Academics As Warriors

Why should you be (or buy) a warrior? Wouldn’t the world be better off if there were no warriors, even could be no warriors? Yes, maybe we’d be better off if good property rights would just enforce themselves. But given that there are already other warriors, then it can make sense for you to be (or buy) a warrior, to defend yourself against other warriors.  Yes there are some positive side effects, such as increased technical innovation in war-tech related areas.  But mostly one wars to block opposing war.

Why should you be (or buy) an academic, such as a philosopher or economist?  It seems to me that often the main reason to hire or be an academic is to defend against other academics.

Consider philosophy.  Yes human thinking is often sloppy, with sloppy categories and circular arguments. But mostly this doesn’t cause that many problems. What does go wrong is that some people specialize in noticing such sloppiness, and then using it to persuade us of particular conclusions.  When philosophers ridicule a particular sloppy argument, they shame the conclusion that argument had supported, which is then taken as supporting whatever is framed as the obvious alternative conclusion.

For example, imagine you thought that the conclusions of scientists were reliable because they followed a “scientific method.”  This creates an opening for a philosopher to point out there there really is no coherent scientific method.  Most scientists don’t actually follow most of the supposed scentific methods, and different sciences follow quite different methods.  You might then be tempted to conclude that the conclusions of scientists are not reliable at all.

Yes that conclusion doesn’t directly follow from the mere fact that science reliability had been supported by sloppy arguments. But yet, all else equal, the fact that the best argument for something isn’t as good as you’d expected is an anti argument. If one side has stronger looking arguments than the other side, that seems to support the first side.  Which is why all sides need to hire philosophers to find support, and to ridicule sloppy opposing arguments.

Similarly, often the main reason to hire or be an economist is to defend against other economists. It is bad for your side if the economic arguments supporting it seem sloppy, shallow and unsophisticated relative to the arguments from the other side.  Each side needs to hire economists to offer supporting arguments, just to stay in place.

I’m not saying that philosophers’ or economists’ efforts never make us all better off; I’m just saying there is more of a counter-acting war effect than many realize.  Much of the waste of academia is status seeking – some patrons funding academics in order to raise their status relative to others.  And another big chuck is due to partisans recruiting academics to war on their side of common divides.

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  • As an ex-philosophy student, I think there’s something to this, as far as philosophy goes, but I’m surprised that it would apply to economics to the same degree.

    It seems to me that philosophy has been an utter failure at producing knowledge. But surely economics has produced some real knowledge. Surely economists know why the Soviet economic system was a disaster (and why pro-capitalism reforms in China have helped China).

    Or is this just my ignorance of economics speaking?

    • Jayson Virissimo

      It seems to me that philosophy has been an utter failure at producing knowledge.

      Yeah, but that is only because once a result is widely regarded as knowledge, it ceases to be considered a part of philosophy.

      • Doug S.

        What he said.

        When philosophy is successful, it ends up turning into science or mathematics. Economics, psychology, and even physics were all once philosophy.

      • noname

        Good observation.

      • Hmm, sounds like Artificial Intelligence vs. Computer Science. Greatly anticipated achievements in AI become mundane and hence mere CS. Anywhere else? If so, general reasons why?

    • Vladimir M.

      Chris Hallquist:

      But surely economics has produced some real knowledge. Surely economists know why the Soviet economic system was a disaster (and why pro-capitalism reforms in China have helped China).

      To explain these things, there isn’t really anything relevant to be said that wasn’t common knowledge in 1850 (and probably 1650, for that matter). That the modern world feels the need for sophisticated arguments against socialism is merely one piece of evidence in favor of Robin’s thesis. Namely, in the last 150 years or so, socialists have managed to recruit a lot of high-status intellectual firepower, making a simple common-sense rebuttal of their positions look weak and unsophisticated. This in turn made intellectual elites strongly pro-socialist, and to the extent that this was reversed, it happened because the opposing camp also managed to find highbrow intellectuals to weave sophisticated academic arguments against socialism.

      • Chris Hallquist

        But 1850 was post-Adam Smith. As I understand it, economics circa 1650, even 1750, was a confused mess. It took awhile for people to figure out why capitalism worked.

        Evidence on this point: I recently read some essays by David Hume (Smith’s tutor) from the mid-18th century, and some of the economic ideas he had to rebut back then were pretty weird.

    • Charles Kenny says communism wasn’t so bad for economic growth.

