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Econometrics and Nonobserved Facts

Theoretical Assumptions and Nonobserved Facts

Wassily Leonteif

Economics today rides the crest of intellectual respectability and popular acclaim. The serious attention with which our pronouncements are received by the general public, hard-bitten politicians, and even skeptical businessmen is second only to that which was given to physicists and space experts a few years ago when the round trip to the moon seemed to be our only true national goal. The flow of learned articles, monographs, and textbooks is swelling like a tidal wave; Econometrica, the leading journal in the field of mathematical economics, has just stepped up its publication schedule from four to six issues per annum. (Leontief 1971, 1)

And yet an uneasy feeling about the present state of our discipline has been growing in some of us who have watched its unprecedented development over the last three decades. This concern seems to be shared even by those who are themselves contributing successfully to the present boom. They play the game with professional skill but have serious doubts about its rules. (Leontief 1971, 1)

Much of current academic teaching and research has been criticized for its lack of relevance, that is, of immediate practical impact. In a nearly instant response to this criticism, research projects, seminars and undergraduate courses have been set up on poverty, on city and small town slums, on pure water and fresh air. In an almost Pavlovian reflex, whenever a new complaint is raised, President Nixon appoints a commission and the university announces a new course. Far be it from me to argue that the fire should not shifted when the target moves. The trouble is caused, however, not by an inadequate selection of targets, but rather by our inability to hit squarely any one of them. The uneasiness of which I spoke before is caused not by the irrelevance of the particular problems to which present day economists address their efforts, but rather by the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means with which they try to solve them. (Leontief 1971, 1)

If this simply were a sign of an overly high aspiration level of a fast developing discipline, such a discrepancy between ends and means should cause no worry. But I submit that the consistently indifferent performance in practical applications is in fact a symptom of a fundamental imbalance in the present state of our discipline. The weak and all too slowly growing empirical foundation clearly cannot support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should I say, speculative economic theory. (Leontief 1971, 1)

Much is being made of the widespread, nearly mandatory use of modern economic theorists of mathematics. To the extent which the economic phenomena possess observable quantitative dimensions, this is indisputably a major forward step. Unfortunately, any one capable of learning elementary, or preferably advanced calculus and algebra, and acquiring acquaintance with the specialized terminology of economics can set himself up as a theorist. Uncritical enthusiasm for mathematical formulation tends often to conceal the ephemeral substantive content of the argument behind the formidable front of algebraic signs. (Leontief 1971, 1-2, emphasis added.)

(….) By the time it comes to the interpretation of the substantive conclusions, the assumptions on which the model has been based are easily forgotten. But it is precisely the empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire exercise depends. (Leontief 1971, 2)

What really is needed, in most cases, is a very difficult and seldom very neat assessment and verification of these assumptions in terms of observed facts. Here mathematics cannot help and because of this, the interest and enthusiasm of the model builder suddenly begins to flag: “If you do not like my set of assumptions, give me another and I will gladly make another model; have your pick.” (Leontief 1971, 2)

(….) To sum up with the words of a recent president of the Econometric Society, “… the achievements of economic theory in the last two decades are both impressive and in many ways beautiful. But it cannot be denied that there is something scandalous in the spectacle of so many people refining the analysis of economic states which they give no reason to suppose will ever, or have ever, come about…. It is an unsatisfactory and slightly dishonest state of affairs.” (Leontief 1971, 2)

But shouldn’t this harsh judgment be suspended in the face of the impressive volume of econometric work? The answer is decidedly no. This work can be in general characterized as an attempt to compensate for the glaring weakness of the data base available to us by the widest possible use of more and more sophisticated statistical techniques. Alongside the mounting pile of elaborate theoretical models we see a fast-growing stock of equally intricate tools. These are intended to stretch to the limit the meager supply of facts. (Leontief 1971, 2-3)

(….) However, like the economic models they are supposed implement, the validity of these statistical tools depends itself on the acceptance of certain convenient assumptions pertaining to stochastic properties of the phenomena which the particular models are intended to explain; assumptions that can be seldom verified. (Leontief 1971, 3)

In no other field of empirical inquiry has so massive and sophisticated a statistical machinery been used with such indifferent results. (Leontief 1971, 3)

(….) Continued preoccupation with imaginary, hypothetical, rather than with observable reality has gradually led to a distortion of the informal valuation scale used in our academic community to assess and to rank the scientific performance of its members. Empirical analysis, according to this scale, gets a lower rating than formal mathematical reasoning. (Leontief 1971, 3)

A natural Darwinian feedback operating through selection of academic personnel contributes greatly to the perpetuation of this state of affairs…. Thus, it is not surprising that the younger economists, particularly those engaged in teaching and in academic research, seem by now quite content with … building more and more complicated mathematical models and devising more and more sophisticated methods of statistical inference without engaging in empirical research. Complaints about the lack of indispensable primary data are heard from time to time, but they don’t sound very urgent. (Leontief 1971, 3)

(….) To deepen the foundation of our analytical system it will be necessary to reach unhesitatingly beyond the limits of the domain of economic phenomena as it has been staked out up to now…. To penetrate below the skin-thin surface of conventional [econometric mathematical models], it will be necessary to develop a systematic study of the structural characteristics and functioning of [economic targets, e.g., households, etc.], an area in which description and analysis of social, anthropological and demographic factors must obviously occupy the center of the stage. (Leontief 1971, 4, emphasis added.)

Establishment of systematic cooperative relationships across the traditional frontiers now separating economics from these adjoining fields is hampered by the sense of self-sufficiency resulting from what I have already characterized as undue reliance on indirect statistical inference as the principal method of empirical research. (Leontief 1971, 4, emphasis added.)

Formally, nothing is, of course, wrong with such an apparently circular procedure. Moreover, the model builder in erecting his hypothetical structures is free to take into account all possible kinds of factual knowledge and the econometrician in principle, at least, can introduce in the estimating procedures any amount of what is usually referred to as “exogenous” information before he feeds his programmed tape into the computer. Such options are exercised rarely and when they are, usually in a casual way. (Leontief 1971, 4-5, emphasis added.)

(….) The same well-known sets of figures are used again and again in all possible combinations to pit different theoretical models against each other in formal statistical combat…. The orderly and systematic nature of the entire procedure generates feelings of comfortable self-sufficiency. (Leontief 1971, 5)

This complacent feeling … discourages … attempts that would involve crossing the conventional lines separating ours from the adjoining fields. (Leontief 1971, 5)

An exceptional example of a healthy balance between theoretical and empirical analysis and the readiness of professional economists to cooperate with experts in the neighboring disciplines is offered by Agricultural Economics as it developed in this country over the last fifty years…. Preoccupation with the standard of living of the rural population has led agriculture economists into collaboration with home economists and sociologists, that is, with social scientists of the “softer” kind. While centering their interest on only one part of the economic system, agricultural economists demonstrated the effectiveness of systematic combination of theoretical approach with detailed factual analysis. They were also the first among economists to make use of the advanced methods of mathematical statistics. However, in their hands, statistical inference became a complement to, not substitute for, empirical research. (Leontief 1971, 5, emphasis added.)

The shift from casual empiricism that dominates much of today’s econometric work to systematic large-scale factual analysis will not be easy. (Leontief 1971, 5, emphasis added.)

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Possessive Individualism

Behavioural and experimental economics — not to speak of psychology — show beyond any doubt that ‘deep parameters’ — peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts — are regularly influenced by those of other participants in the economy. And how about the homogeneity assumption? And if all actors are the same – why and with whom do they transact? And why does economics have to be exclusively teleological (concerned with intentional states of individuals)? Where are the arguments for that ontological reductionism? And what about collective intentionality and constitutive background rules?

— Lars Syll, RWER, Economic modeling — a constructive critique, Jan 12, 2023

The Enlightenment gave us the idea of the individual as an independent sapient being. Freed from superstition and official dogma, the individual was now in comprehensive control of her innate and acquired capabilities. Fearing the loss of moral certitude, Immanuel Kant found a substitute—it was moral to be rational and rational to be moral. The young discipline of economics embraced this newly created autonomous agent and assigned that individual the task of rendering rational—self-interested—choices. Such choices revealed true value: the rational individual could not be wrong about her choices. Individualism was now wedded to acquisitive behavior. (Bromley 2019, ix)

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provided theological gloss to the emergent culture of enterprise and striving. By the middle of the twentieth century, economics had become the civic religion of the modern industrial state whose purpose was to provide ever-increasing living standards for its citizens. As with daily weather updates, certain economic data came to define life under industrial capitalism. The unemployment rate, daily movements in the stock market (including those in far-off places), and the latest perturbations in the consumer price index became the contemporary equivalent of ancient astrological sightings. (Bromley 2019, ix)

By the end of the twentieth century, industrial capitalism—with a new global reach—had given way to financial capitalism. As the twenty-first century dawned, there was yet another transition underway: managerial capitalism. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 delivered a surprising destructive shock to large swaths of the population in western Europe and the United States. The angst and anger produced by that disruption have not abated. An abrupt loss of faith in the presumed beneficence of capitalism coincided with mounting despair—and political revolts—in the Middle East, parts of Latin America, and much of Africa. Immigrants became a threat to the comfortable social compact that had defined life since the end of World War II. The political class, regardless of party affiliation, was now bereft of ideas. (Bromley 2019, ix)

The lack of comprehension is to be expected. Govening elites have been mentally nurtured on the defining fiction of modernism. The autonomous acquisitive individual was both rational and moral. The civic religion provided the necessary benediction. The destructive paralysis was abetted by a fiction within a fiction. The civic religion had managed to insist that the economy—the “market”—is a separate and quite delicate sphere of efficiency and rectitude. When held up against the self-dealing incoherence of politics, tampering with the economy can only inflict harm. Kenneth Arrow proved that social choices were inconclusive and contradictory. Only markets offered consistent clarity. Politicians must not interfere with the mystical workings of the economy. Private firms, praised as “job creators,” now comprise the sacred temples of modern capitalism. Government intervention in the markeet is dangerous and must be avoided. This protected realm is the fragile fount of future well-being. (Bromley 2019, x)

Ironically, the autonomous individual is now unwittingly accomplice in his own economic marginalization. Dependent on the constellation of sanctified private firms for his precarious livelihood, he is unknowingly enlisted in the self-defeating cause of laissez faire. As politicians in western Europe and the United States quake and bluster before the alleged hordes of migrants seeking a better life, their constituents—nervous victims of the abundant caprice of managerial capitalism—exhibit behavior that further confounds the anomie and paralysis. (Bromley 2019, x)

Possessive individualism both reigns and incapacitates. (Bromley 2019, x)

