinking themselves wise they become fools.” Romans 1: 22

      Economists are so thrice removed from present time observation by abstract mathematical and/or theoretical musings that for millennia they’ve missed the incredibly powerful and problem resolving effect of doing a simple algebraic and monetary operation at the point of retail sale. Craig

  11. October 13, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Ken:

    Regarding the notion of property in general and capital as power in particular, you may be interested in Ulf Martin’s brilliant 2019 paper ‘The Autocatalytic Sprawl of Pseudorational Mastery’ (full text: http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/606/)

    ABSTRACT: “According to Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler (2009), capital is not an economic quantity, but a mode of power. Their fundamental thesis could be summarized as follows: capital is power quantified in monetary terms. But what do we do when we quantify? What is the nature of money in a capitalist society? Indeed, what is power? In the following, we try to develop a concept of power as the ability of persons to create particular formations against resistance. The kinds of formations persons can think of depend on the society they live in, which can be identified by what Cornelius Castoriadis called its social imaginary significations (SIS). The core SIS of capitalism is rational mastery operating with computational rationality. Computational rationality in turn rests on a particular understanding of how signification works: it works through operational symbolism, as theorized by Sybille Krämer in analyzing the philosophy of Leibniz. When the concept of the SIS of modern rationality was developed in the 1950s and 1960s, bureaucracy was seen as the main organizational mode of rational mastery. We argue that there are two modes of rational mastery, capitalization and bureaucratization, that interact with each other in capitalist society. The paper concludes with deliberations on the future of rational mastery and possible ways out.”

  12. Gerald Holtham
    October 14, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    There is tribalism in economics but it has a sociological rather than an evolutionary explanation. Unlike physics, economics, because it shapes politics, is of interest to many people. Moreover because it touches on things of everyday life everyone suspects they are an expert. Economics as Max Planck (I think) said is much harder than physics yet many people think they understand it. If you don’t believe me just read some of the gibberish on this blog. How do you tell an opinionated journalist from a “real” economist.? In other words how can economists protect the hygiene of the profession and distinguish themselves from interested but untrained commentators? The answer is a PhD and the demonstration that you can do a bit of maths and analytically manipulate approved mathematical models. This “entry requirement” or professional benediction process leads to group-think and an intense methodological conformism. It has stultified economics in a way we don’t see in other disciplines – but Physicists don’t suffer from the same insecurity caused by the fuzzy boundary of their trade.

    Einstein got theoretical papers in physics published while working in a patent office. I wouldn’t fancy the chances of anyone publishing in the Journal of Political Economy unless they or a co-author were tenured at a university – preferably Chicago.

    So much for the sociology. Why does the conformism take the particular form it does? Because the United States dominates economics and most senior economists grew up with the political prejudices of the US upper classes and intelligentsia. Their particular ideology is baked into much contemporary economics (much not all). If the USSR, not the USA had emerged triumphant from the Cold War, the ideological content of economics would have been different. Economics, like the economies it studies is path dependent. You can put this down to a conspiracy or sell-out if you like but that is not necessary. As Meredith put it: “No villain need be. Passion spins the plot; we are betrayed by what is false within”.

    • Jorge Buzaglo
      October 14, 2019 at 6:27 pm

      Now we are talking…

      I agree, except in the physics envy. Physics has its own serious problems: basic incoherence between its two fundamental theories (relativity and quantum physics), acknowledged ignorance of 85% of the physical world (i.e. “dark matter”), etc. Physicists are perhaps better than economists at “tribalism,” and get away with that, and with the ethical atrocity of contributing to the proliferation and utilization of all kinds of massively (and not massively) lethal weapons. This lethal capacity explains perhaps their respectability.

      • October 15, 2019 at 11:49 am

        Thanks for daring to say physics has its own serious problems. I’ve worked out how to resolve them, but neither tribe is willing to listen, as Oliver Heaviside discovered before me.

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