      On the subject of philosophy, Bryan Caplan quoted a philosopher saying their primary product is “broken arguments”. Steve Weinberg said the only value he got from philosophers was their refuting other philosophers who had led him down a wrong path.

      Caledonian/melendwyr at his Occluded Sun blog had a series on philosophy as scholastic commentary. Just use as ?s=philosophy suffix to his blogs url (which I’m not entering here to avoid excessive linking and tripping a spam filter).

  • James

    Economists generally know what, but not really why. There are many competing arguments, and since just about every model is massively flawed, there all bull. Economics is very good at showing us the limits of our knowledge, which come to think of it, is what philosophy is good for too.

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  • Matthew Fuller

    To the extent that status seeking blocks progress in uncovering new knowledge and more accurate theories, one may then expect a commensurate stranger future.

    I expect hanson thinks the future is going to be really strange because he would correct for this kind of error given his desire to overcome bias.

  • This seems to be the case where a random sample of arguments, i.e. common sense, can easily decide the truth, but when biased parties, i.e. academics, come in they search for arguments non-randomly and thereafter the only real way to figure out the truth is for all sides to seek highly specialized arguments for their own positions until they reach diminishing returns, whereupon the strength of the various positions becomes clear again.

    I elaborate on this idea in a blogpost of mine here.

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  • This “arms race” argument is regularly applied to lawyers. By generalizing it, you could be said to get lawyers off the hook. Wasteful competition is a general feature of any discipline’s development.

    Or, are the “true” sciences different? Physics surely lacks any trappings of a zero sum game; but you’ll get a different answer from the Japanese.

    • Yes, I’m sure the Japanese regard the advent of modern physics to be a net loss. (???)

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, your analysis seems right to me.

  • Philo

    “[I]t can make sense for you to be (or buy [or rent]) a warrior, to defend yourself against other warriors.” That sounds merely defensive; aren’t you forgetting offense? I.e., another reason to be-buy-rent a warrior is to conquer and oppress others who are not, and do not have, warriors.

  • Constant

    If academics are warriors, then the outcome of academic arguments – which at any given time make up the opinion of the academy – is the outcome of trial by combat. We rightly distrust trial by combat for obvious reasons, such as that the outcome of trial by combat strikes us as being about as connected to truth as the outcome of a coin toss. The strongest warrior wins a combat, but it is anyone’s guess whether the strongest warrior fights on the side of truth. We rightly distrust the academy for analogous reasons.

    It has meanwhile been suggested by sark, and I think he has a point, that “a random sample of arguments, i.e. common sense, can easily decide the truth.” This seems plausible, even probable. It may well be, then, that someone who genuinely seeks the truth (and does not seek status) will rightly ignore the academy and heed common sense. This plausibly superior strategy for truth-seeking resembles what has often been dismissed as “anti-intellectualism.”

    An alternative strategy is to allow the academic combat to rage until “the strength of the various positions becomes clear again.” But it is not clear that the truth will emerge victorious from the combat, and not clear that the combat will ever end. As Vlad M suggests, the truth about socialism was knowable around about 1650, but three centuries on “the strength of the various positions” was not “clear again”.

    • g

      We distrust trial by combat not because its outcome is random — it isn’t — but because the qualities it’s correlated to have nothing to do with truth: someone who’s wrong, or guilty, or whatever, is just as likely to be a better fighter than someone who’s right/innocent/whatever as to be a worse one.

      It’s not clear that the same applies to trial by academc inquiry. That would mean that making the more persuasive-to-academics arguments about something is uncorrelated with being right (or, since the point of research isn’t only direct truthseeking on questions known in advance) with doing work that will lead to new discoveries.

      That seems, to say the least, unobvious. Being persuasive to academics on a given topic and being right / usefully creative about it are surely both correlated, for instance, with any measure of general intelligence you please; with deep and wide expertise on the topic; maybe with having ideas on the subject that other people haven’t thought of but that aren’t obviously crazy.

      And, as it happens, academic inquiry does produce plenty of what seem with hindsight to be good results. Quantum mechanics, for instance.

      Doubtless it will do less well in disciplines where there’s more scope for bullshitting and therefore less correlation between being persuasive to academics and being right — theology, philosophy, economics — but the analogy with trial by combat seems rather weak in any case where you can’t plausibly argue that that correlation basically isn’t there at all.

  • I like this…

    I do wonder though how much of this war is wasteful even in terms of just the war itself (i.e. winning the war) as opposed to wasteful in the sense of providing wider benefit.