(….) [T]he discipline of economics—building on the created individual of the Enlightenment—has crafted a suite of concepts and practices that constitute justificationism. … [M]uch of contemporary economics is misleading in its assumptions, willful in its presentation, and contrived in its conclusions. The central idea of rationality—the rational individual and rational choice—is circular and thus a profound deception. Its purpose has been to situate economic calculation—maximizing utility—at the center of human behavior. To borrow from Gertrude Stein, I will show that there is no there there. (Bromley 2019, xi)

The popularity of contemporary economic concepts and the acquired habits of mind on those concepts will be exposed as the perverse contamination that has undermined the aspirations of the Enlightenment. Freed from the chains of ancient superstition, the individual was soon reenslaved in the service of industrial capitalism and its offspring. Today the liberated individual is a nervous striver seeking something that relentless acquisitiveness cannot provide. (Bromley 2019, xi)

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Spreading the Manure

[O]ur generation’s economists will reply they did not cause the crisis – that it was not they who deregulated the financial sector to allow gamblers to swoop in, not they who demanded higher and higher returns on their investments so they could sustain their spending, not they who took out all the debt to bail out the banks, and above all, not they who designed the models and invented the complex instruments that nearly brought the world economy crashing down around us. It was the politicians who changed the rules, the mathematicians and theoretical physicists working for the banks who came up with the crazy inventions, and the rest of us who demanded more and more money. (….) Throughout the boom, no small number of economists in influential positions helped to create a climate of conviction that made it possible for the magicians to peddle their wares – and, as the documentary film Inside Job would later reveal, some of those economists did so while running lucrative side businesses consulting for the banks behind the crisis (apparently vindicating Upton Sinclair’s adage that it’s difficult to get a man to believe something when his pay cheque depends on him believing the opposite). Alan Greenspan was hardly alone in repeatedly using his pulpit to assure the faithful there was nothing to fear. When, for instance, the IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan presented a paper to the Federal Reserve’s annual conference in 2005 warning that the new speculative instruments posed tremendous risks, Lawrence Summers ridiculed him as a Luddite who simply disliked technological change. At that, the chorus present cried Amen. Rajan later described the experience of speaking to the neoliberal high priesthood, which included not just celebrity economists like Summers but a ‘who’s who of central bankers’ that, ‘I felt like an early Christian who had wandered into a convention of half-starved lions.’

(Rapley, John. Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong.)

Does the story you tell of the Great Financial Crisis leave out the irrational, spreading panic that arbitrarily devalued perfectly fine mortgage-backed security assets well in excess of actual defaults, which have been higher since (during the pandemic) without causing the same crisis?

~ rsm spreading some manure

Spreading bullshit is a practice similar to the phenomena of self-deception. Whether done consciously or not, the bullshitter has no care for the actual facts or truth, only that they can make others believe their bullshit. Case in point is the bullshit spread by RSM above, who makes the claim that mortgage defaults were higher during the pandemic and yet caused no global crisis. In fact, his claim is false. The fact is one can shop around for the numbers (massaged statistics) one wants and that fit one’s ideological bias; the charts are all over the place, clearly showing that they have been massages to fit a specific narrative. Consider that even by more recent measures RSM’s bullshit claims are refuted:

Under the effects of the coronavirus crisis, the mortgage delinquency rate in the United States spiked to 8.22 percent in the second quarter of 2020, just one percent down from its peak of 9.3 percent during the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2010. Following the drastic increase directly after the outbreak of the pandemic, delinquency rates started gradually declining and reached 3.45 percent in the third quarter of 2022.

statista, Mortgage delinquency rate in the U.S. 2000-Q3 2022, Jan 13, 2023

As the evidence below shows the prevalence of predatory lending and its consequent mortgage defaults were the cause of the GFC, not some irrational panic, albeit once the wider societal ramifications of the near collapse of the global financial system did spread fear and panic. But this was an effect of not the cause of the GFC. RSM seeks to put the cart-before the horse because (as his comments on RWER show) he favors an unregulated securities market where banks and inventors can turn the global economy into a casino economy. Sophistry indulges in half-truths, falsehoods, and outright lies to make others believe their bullshit. In RSM’s story the shit is wearing the pants; there never was a case of predatory lending; homeowners were not conned out of stable and safe conforming loans into predatory loans inevitably destined to cause them to default. And the rising default rates we not due to the toxic debt of homeowners foreclosed on by predatory banks. They just turned in their keys out of irrational panic!

[T]he age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of [the world] is extinguished for ever.

~ Edmund Burke (1790) cited in Bernstein (2004), A Perilous Progress, 185.

I always love that kind of argument. The contrary of a thing isn’t the contrary; oh, dear me, no! It’s the thing itself, but as it truly is. Ask any die-hard what conservatism is; he’ll tell you that it’s true socialism. And the brewers’ trade papers: they’re full of articles about the beauty of true temperance. Ordinary temperance is just gross refusal to drink; but true temperance, true temperance is something much more refined. True temperance is a bottle of claret with each meal and three double whiskies after dinner.

~ Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza (1936), in Hardcastle’s Bullshit and Philosophy.

Bullshit and Truth … [B]ullshit results from the adoption of lame methods of justification, whether intentionally, blamelessly or as a result of self-deception. The function of the term is to emphatically express that a given claim lacks any serious justification, whether or not the speaker realizes it. By calling bullshit, we express our disdain for the speaker’s lack of justification, and indignation for any harm we suffer as a result.

~ Scott Kim Brough, On Letting it Slide, in Hardcastle’s Bullshit and Philosophy.

When … [one adopts] poor methods, such as the “method” of cherry-picking facts to support a political agenda, the result is bullshit. And it’s bullshit to repeat the results not only because what is repeated is bullshit, but because the method of arriving at the opinion in question is not to be trusted. Warmed over bullshit is not merely a stale imitation of the original, but a fresh deposit that compounds the methodological faults of the original.

~ Scott Kim Brough, On Letting it Slide, in Hardcastle’s Bullshit and Philosophy.

The subprime crisis didn’t have to happen. It could have been stopped. It is the story of how greed unchecked can bring down the global financial system. Thanks to Greenspan and ilk like him predatory lending was given a green light. Under Greenspan’s watch:

“Federal regulators gave subprime lending their blessing by leaving subprime loans untouched, even though many of the loans violated the most basic tenet of lending: that no loan should be made unless the borrower can repay. Worse yet, federal regulators actively resisted using their substantial powers of rule-making, examination, and sanctions to crack down on the proliferation of virulent loans. At the same time, they gave banks the green light to invest in subprime mortgage-backed securities and CDOs, leaving the nation’s largest financial institutions awash in toxic assets (Subprime Virus).”

Predatory lending goes back thousands of years, but subprime loans that underpinned the GFC were being reported even in the early 1990s. What started as a niche market of selling risky subprime loans to the poor and credit challenged using dodgy predatory practices eventually moved from sketchy to mainstream institutions on Wall Street. Feeding the mortgage machine was the name of the game. From lenders’ perspective, the mortgage machine needed constant feeding in order to generate constant fees. Volume was what mattered.

Lenders dropped underwriting standards and conned borrowers who qualified for cheap prime loans into agreeing to costlier subprime loans and in addition saddled borrowers the with predatory fees. Countless sad examples of these predatory financial practices have been documented. These subprime loans were by design meant to default so upon a borrower’s’ default they could be flipped. Lenders targeted just such individuals with NINJA loans knowing they would default so they could “flip” the borrowers into more expensive loans under the pretense they were helping them.

Each “loan flip” resulted in more fees for the brokers and lenders, which they tacked onto the principal. With each flip, the borrowers’ equity shrank and their monthly payments went up, until their equity disappeared and they could no longer qualify for loans. The easiest loans to flip were those that borrowers couldn’t afford in the first place. There is damming evidence of other professionals (banks, accountants, lawyers etc. engaging in collusion with lenders/mortgage brokers to commit outright fraud with lenders.

It is easy to blame the SEC for failing in its enforcement, but this ignores the ideologiical (type III) bias of individuals like Alan Greenspan et. al. whose ideological prejudices precluded them from actually doing their jobs and regulating the financial markets as they were tasked to do. In addition, regulatory capture was a real issue resulting in the foxes in the hen house and/or defunding of agencies so they were under staffed and unable to properly perform their regulatory roles. Yet, many so-called “liberals” who were actually neoliberals pushing neoliberal economic doctrines about the “free market” did just that, blaming the SEC rather than looking for deeper causes. And this form of pernicious Ideological III bias persists to this day with predatory finance still remaining largely unregulated in the United States.

Another frequent trope trotted out is that the government GFCs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the GFC. Half-truths really are nothing more than propaganda and lies used for ideological puposes. The full truth is in the details. The GSEs eventually became private entities with shareholders and up until Wall Street got into the subprime game only accepted what is called conforming loans opposed to non-confroming loans. The difference between these two forms of underwriting are crucial to understanding how Wall Street and putting foxes in the hen house corrupted the role of GSEs and the entire housing market.

A conforming loan is a mortgage that meets the dollar limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and the funding criteria of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae who set the gold standard up until the crowding out effect of Wall Street’s’ predatory financing practices. Conforming loans adhere to strict underwriting standards; incomes are verified, credit records checked, and all due diligence is performed to assure that the borrower meets such strict standards that they qualify for the loan. And most importantly, the terms of the loan are designed to assure that they are not so onerous as to be the cause of default. In addition, the financial industry lobbied hard to keep hidden their default rates so they could milk the cash cow of predatory lending as long a they possibly could. So while Fredde Mae and Freddie Mac were only processing conforming loans Wall Street and its predatory lenders were flooding the market with non-conforming loans that guaranteed massive defaults while enriching the 1% at the top and wiping out regular homeowners conned into accepting these loans, sometimes even switching from a safe conforming loan into a non-conforming predatory loan. By 2006 80% of predatory “private label” non-conforming subprime loans were being securitized by Wall Street and given AAA ratings by ratings agencies despite the real underlying rot that was being sold (i.e., pass the trash) by market makers like Goldman Sacks ([13:55_14:14], [14:54_15:27]).

Eventually the crowd out effect undermined the ability of conforming loans to compete thereby driving what before had been responsible lending institutions to “get into the game” and start selling subprime loans (or in the GSEs case, buying them) and join the race to the bottom. Predatory lenders and their greedy Wall Street financiers who were packaging up these toxic time bombs didn’t worry about solvency; they were to busy making profits and “passing the trash” to unwary investors around the world who were being told by ratings agencies these little turds were AAA rated. In other words, the shite was wearing the pants!

