Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Hit! A Very Palpable Hit!

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.


Anonymous said...

Among other things it is obviously not the case that "psychologists" advocated divorce in the 1970's and have ceased doing so now. The entire piece is a tissue of sophmoric misrepresentation. How about this Leonardo da Vinci tried to build a flying machine but never got it to work. Later scientists will be unable to build so called "air ships." Same basic logic.


Syz said...

McMegan is literally throwing shit at everyone - bonobo style - in the hopes of muddying the waters. Just more proof that the author of Sex at Dawn was right.

Kathy said...

In her late 30's, presumably well educated and a self-proclaimed Intellectual, ArgleBargle doesn't know about Scientific Method, Objectivity, or the Double-blind test/experimenting system for eliminating prejudice?

She's preferes living in Age of Reason, a time of powdered wigs and pompadours,when people just sat down and thought about stuff, consulted a few Latin & Greek texts, and constructed irrefutable opinions on all subjects, amen.

atat said...

"...ArgleBargle doesn't know about Scientific Method, Objectivity, or the Double-blind test/experimenting system for eliminating prejudice?"

I don't think it's really such a stretch to say that Megan is unclear on science in general. Most of her post is a block quote of someone else, and yet it's still painfully clear that she has absolutely no idea what she's talking about.

bulbul said...

We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them
This actually perfectly illustrates the point Susan keeps hammering home: Our Lady of teh Ill-Fitting Clothes doesn't care about evaluating evidence or facts at all. The only thing that matters is what other 'smart' people think and that should be emulated. Case in point: the Iraq war.

Daniel Harper said...

Phrenology and "racialism" are based on scientific models? That's---new.

(split into two posts for length)

There's actually some truth to this. Stephen J. Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is an excellent (if somewhat technical in places) primer on the topic. Not to hijack the thread, but this brings up a couple of points that are tangentially but I think interestingly related to McArdle.

Point the First:

The comparison to Gould brings up some thoughts with regard to writing style. If you are not aware, Gould spent decades of his life writing science essays for Natural History magazine, most if not all of which were eventually collected into his books of essays. These essays cover a wide range of topics within the biological and geological sciences, with forays into history of science, religion, and even more prosaic items like baseball statistics and what Mickey Mouse tells us about evolution.

Despite the sometimes daunting technical nature of the topics covered, Gould's essays are imminently readable and enjoyable to the intelligent and interested layperson, and are often assigned in introductory biology classes, even in high school. Gould uses technical language to elucidate, defining his terms clearly, moving slowly through the rough patches, and using clear language to explain his topics and to persuade his audience that he is correct. In short, he marshalls evidence, presents it clearly, and uses technical language as a tool in aid of that.

McArdle, on the other hand, uses technical language as a club to bully the uninitiated to believe as she does. While McArdle is shallow and shows an amazing lack of intellectual curiosity, she is far from unintelligent and uneducated and with a bit of effort could put forward a more Gould-like attempt at persuasion. But where Gould used technical language to explain, to clarify, McArdle uses it to muddy the waters, to make it difficult to follow her train of logic.

If you didn't go to the right school, if you're not already in the "in-crowd," McArdle isn't interested in explaining herself to you -- she waves her credentials and her education in your face and harumphs about the obvious truths that she is so kind to espouse.

Daniel Harper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Harper said...

Point the Second:

With respect to the actual argument vis a vis racialism, eugenics, and the like, McArdle could learn a thing or two from this historical incidence herself. While there were many respected scientists who espoused a belief in racial differences being inborn and the like, there were certainly strongly dissenting voices, and the racial beliefs were never scientifically unshakeable. What really made this a problem was that policymakers who were themselves racist and wanted to do something about those pesky underclasses developed a habit of only listening to those expressing scientific opinions that agreed with their pre-determined worldview.

The lesson that we should learn here is to examine our own sources, to acknowledge the frailty of our logical processes, and to admit that we may be wrong before making large-scale decisions. And to always be wary of any "expert" source that says only those things we find soothing and comfortable. This has obvious implications for McArdle, which Susan has already aptly demonstrated time and time again.

Also (and I promise this is the end of my commentary), it's important to note that eugenics as a scientific discipline is false, but it was determined to be false by empirical data. In another universe there might well be populations that were clearly human but less intelligent, socially-developed, or what have you.

Homo Neanderthalis survived up until about 40,000 years ago, an eyeblink in geological history. Imagine if some small population somehow survived the Ice Age and flourished afterwards, leading to some part of our world inhabited by a race of humans that really were clearly "sub-human," with all of the cultural and social baggage that such a thing would entail.

Even in the presence of such a species, it does not clearly follow that the best course of action is to sterilize them, to put them into camps, to treat them as anything less than fully human in the eyes of the law. So the policy actions of eugenics can be easily shown to be immoral even if the empirical and scientific basis of the discipline were sound. This is the "is-ought" distinction, and relates to McArdle in one more profound manner -- no matter what the science of Economics tells us about, say, optimal taxation rates, it is still up to us to decide how to apply that knowledge in our structuring of society. Is cannot be equal to ought, even in the squishy social sciences.

Sorry for being so long-winded, and I hope this has been interesting to at least a few persons. Thanks for reading.


Kathy said...

"We think that phrenology and 19th century racialism are obviously preposterous--but they clearly weren't, because some very smart people believed them..."

And some very smart people of the time thought they were POPPYCOCK, SIR! BALDERDASH! STUFF AND NONSENSE!

Mr. Wonderful said...

Daniel--At least one did. Thanks. Nicely said.

In fact, Megs may be the only writer I know who manages to be both condescending and airily opaque at the same time. At least with the condescending ones, you can understand what they're saying (even if its obviousness insults your intelligence). Less so w/ MM.

As I said last week, and as Daniel now puts it more concisely, "McArdle, on the other hand, uses technical language as a club to bully the uninitiated to believe as she does."

She fancies herself an explainer (and a provider of a "public service"), but comports herself as a tendentious lecturer. But it's a feature not a bug, when you're a professional propagandist.

freq flag said...

Pish and posh!

All together now...

God made man
But he used the monkey to do it
Apes in the plan!
And we're all here to prove it

I can walk like an ape
Talk like an ape
Do what monkeys do

God made man
But the monkey provided the glue