Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Theory and reality.

I found this rather an annoying argument. Basically, Don Coffin (the blogger) approvingly reports on some comments made by economist David Card on a particular economic theory, which is not well-supported by observation. Coffin's comment (the part I found annoying) is:
The moral for economists is that theory is a useful thing, but the real issue is whether the theory is in agreement with reality. If it isn't, then it's the theory that needs to be revised.
I call bullshit. "Reality" is shaped by theory, as much as theory is shaped by reality. That is, there is no independently-described set of facts which theories can be compared to. Even if there is an objective (in the sense of mind-independent) reality, it does not follow that there is one discrete and finite set of descriptions of this reality. The way reality is described is a theoretical enterprise, thus the comparison of theory to reality is itself theory-driven. From this, it follows that, as I believe Quine once defended, when confronted with a conflict between a theory and an observation, one always has the option to discard the observation.

Now, of course, if I'm right that our understanding of facts -- our conceptual framework, if you like -- is shaped by theory, then what actually happens when we "discard the observation" is that we discard (or revise) one theory rather than another. That is, the theory which leads us to make the observation may have to go instead of the theory which the observation is in conflict with. Given that, it is also possible that the theory which the observation conflicts with may prove to be the weaker contender. The lesson, though, is that Coffin is wrong to think that the comparison of theory to reality straightforwardly favours reality: because reality is shot through with theory, what really happens is we favour the theory for which we have the strongest reasons, and discard (or revise) the theory for which our reasons are weaker.

It's funny how often these kinds of problems come down to reasons.

7 comments:

undergroundman said...

This is especially true in the social sciences, as evidenced by the placebo effect and similar things (and why I argue that morality is in fact plastic and malleable). But what is theory, really? It is composed of ideas in people's heads and in books - and it influences how they act. The theoretical approach taken at both the micro and macro level affect human actions. That's is the reality of the human experience.

On the other hand, there are physical (and biological) realities as well. Sometimes how we see the world affects our actions and the results we see, but what we think happens doesn't happen like we think it does, or for the reasons we think it does. That's what I think he's getting at.

The fundamental point he's making, anyway, is that academic predictions which don't match up to empirical testing are flawed -- and I think it's a very legitimate point. The argument that economists assume away all sorts of relevant aspects is actually very strong. I'm reading The Elusive Quest for Growth by Easterly, Ph.D, and he shows that the IMF and the World Bank kept doing the same things over and over with no results, based on "logical theory." In this case it was giving away loads of foreign aid for investment and expecting that to spur growth in the economies, because "investment = growth."

(Not sure if this got through, gonna post it again.)

ADHR said...

Depends what you mean by "morality". If you mean particular moral codes, then I agree with you; if you mean the principles that underlie them, I don't! ;)

My problem is that there's no such thing as unmediated reality, whether physical or biological. So, all empirical testing really shows is that, given one set of theoretical assumptions, there is a tension with some other theory. In principle, we could reject or revise either side of this wholly theoretical tension. So, in the case of giving foreign aid from the IMF and the World Bank, their theory was probably as you say: "investment = growth". This came into conflict with an observation, namely that the investment didn't actually lead to growth. But, the concepts of "investment" and "growth" are theoretically loaded: so, the observation rests on a set of theories. Thus, you could, if sufficiently committed to the investment = growth idea, revise the theories which underwrite those two concepts such that it turned out to be true that investment = growth.

Now, which side of the conflict you should change is a different question. All I'm trying to highlight is that it's not decided for you by some unmediated really real world.

undergroundman said...

Thus, you could, if sufficiently committed to the investment = growth idea, revise the theories which underwrite those two concepts such that it turned out to be true that investment = growth.

Are you saying that your theory would influence the reality of whether investment does lead to growth? The thing is - the best theory will simply be that which matches the best with reality. If "reality" is easily controlled by theory (as some religious cultures seem to suggest), then there will be a lot of theories which work.

In the investment = growth effect, there is a lot of reality behind it which can't be influenced by theory. Investment is necessary and sufficient for growth, but the World Bank used a parochial definition of investment which was mainly just machinery. But for growth in the economy you need to save up resources and forgo immediate consumption of resources.

Have you ever studied the sociology branch called Symbolic_interactionism>symbolic interactionism? Does philosophy have a competing branch, specifically?

undergroundman said...

Depends what you mean by "morality". If you mean particular moral codes, then I agree with you; if you mean the principles that underlie them.