The predatory banks couldn’t get enough of these toxic turds. They flooded middle-class neighborhoods with freshly minted salespersons who would canvass neighborhoods door-to-door selling these time bombs, often trying to get homeowners out of safe fixed-rate conforming loans and into their predatory products. “According to the Wall Street Journal, 55 percent of all subprime loans in 2005 went to people with sufficiently high credit scores to qualify for prime loans (Subprime Virus).” We know, for they tried to do it to us. Before the subprime driven GFC my wife and I were daily barraged with mortgage brokers seeking to move us from a 30-year fixed into one of Wall Street’s new subprime adjustable-rate loans that Greenspan crowed so glowingly about. I knew this was a shell game and Ponzi scheme even then. We finally invited one of the poor ignorant salespersons into our home so we could witness their BS selling points for ourselves (never once intending to fall for this short-sighted Ponzi scheme being waged against middle class Americans with little financial education). She sat there flipping pretty pie and bar charts reciting her sales mantra (“You will save $600 a month on payments”) never once discussing the downside — when interest rates change so does your payment, or interest only payments don’t decrease the principle, or when balloon payments kick-in and you can’t refinance as promised was so easy, you are essentially screwed. She made a point of telling us she herself had one of these exotic little financial monstrosities birthed on Wall Street. Most likely she lost her home with the rest of the fools who bought into this Ponzi scheme. It should not come as a surprise that by 2009 default rates were skyrocketing, going from 5 percent in 2004, to 8 percent in 2008, to 16 percent in 2006, when finally, the music stopped, and many homeowners ended up without a chair to sit in.

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Literature Only Economics vs. Practical Problem Solving Economics

I am much more fundamentalist than pluralist, because I believe a new unified economics is necessary and possible that can replace mainstream economics…. I believe it is necessary to provide new foundations for almost all heterodox economics…. [O]ur theory provides microfoundations …

(Shiozawa Yoshinori, RWER, Response to Mr. T. Confessing his fundamentalist anti-pluralism, RWER, 12/19/2022)

Key conclusions drawn from this qualitative research include: a simple definition of heterodox economics is not possible nor is a simple dichotomy distinguishing it from mainstream economics because of a quite complex relationship; a kairotic experience is common to heterodox economists (that is, a decision point at which mainstream economic theory is rejected) although shared identifiable reasons for this rejection were not found; heterodox economists consider the role of power is understated and/or ignored by mainstream economics; it can be inferred that heterodoxy has some commonality (ontological or methodological) because “most interviewees view the economic process as open to and interrelated with cultural, social, psychological, political, financial, geographical, bio-physical, and ecological factors” (ibid: 287); economists who identify as heterodox are committed to, and advocates of, pluralism that is not relativism, is different from that ‘advocated’ by the mainstream and is not ‘anything goes’; and, the heterodox community has: 

a diversity of origins, purposes, and standards for economic reasoning, ranging amongst others from history and philosophy of economics, to modelling, community organizing, and policymaking. Heterodox economics can therefore be likened to a eudaemonic bubble that enables the flourishing of its members (ibid: 285, emphasis added).

(Lynne Chester, Tae-Hee Jo, Heterodox Economics: Legacy and Prospects, WEA 2022)

I came to think of humans as a kind of Turing machine. I searched for stories which reinforced the parable. There were many of them. However, Üxküll’s tick story was the most impressive (Kindle Locations 884-887). (….) Üxküll’s tick and the Turing machine parable all fitted together in one idea (Kindle Locations 900-907). (….) We find an astonishing coincidence with my Turing machine parable of animal and human behaviors…. This is the most primitive case of the definition of the situation.

(Shiozawa et. al. (2019) Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics. Kindle Locations 884-887, 900-907, 926-933. Springer Japan. Emphasis added.)

When, fraudulently basking in the glory of the exact sciences, the psychologists [, theoretical economists like above, etc.,] refuse to study anything but the most mechanical forms of behavior  often so mechanical that even rats have no chance to show their higher faculties — and then present their mostly trivial findings as the true picture of the human mind, they prompt people to regard themselves and others as automata, devoid of responsibility or worth, which can hardly remain without effect upon the tenor of social life.

(Andreski 1973, 33-34, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Human reality also includes insight, knowledge, and foresight; we are not mere Turing machines, automatons, or fitness climbing ‘ticks’. Humans evolved from animals indeed, but we have also evolved capabilities our forebears lack and Shiozawa ignores and/or sweeps all but the most primitive (i.e., mechanical) cases under the rug in the name of mathematical tractability. We can look before we leap and reflectively think both before and after we leap (or choose not to leap). Shiozawa rightly notes the absurd ME claim of infinite knowledge, but it is equally absurd to reduce human beings to the level of “social insects” as he does in his fitness climbing tick or Turing machine analogy.

Shiozawa spoofs both biology and computer science. He pays only lip service to complexity ignoring real-world phenomenal intractability. He arrogantly makes ex cathedra claims like a used car salesperson, posting on RWER his theory is “A behavioral and cognitive theory that does not build on rationality of agents and equilibrium framework [and] is already presented and is applied to analyze a system as big as world economy (Shiozawa, comment posted on RWER).” Yet, his book explicitly excludes and doesn’t deal with finance or the financial markets and many other aspects of the real economy which are most certainly in a big way part of the a “system as big as the world economy” and impact how it works or more importantly, as the 2007-2008 GFC show, doesn’t work.

Shiozawa dishes up old mutton sold as new young lamb for nowhere is to be found a serious investigation of complexity (let alone biology or computer science) and the real-world intricate and interdependent complexities of living adaptive systems rich with dynamic feedback patterns and emergent levels of part-whole and top-down causation vs. bottom-up causation, etc., for the list goes on and on.

You have gotten a good number of ardent supporters, but many of them are feeble minded people who believe that they can change economics if they denounce mathematics and natural sciences. They are simple minded anti-scientists.

— Yoshinori Shiozawa, RWER: Lars Syll, New Classical macroeconomists — people having their heads fuddled with nonsense, 2/13/2018

Shiozowa Yoshinnori consistently misrepresents the meaning and substance of Lars arguments, complaining incessantly on RWER how Lars is destroying young minds and turning them off from economics. His personal communication reveals he views Lars valid critique as an existential threat to his own being as a theoretical economist who promotes a theory first ideology akin to ex cathedra religious dogma. In reality Shiozawa is engaging in a form of Freudian projection onto Lars and others of his own deepest fears. Yoshinori Shiozawa likes to engage in nasty ad hominem accusing others of being feeble minded while arrogantly pontificating a whig interpretation of the history of science. We are not required to take such arguments on their face value, and neither should reasonable people take such disingenuous, ahistorical arguments seriously, let alone at face value.

It seems he believes if Lars and others are right that economics as practiced traditionally through abstract model building divorced from empirical reality (i.e., assuming and deducing without real-world evidence) and phenomenal intractability is an abysmal failure doomed to be dustbin of history then his own narrow view of science (a philosophically naive form of scientism) is inadequate to the task facing the next generation of economists who are working to reform and rebuild the field using more pragmatically oriented real-world evidence based practices as described by Delorme:

It is an approach giving primacy both to looking and discovering rather than to assuming and deducing, and to complexity addressed in its own right rather than to complex systems in which complexity is often viewed tautologically as the behavior of complex systems.

(Robert Delorme, (WEA Conference), 11/30/2017.)

In 2017 the World Economics Association hosted a conference on Complexity in Economics in which Robert Delorme presented a paper titled A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science: Deep Complexity. The conference papers have been turned into a book the first chapter of which is Robert Delorme’s paper. The abstract reads:

Complex phenomenal intractability in economics, in particular, and in social science in general, is neglected in theorizing in these areas. This intractability is complex because it is an offspring of certain complex phenomena. It is phenomenal because it relates to empirical phenomena, which distinguishes it from conceptual and computational approaches to intractability and complexity. Among the possible reasons for this neglect, one is, in established complexity theory, the focus on computer simulations which seemingly solve for analytical sources of intractability. Another one is the relegation of intractability proper to theoretical computer science. Yet the empirical inquiries that originated this research reveal significant cases of intractable complex phenomena that are accommodated neither by existing complexity theory nor by the theory of computational intractability. The task ahead is therefore to construct a theory of complexity with phenomenal intractability. A reflexive cognitive behavioral modelling is developed and tested through its application. It results in what may be called a Deep Complexity procedure.

(Dolorme 2017, in Davis, John (2020) Economic Philosophy: Complexities in Economics . WEA. Kindle Edition.)

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In a recent WEA This was a paper hard to read. It does not mean that the paper was badly written. The difficulty of the task that the author sought enforced him to write this difficult paper. After struggling a week in reading the paper, I am rather sympathetic with Delorme. In a sense, he was unfortunate, because he came to be interested in complexity problems by encountering two problems: (1) road safety problem and (2) the Regime of Interactions between the State and the Economy (RISE). I say “unfortunate,” because these are not good problems with which to start the general discussion on complexity in economics, as I will explain later. Of course, one cannot choose the first problems one encounters and we cannot blame the author on this point, but in my opinion the good starting problems are crucial to further development of the argument of complexity in economics.

Let us take the example of the beginning of modern physics. Do not think of Newton. It is a final accomplishment of the first phase of modern physics. There will be no many people who object that modern physics started by two (almost simultaneous) discoveries: (1) Kepler’s laws of orbital movements and (2) Galileo’s law of falling bodies and others. The case of Galilei can be explained by a gradual rise of the spirit of experiments. Kepler’s case is more interesting. One of crucial data for him was Tycho Brahe’s observations. He improved the accuracy of observation about 1 digit. Before Brahe for more than one thousand years, accuracy of astronomical observations was about 1 tenth of a degree (i.e. 6 minutes in angular unit system). Brahe improved this up to an accuracy of 1/2 minute to 1 minute. With this data, Kepler was confident that 8 minutes of error he detected in Copernican system was clear evidence that refutes Copernican and Ptolemaic systems. Kepler declared that these 8 minutes revolutionize whole astronomy. After many years of trials and errors, he came to discover that Mars follows an elliptic orbit. Newton’s great achievement was only possible because he knew these two results (of Galilei and Kepler). For example, Newton’s law of gravitation was not a simple result of induction or abduction. The law of square-inverse was a result of half-logical deduction from Kepler’s third law.

I cite this example, because this explains in which conditions a science can emerge. In the same vein, the economics of complexity (or more correctly economics) can be a good science when we find this good starting point. (Science should not be interpreted in a conventional meaning. I mean by science as a generic term for a good framework and system of knowledge). For example, imagine that solar system was composed of two binary stars and earth is orbiting with a substantial relative weight. It is easy to see that this system has to be solved as three-body problem and it would be very difficult for a Kepler to find any law of orbital movement. Then the history of modern physics would have been very different. This simple example shows us that any science is conditioned by complexity problems, or by tractable and intractable problem of the subject matter or objects we want to study.

