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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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? ;-)

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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.

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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?

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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".

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"[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.

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Robin, your analysis seems right to me.

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