I am nothing like Megan McArdle, dammit!
Dear me. It seems that Megan McArdle is a tiny bit upset. The universe, which is frequently quite unfair, is picking on her once again through no fault of her own and people are being unkind. And all McArdle did was dash off a quick negative review of a book she half-read. In return for her notice, which should have thrilled the book's authors to the bone, one of them wrote an equally dismissive retort. What can an MBA do in response but make passive-aggressive swipes at an entire field in the hopes of saving face in some unnameable way?
But first McArdle must find an innocuous way of introducing the subject. Since she ostensibly writes about economics, that is the insidious method she uses to ease into her true topic. She's a sly one.
One of the things I find most wearying about writing about economics is the extent to which people attempt to hijack economics to "scientifically prove" that their value judgements about things like the proper size and role of government are 100% factually correct--as if there were some way to empirically validate the correct marginal tax rate for people making over $100,000 a year.
It's immensely brave of McArdle to tell us about these terrible people and the terrible things they say without actually linking to the terrible people and their terrible words. We would dearly like to visit these wearisome people to chastise them directly, but alas, we must allow McArdle to bear that burden alone. How could they claim they are 100% factually correct when they are merely confirming their own biases? You might as well try to find the perfect tax rate! Which, of course, would be zero because we should pay for what we use without government interference, presumably, for example, by putting quarters in a little meter at Cape Canaveral every time we want to send a man to the moon.
But even when you're careful, it's distressingly easy to find what you expect. The result is a history of science developing models that used "scientific evidence" to bolster the social hierarchy of the day. We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them, and were not conscious that they were simply confirming their own prejudices. We're still doing this kind of science today, as Keith Humphreys illustrates:
Phrenology and "racialism" are based on scientific models? That's---new. But since unnamed intelligent people during the 19th century believed in them, we guess we just have to take McArdle's word for it. And naturally if intelligent people believed incorrect information, science is unknowable!
By the way, the Humphreys article is a McArdlesque exercise in condemning Maslow's hierarchy of needs because he "asserted that the objectively highest state of human development was to be like him and like people he admired."
Maslow admired many people I admire, Abraham Lincoln for example. But he and I can’t admire Lincoln through some objective lens as psychologists or scientists. We can only say we admire Lincoln with the same level of objectivity that someone else might admire Jefferson Davis. Maslow wanted to give an objective validation that, for example, the Viet Nam war protestor was objectively superior to the Viet Nam general, the environmentalist was objectively superior to the captain of industry etc. Many cultural elites ate it up, just as Soviet elites ate it up when their psychiatrists said that anyone who didn’t love the government was mentally ill and needed electroshock treatment post-haste.
Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Psychologists valorized divorce as the “mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.
We suspect Humphreys wasn't picked when the kids chose sides at dodgeball.
Chances are 100% that you hold some belief which will subsequently prove to be a case of mass confirmation bias--people unconsciously cherry picking evidence which validates what they expected to find. Unfortunately, it will probably take several decades for us to realize this, at which point, we will replace it with some other socially convenient belief.
Science is dismissed as something unknowable which is bound to be wrong half the time because who among us can tell reality from convenient fiction? (And she really mastered that "assessing failure" thing, didn't she?)
We have come full circle, and in the process we have learned that because science is meaningless, Megan McArdle didn't stupidly say that Sex at Dawn didn't discuss jealousy and that bonobos aren't like humans because humans are not like bonobos. And McArdle hopes we have all learned a valuable lesson.