The lesson we should draw form the history of modern physics is a science is most likely to start from more tractable problems and evolve to a state that can incorporate more complex and intractable phenomena. I am afraid that Delorme is forgetting this precious lesson. Isn’t he imagining that an economic science (and social science in general) can be well constructed if we gain a good philosophy and methodology of complex phenomena?

I do not object that many (or most) of economic phenomena are deeply complex ones. What I propose as a different approach is to climb the complexity hill by taking a more easy route or track than to attack directly the summit of complexity. Finding this track should be the main part of research program but I could not find any such arguments in Delorme’s paper. (Yoshinori Shiozawa, A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science. In Economic Philosophy: Complexity in Economics (WEA Conference), 10/10/2017.)

1) My paper can be viewed as an exercise in problem solving in a context of empirical intractability in social science. It was triggered by the empirical discovery of complex phenomena raising questions that are not amenable to available tools of analysis, i.e., are intractable. Then the problem is to devise a model and tools of analysis enabling to cope with these questions. Then, unless someone comes with a complex system analysis or whatever tool that solves the problem at stake, a thing I would welcome, I can’t think of any other way to proceed than focusing on the very cognitive process of knowledge creation and portraying it as a reflective, open-ended, problem-first cognitive behavioral endeavour. It is an approach giving primacy both to looking and discovering rather than to assuming and deducing, and to complexity addressed in its own right rather than to complex systems in which complexity is often viewed tautologically as the behavior of complex systems. The outcome is a new tool of analysis named Deep Complexity in short. I believe that the availability of this tool provides a means to take more seriously the limitations of knowledge in a discipline like economics in which inconclusive and non demonstrative developments are not scarce when sizeable issues are involved.

2) Yoshinori Shiozawa raises the question of where to start from, from tractable problems or from the intractable? He advocates the former and suggests to “evolve to a state that can incorporate more complex and intractable phenomena”. But then, with what tools of analysis for intractable phenomena? And I would have never addressed intractability if I had not bumped into unresolved empirical obtacles. Non commutative complementarity is at work here: starting with the tractable in a discipline dominated by non conclusive and non demonstrative debates doesn’t create any incentive to explore thoroughly the intractable. It is even quite intimidating for those who engage in it. This sociology of the profession excludes de facto intractability from legitimate investigation. Then starting from the possibility of intractability incorporates establishing a dividing line and entails a procedural theorizing in which classical analysis can be developed for tractable problems when they are identified, otherwise the deep complexity tool is appropriate, before a substantive theorizing can be initiated. It is a counterintuitive process: complexification comes first, before a further necessary simplification or reduction. (Robert Delorme, (WEA Conference), 11/30/2017.)

In my first comment in this paper, I have promised to argue the track I propose. I could not satisfy my promise. Please read my second post for the general comments in discussion forum. I have given a short description on the working of an economy that can be as big as world economy. It explains how an economy works. The working of economy (not economics) is simple but general equilibrium theory disfigured it. The track I propose for economics is to start form these simple observations

As I have wrote in my first post, modern science started from Galileo Galilei’s physics and Johaness Kepler’s astronomy. We should not imagine that we can solve a really difficult problem (Delorme’s deep complexity) in a simple way. It is not a wise way to try to attack deep complexity unless we have succeeded to develop a sufficient apparatus by which to treat it. (Yoshinori Shiozawa, A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science. In Economic Philosophy: Complexity in Economics (WEA Conference), 11/30/2017.)

Dear Dr Shiozawa, it seems that we are not addressing the same objects of inquiry. Yours seems to stand at an abstract level of modern science in general. Mine is much less ambitious: it is grounded in research on how to deal with particular, empirically experienced problems in real economic and social life, that appear intractable, and subject to scientific practice. Deep Complexity is the tool that is manufactured to address this particular problem. It may have wider implications in social science. but that is another story. (Robert Delorme, A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science. In Economic Philosophy: Complexity in Economics (WEA Conference), 11/30/2017.)

You are attacking concrete social problems. I am rather a general theorist. That may be the reason of our differences of stance toward your problem.

Our situation reminds me the history of medicine. This is one of the oldest science and yet as the organism is highly complex system, many therapies remained symptomatic. Even though, they were to some extent useful and practical. I do not deny this fact. However, modern medicine is now changing its features, because biophysical theories and discoveries are changing medical research. Researchers are investigating the molecular level mechanism why a disease emerges. Using this knowledge, they can now design drugs at the molecular level. Without having a real science, this is not possible.

[Note Shiozawa’s implicit claim that previous medical science was not real science, but became real with the advent of molecular biology. No doubt molecular biology has opened up new domains of knowledge, but of course it is simply ludicrous to claim medicine wasn’t real science prior to molecular biology, as many perfectly valid scientific discoveries prior to and/or discovered without molecular biology are available to prove this assertion simply false. As Delorme states plainly below, this is scientism, not to mention an abysmal attempt to use revisionist history for purely rhetorical purposes. For a description of literature-only economics see Payson 2017. For a good description of the kind of scientism Shiozawa is parroting see Pilkington 2016. To use one of Shiozawa’s misquoted authors for go-to appeals to authority (unfortunately his memory doesn’t serve him well as Andreski contradicts his claim on RWER), see Stanislav Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery (1973, 22-23).]

Economics is still in the age of pre-Copernican stage. It would be hard to find a truth mechanism why one of your examples occurs. I understand your intention, if you want say by the word of “deep complexity” a set of problems that are still beyond our ability of cognition or analysis. We may take a method very different from the regular science and probably similar to symptomatology and diagnostics. If you have argue in this way, it would have made a great contribution to our forum on complexities in economics. This is what I wanted to argue as the third aspect of complexity, i.e. complexity that conditions the development of economics as science.

To accumulate symptomatic and diagnostic knowledge in economics is quite important but most neglected part of the present day economics. (Yoshinori Shiozawa, A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science. In Economic Philosophy: Complexity in Economics (WEA Conference), 12/1/2017, italics added.)

It is interesting to learn that, as an economist and social scientist, I must be in a “pre-Copernican” stage. Although what this means is not totally clear to me, I take it as revealing that our presuppositions about scientific practice differ. You claim to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating the subject I address, and that this way is the methods and tools of natural science. I claim to have devised a way which works, without knowing if it is the most appropriate, a thing whose decidability would seem to be quite problematic. And the way I have devised meets the conditions of a reflective epistemology of scientific practice, in natural science as well as in social science. Your presupposition is that the application of the methods of natural science is the yardstick for social science. This is scientism.

My presupposition is that there may be a difference between them, and that one cannot think of an appropriate method in social science without having first investigated and formulated the problem that is presented by the subject. As a “general theorist”, your position is enjoyable. May I recall what Keynes told Harrod: “Do not be reluctant to soil your hands”. I am ready to welcome any effective alternative provided it works on the object of inquiry that is at stake. It is sad that you don’t bring such an alternative. As Herb Simon wrote, ”You can’t beat something with nothing”. I borrow from your own sentence that “if you had argued this way, it would have made a great contribution to our forum…” (Robert Delorme, A Cognitive Behavioral Modelling for Coping with Intractable Complex Phenomena in Economics and Social Science. In Economic Philosophy: Complexity in Economics (WEA Conference), 12/1/2017, italics added.)

Economics is a social science

Economics is a social science. It is neither a branch of mathematics nor the study of nature. It is, instead, analysis of humans by humans. This makes it both exceptionally important and extremely difficult.

Economics is important, because the way we understand how an economy both does and should work will, quite rightly, change how we do and should behave.

Economics is difficult, because it does not study a demarcated sphere of behaviour. What we consider to be economic behaviour is but a part of the totality of human action. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii, [ https://a.co/12BcqIF ])

Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and historians also analyse the phenomena considered by economists. The assumption that it is possible to separate out economic behaviour and objectives from other forms of human behaviour and objectives is an heroic simplification and, like all such simplifications, it is fundamentally false. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii, [ https://a.co/cuyL9qB ])

This is not an argument against it. Simplification is often necessary if one is to make any progress in understanding. The neoclassical assumptions of individualistic utility-maximising behaviour and a calculable future are, for example, fruitful simplifications. They have often produced a better understanding of the behaviour we call ‘economic’. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii, [ https://a.co/fVqei31 ])

But the assumption of utility-maximisation is either tautological or untrue. Human beings are intensely social animals. The assumption that we are solipsistic egotists is false. Indeed, we consider such people to be psychopaths. Similarly, the assumption of a calculable future can be productive. But it, too, is false. The future is uncertain. We do not know what is going to happen. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii, [ https://a.co/5GaN8NO ])

The apparatus of neoclassical economics builds on shaky foundations. It violates norms of human behaviour. It is inconsistent with how humans actually behave. It does not even allow us to understand fully such important economic phenomena as bubbles and financial crises. (Rethinking Economics (p. xiii). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.) [ https://a.co/6NcjoAK ]

(….) The economics that humanity will need will surely display the vigour of the mongrel, not the neuroses of the pure-bred. It will build on a better understanding of what humans desire and how they behave. It will abandon the assumptions that the study of humanity is a lost branch of physics, humans are desiccated calculating machines, a separate sphere of economic behaviour exists and economic outcomes have nothing to do with power. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii-xiv, [ https://a.co/1fKhqhj ])

Consider the obvious: the political and social institutions that economists mostly ignore also have economic purposes. They are part of the economic world, just as the economic world is part of them. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiv, [ https://a.co/6nUdVbS ])

I would not recommend an ‘anything goes’ approach. Economists need just enough complexity to achieve a reasonable understanding of what is going on, but not more. Simplification is a necessary part of the study of something as complex as human social behaviour. Otherwise, it will collapse into mere description. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii-xiv, [ https://a.co/9PKto6e ])

At the same time, simplification can all too easily deliver falsehood. To avoid that trap, economists need to become aware of how the heterodox think. They need both to broaden their ideas and to show humility. As Hamlet would tell us, “there are more things in heaven and earth, economists, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. (Fischer et. al. 2018, xiii-xiv, [ https://a.co/fU6O1Gy ])

Behind Mathematical Notation

[I]t is a common trope of theoretical modeling exercises to begin by citing a “stylized fact” about some aspect of the economy and to present the exercise as developing a possible explanation. Theoretical modeling exercises may vary in how much the foreground the questions about the target world that ultimately motivate the exercise, but some recourse of this kind is implied whenever these exercises are presented as economically relevant (as opposed to simply mathematical exercises). … This matters because it suggests that even highly abstract theoretical models are ultimately justified on the basis of their correspondence to some features of the target world. (Spielgler 2015, 67)

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Henry Louis Mencken [1917] once wrote that “[t]here is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.” And neoclassical economics has indeed been wrong. Its main result, so far, has been to demonstrate the futility of trying to build a satisfactory bridge between formalistic-axiomatic deductivist models and real world target systems. Assuming, for example, perfect knowledge, instant market clearing and approximating aggregate behaviour with unrealistically heroic assumptions of representative actors, just will not do. The assumptions made, surreptitiously eliminate the very phenomena we want to study: uncertainty, disequilibrium, structural instability and problems of aggregation and coordination between different individuals and groups. (Syll 2016, 56)

The punch line of this is that most of the problems that neoclassical economics is wrestling with, issues from its attempts at formalistic modeling per se of social phenomena. Reducing microeconomics to refinements of hyper-rational Bayesian deductivist models is not a viable way forward. It will only sentence to irrelevance the most interesting real world economic problems. And as someone has so wisely remarked, murder is unfortunately the only way to reduce biology to chemistry — reducing macroeconomics to Walrasian general equilibrium microeconomics basically means committing the same crime. (Syll 2016, 56)

— Lars Pålsson Syll. On the use and misuse of theories and models in economics


On December 5, 1871, John Stewart Mill wrote to his friend and disciple John Elliot Cairnes expressing dismay at the work of William Stanley Jevons, one of the pioneers of the new abstract mathematical style in economics. Jevons had “a mania for encumbering questions with useless complications,” Mill wrote, “with a notation implying the existence of greater precision in the data than the questions admit of” (Mill 1972).

