Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Russ Roberts and William Byers

Russ Roberts has one of the best Econtalks I've listened to in a while up. He's talking to mathematician William Byers about uncertainty and imperfections in science, although the discussion is wide ranging.

They make a lot of points I make here on a regular basis which can be summed up as an opposition to a justificationist or foundationalist attitude towards science.

I find Russ's position on all this practically inscrutable. On the one hand he recognizes what scientific modeling and empirical work actually is - it's not a foundationalist attempt at some deeper truth, it's just an imperfect replication of what we see in the world to try to understand it better. Russ knows this. He talks about it in this video! So why is he so critical of modeling and empirical for not living up to a standard that they were never meant to meet? Why not accept it for what it is and what it can do? I have no idea. Russ has always deeply confused me on these points, but the discussion is still good.

Some work that I think would go well with this talk:

- Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Dewey's The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology
- Keynes's Newton, the Man


  1. I am reading Newton - the Man, and, at a glance, I see a point on which I have pondered as well.

    It's the idea of a scientist as a mystic and occultist.

    Two things come to mind. Ecology, when it started out, was not what it is today. That's what I gather from a scientific passage I read in a standardised test. Ecology first started out with an idea of a biological superorganism - the ecosystem - and the notion that all living creatures are connected as a single whole. Later ecologists worked to correct this blurring between metaphor and scientific reporting by early ecologists, explaining that while different species in an ecosystem do make use of each other, they do not work with some single organised purpose. Early ecology virtually seemed to imply Earth Spirits.

    The second thing is a book called the Cosmic Serpent. A confounding idea explored early in the book is how Amazon River Valley tribes could have built up such advanced knowledge of chemistry, that they synthesised a drug from one plant that contained an enzyme found in the brain and another plant that contained an enzyme to block the stomach processes which prevents the first plant's enzyme from being digested. What were the odds, wonders the author, that out of 80,000 plant species in the Amazon, the tribals found the exact two plants that combine to make a hallucinogenic drug? And what were the odds that there are entire sections of the rainforest grown not naturally but by hand by the shamans of the tribes? And that those shamans acquired such ecological knowledge supposedly from their drug trances, as they claim?

    I have been having some conflicting thoughts - that man has worked so hard to get out of mysticism and so much closer towards the truth, and yet some new situations force him back to mysticism!

  2. His discussion with Popola was great.

  3. I'll have to listen before I see whether your spin on what Roberts says has any merit.

  4. My interpretation of Roberts is grounded in a lot that he has said about economics as a science in the past. He doesn't go as deeply into economics itself and its scientific status here. Previous statements by Roberts on economics as a science should be fairly easy to come across.

  5. Completely unrelated, but saw this on Twitter and thought you'd find value in it: http://www.thelovecraftsman.com/2011/04/10-beloved-cartoon-characters.html

    (Feel free to delete this comment once you've seen it.)

  6. I'll get around to evaluating your spin of the podcast.

  7. I've never actually listened to Econtalk, but from the sounds of it I guess I should since this really sounds interesting.


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