The Other I

November 8, 2009

The impeccable theory is always peccable

In a recent post,  I pointed out that the Dali Lama said when there is a conflict between religious point of view and scientific observation, religion cannot censure scientific observation and we need to change our religious perspective.

I said I agreed.  But I see now that the problem is much broader than religion.  Scientific theories can do the same thing, blinding us to what is obvious.  For years, for example,  psychologists were committed to the view that thought – even human thought – was an epiphenomenon, not real in itself.  Even when human thought was reluctantly let back into the scientific arena, any psychologist claiming that animals actually think was subject to accusations of sentimentality.   The doctrine was that animals worked like machines, not like people.  The fear of being accused of being anthropomorphic still pervades the social sciences.

Now a leading economist has said that the recent economic crisis happened because economic theories blinded economists, politicians and bankers alike to what was actually happening.  They were so sure their theories were right that in the face of the obvious reality, they didn’t see it.

The core of their theories preached first that markets were efficient and rational, and second, that whatever could not be encapsulated within a mathematical equation was, if it actually existed at all, trivial.  Markets, therefore, were efficient and people did not behave irrationally, whatever the uneducated observer might think.  They, after all, were probably not making millions of dollars a year like the those in the heady world of financial services were.

The standard approach of science is supposed to be that theories are tested to see how well they fit reality.  Kaletsky suggests that in this case, and for a period of decades, reality was twisted to fit the theories instead.

I think this is probably an enduring problem of the human condition.  Our theories – religious and secular, formal and informal – are in a constant battle with bits of our experience that just don’t fit.

But as our current crisis illustrates, it often takes a seriously traumatic experience to shake our convictions.  As far as I can see, none of us is immune, and there is no field of thought which is not susceptible.

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