At the time of writing, Mill had not yet read Jevons’ recently published Theory of Political Economy, but if he had, he would have found no reason to change his view. Jevons, for his part, was equally critical of Mill’s work — and used remarkably similar language to make his complaint. According to Jevons, it was Mill’s economic doctrines — and those of the then-dominant British Classical School more generally — that were unnecessarily complicated, because they were based on “mazy and preposterous assumptions” about the basic concepts of political economy (Jevons 1965: xliv). (Spiegler 2015, 1)

What Mill and other classical political economists failed to see, Jevons argued, was that despite the apparent complexity of human social activity there was a fundamental simplicity and unity at its core. Standard economic notions such as utility, wealth, value, commodity, labor, land, and capital all reflected a single underlying theme: the basic human tendency to “satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort — to procure the greatest amount of what is desirable at the expense of the least that is undesirable — in other words, to maximize pleasure” (Jevons 1965: 37). This tendency manifested itself in human behavior in a manner that was uniform across people, quantitatively (Jevons thought cardinally) measurable, and separable from influences that were more context-dependent, such as morality or culture. Recognizing this, Jevons argued, would allow many of the issues that had troubled classical political economists to be bracketed, enabling the articulation of a precise “mechanics of utility and self-interest” on the model of physical mechanics (Jevons 1965: 21, emphasis original). (Spiegler 2015, 1-2)

According to Jevons, the analogy with physical mechanics ran deep. The “laws and relations” governing utility mechanics had to be “mathematical in nature,” because they “dealt with quantities,” i.e., “things … capable of being greater or less” (Jevons 1965: 3, emphasis original). These laws could also be isolated from potentially disturbing factors, not only conceptually but also empirically. Although the economist could not conduct controlled experiments to affect this isolation directly, Jevons believed that the effects of disturbing factors could be dealt with systematically, even when economists were largely in the dark about their nature and operation. (Spiegler 2015, 2)

Consequently, it seemed to Jevons that scepticism about the possibilities of a precise science of political economy, like that expressed by Mill in his letter to Cairnes, was merely conservatism standing in the way of progress. This sentiment was expressed clearly in the concluding comments to the Theory of Political Economy, in a section titled “The Noxious Influence of Authority” Jevons wrote:

I think there is some fear of the too great influence of authoritative writers in Political Economy. I protest against deference for any man, whether John Stewart Mill, or Adam Smith, or Aristotle, being allowed to check inquiry. Our science has become far too much a stagnant one, in which opinions rather than experience and reason are appealed to … Under these circumstances it is a positive service to break the monotonous repetition of current questionable doctrines, even at the risk of new error. (Jevons 1965: 276-7)

Looking back on the disagreement between Mill and Jevons from the perspective of 2015, it would seem that Jevons has been vindicated. Contemporary academic economics is a thoroughly mathematical enterprise, reflecting many features of Jevons’ approach. And one finds few doubts within the professional mainstream as to the aptness of the mathematical analysis of economic behavior. To most contemporary economists, Mill’s views on methodolgy of political economy are at best an interesting piece of intellectual history. They are irrelevant to the actual practice of economics. (Speigler 2015, 2)

Yet Mill’s skepticism toward Jevon’s approach to political economy may be more than a mere historical curiosity. Mill’s position, especially when understood in the context of his broader philosophy of science, poses a fundamental and formidable challenge to those who, like Jevons, would wish to use the power and precision of mathematics to investigate social phenomena. In fact, the issues Mill discerned continue to vex mathematical economics to this day. To see that, however, we need to understand the basis of his misgivings. (Spiegler 2015, 2-3)

As a committed empiricist, Mill held fast to the value of experience. The general principles of science were, in Mill’s eyes, contrivances in its service and subject to its discipline. Although abstractions were necessary to formulate general principles, Mill insisted that one must not make the mistake of taking abstractions to be the object of scientific inquiry, rather than the phenomena they were supposed to represent. If a scientist lost focus on the actual phenomena of interest in that matter, the concepts advanced in their service might well become detached from them. It would then become unclear what, if any, epistemic value the principles formulated using those concepts would have. As Mill explained,

If anyone, having possessed himself of the laws of phenomena as recorded in words, whether delivered to him originally by others, or even found out by himself, is content from thenceforth to live among these formulae, to think exclusively of them, and of applying them to cases as they arise, without keeping up his acquaintance with the realities from which these laws were collected — not only will he continually fail in his practical efforts, because he will apply his formulae without duly considering whether, in this case or in that, other laws of nature do not modify or supersede them; but the formulae themselves will progressively lose their meaning to him, and he will cease at last even to be capable of recognizing with certainty whether a case falls within the contemplation of his formulae or not. (Mill 1974: Bk. IV, ch. vi, sec. 6, 711)

The prime example of mechanical subject matter, according to Mill, was the physical universe. In his view, it was appropriate to express (for example) Newton’s principle of universal gravitation in mathematical language because human beings are capable of discerning specific quantities corresponding to “mass,” “force,” and “radius” (or, more generally “distance”) with sufficient precision that there could be no relevant qualitative differences among observations within each category. From the standpoint of Newtonian mechanics, it would not matter if one set of forces, masses, and distances occurred in France and another in England (or on the Moon or anywhere else in the universe), or if one set of observations were associated with a morally reprehensible purpose and another not. The only relevant difference between observations of the same type was in their magnitude. (Spiegler 2015, 4)

When confident that one was dealing with mechanical subject matter, it was not only appropriate but ideal to articulate general principles in mathematical language. Doing so enabled scientists to take full advantage of its purely quantitative nature. In particular, they could use their observations to derive and test precise empirical laws from those general principles. This, for example, is what Henry Cavendish did when estimating the value of the gravitational constant G, in Newton’s principle of universal gravitation, F = Gm1 m2/r2 (which expresses the force exerted by a body of mass m1 on a body of mass m2, and visa versa, at a distance of r) (Cavendish 1798). That calculation would have been impossible — or rather, its result would have been meaningless — if Cavendish had not been warranted in taking each successive observation of mass (or the distance between the two objects, or degree of displacement of the objects due to gravity) as qualitatively identical to his preceding observations. (Spiegler 2015, 4-5)

Mathematical language is thus extemely useful in investigating mechanical subject matter. But, Mill argued, it would be perilous to use it to investigate subject matter that was not mechanical. There were two possible causes of concern. First, in such cases mathematical principles might simply project an underlying mechanical structure onto the subject matter whether or not the latter was mechanical in nature. That is, mathematical language might generate a purely quantitative conceptual map of the subject matter it purported to outline, with no way of telling whether the outlines on the map corresponded to the subject’s own contours. As a result, scientists would not be able to feel confident that data gathered according to the conceptual map accurately reflected the underlying subject matter. And because of that, it would be inappropriate to interpret any apparently precise empirical laws derived from that data as empirical laws applying to the actual subject matter. (Spiegler 2015, 5)

Second, and still more worryingly, Mill argued that the commitment to mathematical language could actually prevent scientists from detecting when their conceptual map had become untethered from the subject matter under study. As will be recalled, Mill’s prescribed defense against this kind of detachment was ongoing close contact between the scientist and the object of study. But if exploration of the subject matter itself developed only through the lens of mathematical language — which necessarily obscured any qualitative distinctions among the observations being made within each category — then the scientist would become blind to signs of that mismatch arising. As a result, the mismatch might persist indefinitely. Because of this danger, Mill warned that when the scientist was not certain of the mechanical character of the subject matter, the language of any general principles “should be so constructed that there will be the greatest possible obstacles to a merely mechanical use of it” (Mill 1974: Bk. IV, ch. vi, sec. 6, 707). (Spiegler2015, 5)

The risk that mathematical principles might ascribe mechanical features to non-mechanical subject matter, and thus become untethered from the subject matter they were meant to represent, was precisely what concerned Mill about Jevons’ approach to political economy, and indeed about mathematical social science generally. Human social activity was, for Mill, a paradigmatic example of a non-mechanical subject. It was a realm of almost unfathomable complexity, in two important ways. First, social phenomena were subject to innumerably more causes than physical phenomena. And second, crucially, the operations of those causes were inextricably intertwined. (Spiegler 2015, 6)

Whatever affects, in an appreciable degree, any one element of the social state, affects through it all the other elements. The mode of production of all social phenomena is one great case of Intermixture of Laws. We can never either understand in theory or command in practice the condition of a society in any one respect, without taking into consideration its condition in all other respects. (Mill 1974: Bk. VI, ch. ix, sec. 2, 899)

Thus, although Mill believed it was possible to form reliable general principles (perhaps even mathematical ones) about certain aspects of human nature in isolation, the fact that human beings always and only observe behavior in the welter of society meant it was impossible to discern whether and to what extent those general principles operated empirically. If indeed one knew, as Jevons presumed one would, that the influence of economic factors on human behavior was cleanly separable from the influence of all other factors, and one possessed a reliable method for screening off those influences, then a precise empirical science of political economy might be possible. But for Mill, whether the social world was parsable in this way was an empirical question — and, moreover, a question that could only be addressed through continual immersion in the social world itself — not a simple statement of fact or a self-evidently valid postulate, as Jevons assumed. To take Jevons’ route was to invite a split between model and target that would be undetectable using mathematical methods alone. One could go blithely on with mathematical explorations — gathering data, estimating the precise functional forms and parameters of the principles, and testing them against new data — unaware that in point of fact one had ceased to be exploring the phenomena of interest in any meaningful way. (Spiegler 2015, 6)