What principles allowed Hitler to massacre the Jews? :p Or the Romans to enslave 1/3 of its population? Or men to oppress women from the beginning of history?

ADHR said...

Are you saying that your theory would influence the reality of whether investment does lead to growth? The thing is - the best theory will simply be that which matches the best with reality. If "reality" is easily controlled by theory (as some religious cultures seem to suggest), then there will be a lot of theories which work.

Right, and that's the only sense that can be made of "theory matching reality". The point -- the only point! -- was that it's really up to the individual how far they want to revise their other theoretical understandings in order to prop up the theory that seems to be failing. There's no "given" reality, really, that "forces" one move or another.

In the investment = growth effect, there is a lot of reality behind it which can't be influenced by theory. Investment is necessary and sufficient for growth, but the World Bank used a parochial definition of investment which was mainly just machinery. But for growth in the economy you need to save up resources and forgo immediate consumption of resources.

But these are all theoretical constructs! There's no sense in which these force a particular theoretical revision.

Have you ever studied the sociology branch called Symbolic_interactionism>symbolic interactionism? Does philosophy have a competing branch, specifically?

I never studied sociology. Seems a bit of a woolly discipline to me. However, on glancing at the Wikipedia page, I notice that there's an influence of American pragmatism there. The description reminds me vaguely of both Davidson and Dennett.

What principles allowed Hitler to massacre the Jews? :p Or the Romans to enslave 1/3 of its population? Or men to oppress women from the beginning of history?

Bad ones. This is the force of the morality/moral code distinction: it allows me to say that Hitler, etc. had a moral code, but it was inconsistent with morality and hence a bad or wrong moral code. If there's no such distinction then, as long as Hitler's moral code was rationally beyond reproach (i.e., not inconsistent, etc.), it's as good as any other. The only other alternative is to deny that Hitler had a moral code at all, which seems inconsistent with his own claims. Remember, the guy thought he was going to create a perfect and "pure" society; it's hard to make sense of that if he really had no moral code at all.

undergroundman said...


I never studied sociology. Seems a bit of a woolly discipline to me. However, on glancing at the Wikipedia page, I notice that there's an influence of American pragmatism there. The description reminds me vaguely of both Davidson and Dennett.


I like sociology and I recommend it. What do you think about the insular nature of the social sciences? These people literally go there entire lives without attempting to glean the insights of their contemporaries. To me it is flabbergasting. I know more sociology than many economists, and I probably know more economics than some professional sociologists and philosophers, even though I'm only 21 years old and hardly brilliant.

What's interesting is that economics offers this insight immediately: there are decreasing marginal returns to doing one specific activity. If you read one book many times, each time you'll probably gain less and less. If you study one discipline, you'll gain the most at the beginning, and less and less as time goes by. It seems like the introductory class in economics and sociology can literally teach you half of entire discipline, especially if you hit the books harder than the professor asks of you.

ADHR said...

What do you think about the insular nature of the social sciences? These people literally go there entire lives without attempting to glean the insights of their contemporaries. To me it is flabbergasting. I know more sociology than many economists, and I probably know more economics than some professional sociologists and philosophers, even though I'm only 21 years old and hardly brilliant.

It blows my mind. And it's not just the social sciences. Take a look at one of the latest posts I made, the one about de Waal. The guy knows almost no metaethics, yet the problems he's dealing with have been hashed out for centuries in metaethics. And he's not a social scientist -- he's a biologist! You'd think he'd read around a bit before opening his mouth, y'know?

The most egregious example of this sort of willful ignorance (combined with assuming the mantle of the expert in everything) is Richard Posner's The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory. Howlers from beginning to end.

What's interesting is that economics offers this insight immediately: there are decreasing marginal returns to doing one specific activity. If you read one book many times, each time you'll probably gain less and less. If you study one discipline, you'll gain the most at the beginning, and less and less as time goes by. It seems like the introductory class in economics and sociology can literally teach you half of entire discipline, especially if you hit the books harder than the professor asks of you.

Mebbe, but you're going to need to be careful about how you spell out specifying the activity. There's "learning the basics" (what you get in intro) and "advancing the discipline" (what you do during and after grad school). Much of what goes on in undergrad, I agree, is a matter of practicing and refining what you should have gotten in the first intro course. This is, in large part, because most students slack off during the intro courses and need a couple of runs at a discipline before they get the idea. But once you hit grad school, the whole game changes; you can almost feel the discipline shift under you. It's not enough to just be able to, say, talk and read economics or philosophy, you actually have to go out and do some.