    If for example – you have a (mediocre) philosopher arguing that people should be sceptical of scientific results because of the sorts of things you suggest – and if we deploy our own philosopher to do battle with him so that people can see the fallacy behind his argument – then very quickly the debate will escalate beyond the realms of comprehension of most people.

    At this point the battle as it is being waged can barely effect public opinion at all, because the level of technical sophistication is too high. But what else are these philosophers going to do? So the war continues – endlessly. Yet it probably even isn’t providing any concrete benefit to the people who hired them.

    Better keep them on staff tho – so they can pump out a nytimes article every now and again – repeating the same old mantras they always do. Surely this particular work could be outsourced to machines?

  • Ray

    So whether the specific topic is philosophy or economics or any other area of study, the crux of the issue is knowledge.

    And since the baseline condition of human nature is to be self-centered, it is only prudent to gain whatever knowledge feasible so that one can protect oneself from those who would use their knowledge against others.

    The counter-acting war effect is merely the competition of ideas. That many of them are rancid is irrelevant. Remember that our human nature is to be treacherously self-absorbed and so the constant war of ideas is both necessary, and (eventually) productive in my opinion.

  • Socrates argued that dialogue — argument — creates knowledge.

    Nietzsche went further and argued that polemos — warlike argument — creates knowledge.

    Or they may have been arguing their own self-interest, as if we bought that story, they would have jobs.

    Of course, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Anyone have need for a Austro-libertarian humanities Ph.D. ready to suit up? 😉

  • RH underestimates the perils of sloppy thinking. We might get away with it in everyday life which co-evolved with our biases and follies. However some straight thinking is needed to do things like science, and to build airplanes.

    • Constant

      The history of attempts at flight, culminating in the success at Kitty Hawk, is one of experimentation, not high-powered philosophical debate. Yes, straight thinking is required, but the straightening need not be done by nitpicking rival philosophers. It can be done by experimental failure. The Wright brothers were presumably straight thinkers, but they proved it to the world not by nitpicking opposing arguments and ridiculing opposition better than the other guy, but by building a plane that worked.

      Anyone who has written a program and who didn’t get it right the first time and kept at it until it worked has had his thoughts straightened by a means other than opposing philosophers ridiculing his sloppy thinking.

      And how much genuine knowledge did Socrates really produce? What did Socrates discover that we know is true today? Compare Socrates with Archimedes. What Archimedes discovered in his “Eureka” moment is something we know today to be true – a sometimes useful method for measuring volume. In all of the Socratic dialogs, which are quite entertaining, is there any real discovery comparable to that method for measuring volume? In Plato’s dialogs Socrates argued about what is love, what is virtue, what is justice, and so on. Did he settle any of the debates about these topics once and for all? Or did he mainly reveal that the topics are endlessly debatable – at least if you go about them as Socrates went about them? Popper says – and I think – that Plato’s Republic is a plan for a totalitarian state, in which case Plato got it wrong, badly wrong. In any case, whether he was wrong or not, he hardly settled the question with The Republic.

      • Philo

        “And how much genuine knowledge did Socrates really produce?” Socrates was trying to produce, in each person he talked to, the knowledge: I don’t know or understand as much as I thought I did. That was genuine knowledge.

      • Hanson glibly concedes that there is no such thing as the scientific method – but there is such a thing as the scientific method. Unfortunately, no description of the scientific method in the abstract can capture it – one has to look at the work of great scientists, and oneself solve problems, in order to understand what those great scientists were talking about when they explained the scientific method.

        The problem is not that scientists failed to produce a consistent or coherent explanation of the scientific method, it is that english lit grads are never going to understand that explanation.

        Philosophers always wind up concluding we can never understand or explain anything – because they are not taking the right approach to understanding stuff, and because they mistakenly suppose that that is the right approach.

        Socrates argued we can never know what a sandal is, but we can know what sandal is.

      • Plato, in the Republic, was developing a plan for the virtuous soul. As Socrates says in the Republic, while the city described may itself be happy, none of the people in it would be, so it is better to be understood as a metaphor for developing the soul.

    • Ray

      I agree.

      Our knowledge of obesity, and nutrition in general is suffering badly from some very sloppy thinking. Many people are doing themselves real harm because of the bad information being circulated by the professional medical community.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Well there’s also the other kind of economist that helps corporations figure out how to save on fuel and make more money.