Mill’s challenge to Jevons may seem distant from the modern discipline of economics. Yet it finds strong echoes in the debate over the implications for economic methodology of the recent financial crisis. A central question in that debate has been whether the highly abstract mathematical modeling methods that dominated macroeconomics in the years leading up to the crisis — in particular, Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) modeling — actively prevented economists from seeing the gathering storm. Critics of DSGE have charged that these models became untethered from the phenomena they were meant to represent in precisely the manner Mill feared. In a 2010 review of DSGE modeling in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, for example, Ricardo Caballero wrote that the practice of DSGE modeling “has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one” (Caballero 2010: 85). The primary culprits in that confusion, critics charged, were the extreme simplifying assumptions necessary to ensure the tractability of DSGE models — in particular, (i) the representation of aggregate economic activity as being generated by a small number of representative agents; (ii) the expression of the macroeconomy as a linear (generally log-linear) system; and (iii) the assumption of efficient financial markets. These assumptions rendered the model incapable of taking into account many kinds of complexity that turned out to be crucial factors in the crisis — for example, the perverse incentive structures at play in the financial sector in the late 1990s and 2000s. In effect, the models became mere mathematical exercises — toy models that were not models of the late 1990s‒2000s economy in any meaningful sense. (Spiegler 2015, 6)

Critics have also been concerned with the manner in which the mismatch between DSGE models and the actual economy gave rise to certain analytical blind spots. In a 2009 New York Times Magazine piece cataloguing the failures of economic methodology in the lead-up to the crisis, Paul Krugman argued that DSGE models caused a kind of tunnel vision in which the central causes of the crisis lay outside the realm of consideration. Conceiving of the economy through the lens of the model essentially required the economist to 

[turn] a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation. (Krugman 2009) (Spiegler 2015, 7)

How to Report Illegal Firework Displays

The easiest way to file a complaint about illegal fireworks being discharged in your neighborhood is to file an online complaint (Instructions for Filing Online Complaint). A description of the overall complaint process can be found here. The process works, for I tested it on a violator who chose to shoot illegal fireworks off despite the ban and they were sent a warning letter. If they choose to persist next year, despite it being illegal, it will be a fine.

To report violators of the unincorporated King County ban on illegal firework it is best to gather the evidence prior to submitting the report.* The best evidence is a video of the violator shooting off the fireworks along with the address and parcel number of the property. After taking a video of the violation and obtaining the address of offender go to the King County Parcel Viewer and enter the address to obtain the properties parcel number and property owner information (see instructions below). After gathering the video and/or pictures, address of the violator, and parcel information go to the online code enforcement reporting page. Select the “File a complaint online” button and you will be presented with a online form to fill for filing a complaint. This complaint can be filed anonymously and there is no need to register a user account. On the Code Enforcement page select the Enforcement menu item (if not visible use drop down “more” menu):

You can use Google Maps to locate the home address using the street view feature. Once you have obtained the violator’s address you can then go to the Parcel Viewer and enter the address and obtain the property parcel number and owner information. A good way to get familiar with using Google Maps and King County Parcel Viewer is to first use Google Maps to locate your own home and obtain the address and then to the Parcel Viewer and enter your address and obtain your parcel viewer and owner information for practice.

With the video evidence and/or pictures—which can be uploaded with complaint—and property parcel number, property owner’s information, and violator’s address you can then fill out the complaint form and monitor its progress via the code enforcement page.

* An effective way to gather evidence of illegal public firework displays in surrounding neighborhoods is to drive to the location where the fireworks are being discharged (one can easily see the mortars going off) with a video camera mounted in the window (or on foot using one’s phone) and document the illegal firework display and the address of the individual discharging the illegal fireworks. Then use Google Maps and the Parcel View to obtain the required information to file a code enforcement complaint online. Discrete body cameras are also an option. Do not verbally confront or engage with the individuals engaging in illegal activity to avoid potential conflict.

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Addendum: Some individuals on social media claim that discharging fireworks is their constitutional right and that banning fireworks is unconstitutional. This is pure misinformation and nonsense on stilts. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that gives individuals the right to discharge fireworks. As a simple matter of fact, the regulation of fireworks falls within the jurisdiction of state law and local county and city ordinances as determined by elected officials and/or referendums. Washington State Law (RCW 70.77.250(4), RCW 70.77.395) gives King County Council the authority to regulate fireworks (see Title 17 Fire Code Updated July 7, 2002, chapter 17.11) as authorized by the Washington State SENATE BILL 6080.

The Meanings of History

HISTORY HAS BEEN used and abused more than once in the Ukraine Crisis, informing and inspiring its participants but also justifying violations of international law, human rights, and the right to life itself. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict, while arising unexpectedly and taking many of those involved by surprise, has deep historical roots and is replete with historical references and allusions. Leaving aside the propagandistic use of historical arguments, at least three parallel processes rooted in the past are now going on in Ukraine: Russia’s attempts to reestablish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space acquired by Moscow since the mid-seventeenth century; the formation of modern national identities, which concerns both Russians and Ukrainians (the latter often divided along regional lines); and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines that allow the participants in the conflict to imagine it as a contest between East and West, Europe and the Russian World. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 486). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict reminded the world of the Russian annexation of the Crimea in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the creation in southern Ukraine of the short-lived imperial province of New Russia. This memory of Russian imperial expansion into the area was brought to the fore not by outside observers trying to portray current Russian behavior as imperial but by ideologues of the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine, who came up with the New Russia project. They sought to develop their historical ideology on the foundations of imperial conquest and Russian dominance in lands originally inhabited by the Crimean and Noghay Tatars and Zaporozhian Cossacks. This pertains especially to the trope of Sevastopol as a city of Russian glory—a historical myth rooted in the 1853–1856 Crimean War (a disaster for the Russian Empire) that attributes the heroism of the multiethnic imperial army defending the city to Russians alone. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 486-487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The formation of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” along with the attempts to proclaim Odesa and Kharkiv republics—building blocks of a future New Russia—also had its roots in historical memory. It went back to Bolshevik attempts to maintain control over Ukraine’s east and south soon after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (February 1918), which assigned those regions to Ukraine. At that time the Bolsheviks were using self-proclaimed states, including the Crimean and Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih Soviet republics, to claim that they were not part of Ukraine and thus not covered by the treaty. The founders of the new Donetsk republic claimed to use the symbols of the Donetsk–Kryvyi Rih republic of 1918, as, like the old one, theirs would not have arisen or survived without Moscow’s sponsorship and support. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 487). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

While allusions to the Russian imperial and revolutionary past became part of the historical discourse justifying the Russian aggression against Ukraine, its historical motivation is more recent. The rapid and unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union, recalled by President Vladimir Putin in his speech on the annexation of the Crimea, provides the most immediate historical background to the crisis. The current Russian government keeps claiming that Ukraine is an artificial formation whose eastern territories were allegedly a gift to the country from the Bolsheviks, as was the Crimea after World War II. According to this narrative, the only genuine and thus historically legitimate polity is the empire—first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. The Russian government actively combats and suppresses any historical traditions and memories that undermine the legitimacy of the empire, such as commemoration of the 1932–1933 Great Ukrainian Famine or the Soviet government’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars; such was the case with the ban on public commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation imposed by the Russian authorities in the Crimea in May 2014. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 487-488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Russia today seems to be following in the footsteps of some of its imperial predecessors who continued to harbor nostalgia for their empires long after they were lost. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russian elites bitter about their loss of imperial and superpower status, nourishing illusions that what had happened was an accident brought about by the ill will of the West or by politicians like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin foolishly bickering for power. Such a view of the end of the Soviet Union makes it hard to resist the temptation to rewrite history. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 488). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN CONFLICT also brought to the fore another important issue with historical roots and ramifications: the unfinished process of building the modern Russian and Ukrainian nations. The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the propaganda intended to justify Russian aggression in the Donbas have proceeded under the slogan of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in general. The equation of the Russian language not only with Russian culture but also with Russian nationality has been an important aspect of the worldview of many Russian volunteers who have come to Donbas. One problem with that interpretation of Russianness is that while ethnic Russians indeed make up a majority of the population in the Crimea and large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While Russian and separatist propaganda has had an appeal for many ethnic Ukrainians, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or with Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language. That was one of the main reasons for the failure of the New Russia project, which came as a complete surprise to its authors. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 488-489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

The view of Ukrainians as constituents of the Russian nation goes back to the founding myth of modern Russia as a nation conceived and born in Kyiv, the “mother of Russian [rather than Rus’] cities.” The Synopsis of 1674, the first printed “textbook” of Russian history, compiled by Kyivan monks seeking the protection of the Muscovite tsars, first formulated and widely disseminated this myth in Russia. Throughout most of the imperial period, Ukrainians were regarded as Little Russians—a vision that allowed for the existence of Ukrainian folk culture and spoken vernacular but not a high culture or a modern literature. Recognition of Ukrainians as a distinct nation in cultural but not political terms in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1917 challenged that vision. The aggression of 2014, backed by the ideology of the “Russian World,” offers Ukrainians today a throwback in comparison with Soviet practices. Nation building as conceived in a future New Russia makes no provision for a separate Ukrainian ethnicity within a broader Russian nation. This is hardly an oversight or excess born of the heat of battle. Less than a year before the annexation of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin himself went on record claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. He repeated that statement in a speech delivered on March 18, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (p. 489). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)

Since the fall of the USSR, the Russian nation-building project has switched its focus to the idea of forming a single Russian nation not divided into branches and unifying the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. Ukraine has become the first testing ground for this model outside the Russian Federation. (Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe (pp. 489-490). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. )

Free License of Creativity

Styles of reasoning

At the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Sanders Pierce, a founder of the American school of pragmatist philosophy, distinguished three broad styles of reasoning.

Deductive reasoning reaches logical conclusions from stated premises. For example, ‘Evangelical Christians are Republican. Republicans voted for Donald Trump. Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump.’ This syllogism is descriptive of a small world. As soon as one adds the word ‘most’ before either evangelical Christians or Republicans, the introduction of the inevitable vagueness of the larger world modifies the conclusion.

Inductive reasoning is of the form ‘analysis of election results shows that they normally favour incumbent parties in favourable economic circumstances and opposition parties in adverse economic circumstances’. Since economic conditions in the United States in 2016 were neither particularly favourable nor unfavourable, we might reasonably have anticipated a close result. Inductive reasoning seeks to generalise from observations, and may be supported or refuted by subsequent experience.

Abductive reasoning seeks to provide the best explanation of a unique event. For example, an abductive approach might assert that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election because of concerns in particular swing states over economic conditions and identity, and because his opponent was widely disliked.

Deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning each have a role to play in understanding the world, and as we move to larger worlds the role of the inductive and abductive increases relative to the deductive. And when events are essentially one-of-a-kind, which is often the case in the world of radical uncertainty, abductive reasoning is indispensable. Although the term ‘abductive reasoning’ may be unfamiliar, we constantly reason in this way, searching for the best explanation of what we see: ‘I think the bus is late because of congestion in Oxford Street’. But the methods of decision analysis we have described in earlier chapters are derived almost entirely from the deductive reasoning which is relevant only in small worlds. (Kay, John. Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers (pp. 137-138). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.)

(….) Most problems we confront in life are typically not well defined and do not have single analytic solutions.

(….) But logic derived from reasonably maintained premises can only ever take us so far. Under radical uncertainty, the premises from which we reason will never represent a complete description of the world. There will be different actions which might properly be described as ‘rational’ given any particular set of beliefs about the world. As soon as any element of subjectivity is attached either to the probabilities or to the valuation of the outcomes, problems cease to have any objectively correct solution.

(Kay, John. Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers (pp. 137-139). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.)


Mathematics has something to teach us, all of us, whether or not we like mathematics or use it very much. This lesson has to do with thinking, the way we use our minds to draw conclusions about the world around us. When most people think about mathematics they think about the logic of mathematics. They think that mathematics is characterized by a certain mode of using the mind, a mode I shall henceforth refer to as “algorithmic.” By this I mean a step-by-step, rule-based procedure for going from old truths to new ones through a process of logical reasoning. But is this really the only way that we think in mathematics? Is this the way that new mathematical truths are brought into being? Most people are not aware that there are, in fact, other ways of using the mind that are at play in mathematics. After all, where do the new ideas come from? Do they come from logic or from algorithmic processes? In mathematical research, logic is used in a most complex way, as a constraint on what is possible, as a goad to creativity, or as a kind of verification device, a way of checking whether some conjecture is valid. Nevertheless, the creativity of mathematics—the turning on of the light switch—cannot be reduced to its logical structure. (Byers, William. How Mathematicians Think (p. 5). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Where does mathematical creativity come from? This book will point toward a certain kind of situation that produces creative insights. This situation, which I call “ambiguity,” also provides a mechanism for acts of creativity. The “ambiguous” could be contrasted to the “deductive,” yet the two are not mutually exclusive. Strictly speaking, the “logical” should be contrasted to the “intuitive.” The ambiguous situation may contain elements of the logical and the intuitive, but it is not restricted to such elements. An ambiguous situation may even involve the contradictory, but it would be wrong to say that the ambiguous is necessarily illogical.

(Byers, William. How Mathematicians Think (pp. 5-6). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Science has always had (…) a metaphoric function — that is, it generates an important part of culture’s symbolic vocabulary and provides some of the metaphysical bases and philosophical orientations of our ideology. As a consequence the methods of argument of science, its conceptions and its models, have permeated first the intellectual life of the time, then the tenets and usages of everyday life. All philosophies share with science the need to work with concepts such as space, time, quantity, matter, order, law, causality, verification, reality. (Holton 2000, 43, in Einstein, History and Other Passions)

Our discussion of the nature of physical concepts has shown that a main reason for formulating concepts is to use them in connection with mathematically stated laws. It is tempting to go one step further and to demand that practicing scientists deal only with ideas corresponding to strict measurables, that they formulate only concepts reducible to the least ambiguous of all data: numbers and measurements. The history of science would indeed furnish examples to show the great advances that followed from the formation of strictly quantitative concepts. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170)

(….) The nineteenth-century physicist Lord Kelvin commended this attitude in the famous statement:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of Science, whatever the matter may be. (“Electrical Units of Measurement”)

Useful though this trend is within its limits [emphasis added], there is an entirely different aspect to scientific concepts: indeed it is probable that science would stop if every scientist were to avoid anything other than strictly quantitative concepts. We shall find that a position like Lord Kelvin’s (which is similar to that held at present by some thinkers in the social sciences) does justice neither to the complexity and fertility of the human mind nor to the needs of contemporary physical science itselfnot to scientists nor to science. Quite apart from the practical impossibility of demanding of one’s mind that at all times it identify such concepts as electron only with the measurable aspects of that construct, there are specifically two main objections: First, this position misunderstands how scientists as individuals do their work, and second, it misunderstands how science as a system grows out of the contribution of individuals. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170-171)

(….) While a scientist struggles with a problem, there can be little conscious limitation on his free and at times audacious constructions. Depending on his field, his problem, his training, and his temperament, he may allow himself to be guided by a logical sequence based on more or less provisional hypotheses, or equally likely by “feelings for things,” by likely analogy, by some promising guess, or he may follow a judicious trial-and-error procedure.

The well-planned experiment is, of course, by far the most frequent one in modern science and generally has the best chance of success; but some men and women in science have often not even mapped out a tentative plan of attack on the problems, but have instead let their enthusiasms, their hunches, and their sheer joy of discovery suggest the line of work. Sometimes, therefore, the discovery of a new effect or tool or technique is followed by a period of trying out one or the other applications in a manner that superficially almost seems playful. Even the philosophical orientation of scientists is far less rigidly prescribed than might be supposed. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170-171)

Science Wars Myth


The idea of inevitable conflict between science and religion was decisively challenged by John Hedley Brooke in his classic Science and religion: Some historical perspectives (Cambridge, 1991). Almost two decades on, Science and religion: New Historical perspectives revisits this argument and asks how historians can now impose order on the complex and contingent histories of religious engagements with science.

Bringing together leading scholars, this new volume explores the history and changing meanings of the categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’; the role of publishing and education in forging and spreading ideas; the connection between knowledge, power, and intellectual imperialism; and the reasons for the confrontation between evolution and creationism among American Christians and in the Islamic world. A major contribution to the historiography of science and religion, this book makes the most recent scholarship on this much misunderstood debate widely accessible. (Dixon et. al. 2010, Front Material, in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives)

I propose, then, to present to you this evening an outline of the great sacred struggle for the liberty of Science-a struggle which has been going on for so many centuries. A tough contest this has been! A war continued longer-with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more vigorous than in any of the comparatively petty warfares of Alexander, or Cxsar, or Napoleon … In all modern history, interference with Science in the supposed interest of religion-no matter how conscientious such interference may have been-has resulted in the direst evils both to Religion and Science, and invariably.
—Andrew Dickson White, “The Battle-Fields of Science” (1869)

The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of a struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power … The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.
—John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) and John William Draper (1811-1882). White, the young president of Cornell University, became a believer in the warfare between science and religion after religious critics branded him an infidel for, as he put it, trying to create in Ithaca “[a]n asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.” On a winter’s evening in December 1869 he strode to the podium in the great hall of Cooper Union in New York City, ready to smite his enemies with history, to give them “a lesson which they will remember.” In a melodramatic lecture titled “The Battle-Fields of Science” the historian surveyed “some of the hardest-fought battle-fields” of the “great war” between science and religion. He told of Giordano Bruno’s being “burned alive as a monster of impiety,” of Galileo’s having been “tortured tured and humiliated as the worst of unbelievers,” and much more, ending with the latest scientific martyrs, Cornell University and its beleaguered president. As White must have anticipated, his lecture sparked even more controversy, prompting, according to one observer, “instantaneous outcry and opposition.” Over the next quarter century White expanded his talk into a huge two-volume work, A History of the Warfare of Science ence with Theology in Christendom (1896), widely translated and frequently reprinted down to the present. In it, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton gleefully noted, he showed “that the Bible has been the greatest block in the way of progress.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 39-49). Kindle Edition.)

Draper was equally exercised when he wrote his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). An accomplished physician, chemist, and historian, Draper largely excused Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy of crimes against science while excoriating Roman Catholicism. He did so, he wrote, “partly because its adherents compose the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands are the most pretentious, and partly because it has commonly sought to enforce those demands by the civil power.” In addition to chronicling the church’s age-old opposition to scientific progress, he ridiculed the recently promulgated doctrine of papal infallibility, which he attributed to men “of sin and shame.” He never publicly mentioned, however, what may have agitated him the most: his antipathy toward his own sister, Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism and who for a time lived with the Drapers. When one of the Draper children, eight-year-old William, lay near death, Aunt Elizabeth hid his favorite book, a Protestant devotional tract-and did not return it until after the boy had passed away. The grieving father angrily kicked her out of his house, no doubt blaming the Vatican for her un-Christian and dogmatic behavior. Draper’s tale of “ferocious theologians” hounding the pioneers of science “with a Bible in one hand and a fiery fagot in the other,” as one critic characterized his account, understandably provoked numerous counterattacks. The American convert to Catholicism Orestes Brownson, who described the book as “a tissue of lies from beginning to end,” could scarcely contain his fury. “A thousand highway-robberies or a thousand cold-blooded murders,” he fumed, “would be but a light social offence in comparison with the publication of one such book as this before us..” (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 49-59). Kindle Edition.)

(….) Discussions of the relationship between “science” and “religion” originated in the early nineteenth century, when students of nature first began referring to their work as science rather than as natural philosophy (or natural history). Before that time there were occasional expressions of concern about the tension between faith and reason, but no one pitted religion against science or vice versa.’ By the 1820s, however, books and articles featuring the phrase “science and religion” in their titles were starting to appear. One of the first, if not the first, English-language books with the words in their titles came out in 1823: Thomas Dick’s popular The Christian Philosopher; or, The Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion. By midcentury “science and religion” was becoming a literary trope, and during the 1850s and 1860s several American colleges and seminaries established professorships devoted to demonstrating (and preserving) the harmony of science and revealed religion.4 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 59-64). Kindle Edition.)

Although a few freethinkers, most notoriously Thomas Cooper of South Carolina College, denounced religion as “the great enemy of Science,” antebellum Americans, especially the clergy, worried far more about the threat of science to orthodox Christianity than about religious barriers to science. By the middle third of the nineteenth century some observers were beginning to suspect that “every new conquest achieved by science, involved the loss of a domain to religion.” Especially disturbing were scientific challenges to the first chapters of the Bible. During the three decades between about 1810 and 1840 men of science pushed successfully to replace the supernatural creation of the solar system with the nebular hypothesis, to expand the history of life on earth from 6,000 to millions of years, and to shrink Noah’s flood to a regional event in the Near East. Many Christians readily adjusted their reading of the Bible to accommodate such findings, but some biblical literalists thought that the geologists of the day were taking too many liberties with God’s word. The Reverend Gardiner Spring, for example, resented scientific efforts to explain creation, which he regarded as “a great miracle,” incapable of being accounted for scientifically. “The collision is not between the Bible & Nature,” he declared, “but between the Bible & natural philosophers.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 64-71). Kindle Edition.)

At the time it was not uncommon for men of science to engage in biblical exegesis while denying theologians and clergymen the right to monitor science. This practice, along with the increasing marginalization of theologians from the scientific enterprise, Charles Hodge, the most eminent Calvinist theologian in midcentury America. Although he continued to venerate men of science who disclosed “the wonderful works of God,” by the late 1850s he was growing increasingly frustrated by their tendency to treat theologians who expressed themselves on scientific subjects as “trespassers” who should mind their own business. He attributed the growing “alienation” between men of science and men of the cloth in part to the former’s “assumption of superiority” and their practice of stigmatizing their religious critics “as narrow-minded, bigots, old women, Bible worshippers, etc.” He resented the lack of respect frequently shown to religious men, who were instructed by their scientific colleagues to quit meddling in science, while they themselves belittled religious beliefs and values. At times Hodge worried that science, devoid of religion, was becoming downright “satanic.” He had no doubt that religion was in a “fight for its life against a large class of scientific men.”6 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 71-78). Kindle Edition.)

The spread of “infidel” science—from geology and cosmogonies to biology and anthropology—caused many Christians, both conservatives and liberals, to feel under attack. According to the southern intellectual George Frederick Holmes, “The struggle between science and religion, between philosophy and faith, has been protracted through centuries; but it is only within recent years that the breach has become so open and avowed as to be declared by many to be irreconcilable.” Worse yet, even the working classes were joining the fray. As one British writer noted in 1852, “Science is no longer a lifeless abstraction floating above the heads of the multitude. It has descended to earth. It mingles with men. It penetrates our mines. It enters our workshops. It speeds along with the iron courser of the rail.”7 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 78-82). Kindle Edition.)

The debates over Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), in which the British naturalist sought “to overthrow the dogma of separate creations” and extend the domain of natural law throughout the organic world, signaled a shift in emphasis. Increasingly, scientists, as they were coming to be called, expressed pressed resentment at playing handmaiden to religion. One after another called not only for scientific freedom but also for the subordination of religion—and the rewriting of history with religion as the villain. The most infamous outburst came from the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), who in his 1874 Belfast address as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science thundered: (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 82-86). Kindle Edition.)

The impregnable position of science may be described in a few words. We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it. Acting otherwise proved disastrous in the past, and it is simply fatuous to-day. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 86-89). Kindle Edition.)

Two years later Tyndall wrote a laudatory preface to a British edition of White’s The Warfare of Science. With such endorsements, the conflict thesis was well on its way toward becoming the historical dogma of the day, at least among intellectuals seeking freedom from religion.’ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 89-90). Kindle Edition.)

Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history.’ (An opposing ing myth, that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, is disposed of in Myth 9.) Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, as we shall see in Myth 7, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 90-95). Kindle Edition.)

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind. Nearly half, twelve of twenty-five, self-identify as agnostic or atheist (that is, unbelievers in religion). Among the remaining thirteen there are five mainstream Protestants, two evangelical Protestants, one Roman Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist—and two whose beliefs fit no conventional category (including one pious Spinozist). Over half of the unbelievers, including me, grew up in devout Christian homes—some as fundamentalists or evangelicals—but subsequently lost their faith. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this fact, but I suspect it tells us something about why we care so much about setting the record straight. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 95-99). Kindle Edition.)

A final word about our use of the word myth: Although some of the myths we puncture may have helped to give meaning to the lives of those embracing them, we do not employ the term in its sophisticated academic sense but rather use it as done in everyday conversation—to designate a claim that is false. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 99-101). Kindle Edition.)


Reason and intellect may take a man to the doorsteps of the domain of faith, but only revelation and the mercy of Allah will enable him to enter it. (Hamdani, Ibrahim 1989, 36, in Three Faiths One God: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Encounter)

The vision to be set forth in this presentation is of the unity or coherence of humankind’s religious history. (Wilfred Cantwell Smith 1981, 3, in Towards a World Theology)

Observing minds and discriminating souls know religion when they find it in the lives of their fellows. Religion requires no definition; we all know its social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual fruits. And this all grows out of the fact that religion is the property of the human race; it is not a child of culture. True, one’s perception of religion is still human and therefore subject to the bondage of ignorance, the slavery of superstition, the deceptions of sophistication, and the delusions of false philosophy. (1119: 6)

The impact of agnostic science will turn out to have been child’s play compared to the challenge to Christian theology of the faith of other men…. The era of religious isolationism is about to be as much at an end as that of political isolationism already is…. The time will soon be with us when a theologian who attempts to work out his position unaware that he does so as a member of a world society in which other theologians equally intelligent, equally devout, equally moral, are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and unaware that his readers are likely perhaps to be Buddhists or to have Muslim husbands or Hindu colleagues—such a theologian is as out of date as is one who attempts to construct an intellectual position unaware that Aristotle has thought about the world or that existentialists have raised new orientations, or unaware that the earth is a minor planet in a galaxy that is vast only by terrestrial standards. Philosophy and science have impinged so far on theological thought more effectively than has comparative religion, but this will not last. (Smith 1982, 7,8,9, in Religious Diversity)

The only basis on which it [Islam] distinguishes between humans is on the basis of their moral personality—their ability, that is, to acquire taqwa, or God-consciousness—and it is in terms of their moral praxis that individuals will be judged and recompensed in the Hereafter. What matters in and to the Qur’an, then, is not sex/gender, but an individual’s ‘faith and deeds’. (Barlas, Asma. Amina Wadud’s hermeneutics of the Qur’an. In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (editor Suha Taji-Farouki). Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004; p. 114.)

Tasdiq is to recognize a truth, to appropriate it, to affirm it, to confirm it, to actualize it. And the truth, in each case, is personalist and sincere…. [F]aith is then the recognition of divine truth at the personal level. Faith is the ability to recognize truth as true for oneself, and to trust it. Especially in the Islamic case, with its primarily moral orientation, this includes, or makes primary, the recognition of the authenticity, a moral authority, of the divine commands. Thus there is a recognition of the obligatoriness of moral obligations; and the acceptance of their obligatoriness as applying to oneself, with the personal commitment then to carrying them out.

Again: it is the personal making of what is cosmically true come true on earth–the actualization of truth (the truth about man).

More mystically, it is the discovery of truth (the personal truth) of the Islamic injunctions: the process of personal verification of them, whereby, by living them out, one proves them and finds that they do indeed become true, both for oneself and for society and world in which one lives.

Tasdiq is the inner appropriation and outward implementation of truth. It is the process of making or finding true in actual human life, in one’s own personal spirit and overt behavior, what God–or Realityintends for man.

And with many a passage strongly insisting that faith is more than knowledge, that it is a question of how one responds to the truth, one may also render the proposition ‘faith is tasdiq‘ as ‘Faith is the ability to trust, and to act in terms of, what one knows to be true’. (Smith 1981: 150-151)

(….) Faith, then, is the positive response to God’s initiative. It is not merely knowledge: it includes knowledge, but is something else as well. That something additional, the men of kalam came to agree, is tasdiq. Huwa (that is al-tasdiq) amr za’id ‘ala al-‘ilm.

We turn, then, from faith to tasdiq… We can now see that it designates not belief, but knowledge; and not merely knowledge, but knowledge of the truth plus something else. (Neither of these two componentsneither that of knowing the truth, nor that of the something additionalis found in the current Western translations …). (Smith 1981: 155)

(….) What, then, is tasdiq? Clearly, it lies in the realm of activist sincerity. Sidq … designates truth at the personalist level, of recognition and integrity: the second form of the very designates an activating of this.

Fundamental for understanding one of the prime meanings of tasdiq in this connection is a remark such as the following of al-Tabari:

al-qwam kanu sadaqu bi-alsinatihim wa-lam yusaddiqu qawwlahum bi-fi lihim.

Obviously this is not ‘to believe’ but rather to confirm, to actualize the truth. They ‘… spoke the truth with their tongues, but did not corroborate what they were saying with their deeds’. Or one might use such verbs as ‘authenticate’ or ‘validate’. An older usage in English would legitimately appear here if one translated by: ‘… they were not faithful to what they were saying, in their deeds’. (Smith 1981: 156)

The actualizing aspect of tasdiq is illuminated, again, in the oft-cited statement, al-iman ma waqara fi alqalb, wa-saddaqahu al-amal. ‘Faith is that about which the heart is firm, and that deeds validate (authenticate, corroborate).’

Again, and more theologically, the fact that God Himself is called mu’min is also explained, by al-Baghdadi, as His being actively faithful in this sense:

wa-Allah mu’min li-annahu yusaddiqu wa’dahu bi-al-tahqiq.

(It would be ludicrous to translate either iman or tasdiq as ‘believing’ in any of these cases–and I feel, in any cases at all).

The difference, then, between knowledge and tasdiq lies in the sincerity and in the opperationalist addenda denoted by the latter term. Knowledge is the perception of the truth outside oneself; tasdiq is the personal appropriation of that perception. It is the inner reordering of oneself so as to act in terms of it; the interiorization and implementation of the truth in dynamic sincerity. Tasdiq means not ‘to believe’ but
rather to recognize a truth and to existentialize it. (Smith 1981: 156)

(….) All this is especially relevant to, and leads to a consideration of, the second of the two fundamental orientations that we averred to be characteristic of Islamic life and significant for its faithnamely, the moral. For the truth to which the Muslim must respond is largely a moral truth. The knowledge conferred by revelation is largely a knowledge of moral requirements, of commands, of duties: awamir, ahkam, fara’id. In the moral life especially, as all of us recognize, knowledge is not yet virtue. The recognition of that something out to be done is not yet the recognition that I ought to do it, not yet the resolve to do it, not yet my personal decision to act. Involved in the moral life is a particular quality or act, more than and other than knowledge and its awareness of objective truth, a quality that brings one to the point of committing oneself to act in terms of what one has recognized as right. This is tasdiq, and to have it is to have faith. (Smith 1981: 157-158)

(….) One of the compelling expositions of the matter comes in the fuller elaboration of a statement by the later writer al-Kastalt …: ‘Al-tasdiq does not mean knowing the truth …; no, it is rather a yielding to what is known and a letting oneself be led by it, setting aside recalcitrance and stubborness, and constructing one’s actions in accordance with it’. (This is a beautiful example of a passage that Christian [or Buddhist, or Jewish] theology could be happy and proud to take over word for word ….) (Smith 1981: 158)