Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Pseudoscience of Irrationalism

In my studies of economics, I find myself stuck in the industrial era: the foundational works, which were generally written in the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.  I keep looking for more current information, considering the economics of the present day, and I am constantly disappointed by the quality of modern “scholarship,” which seems takes the opposite approach, giving further testament to the utter wrongness of the binary fallacy.

Specifically, there seem to be many unqualified scholars who play upon the obvious flaw of classical economics: that it is optimistic.  The classical economists took as a premise that men act intelligently at all times, with full awareness of circumstances and their own long-term self-interest in mind.    So the present-day economists switches to the opposite extreme, taking as a premise that men act unintelligently at all times, with no awareness of circumstances and no consideration of their long-term self-interest.

The problem with both schools of thought is that they suffer from binary thinking: all or nothing, always or never, black or white, with nothing in between.    The presumption is that if something is false, then its exact opposite must be true – which is childish, primitive, and utterly wrong.

Of the two camps, I still gravitate toward the classical – they are not perfectly correct, but they are mostly so.   Man is not a perfectly logical creature with flawless perception – but he is a generally logical creature with fairly accurate perception, in the modern day more so than a century ago because of the accessibility of information.  He is not a hapless fool, but can be fooled.

When an individual is seeking to pursue a personal goal, he tends to act consciously and deliberately, applying his reasoning to the best of his perception and intellect.   Very little is accomplished accidentally – though much is done imprecisely, with imperfect knowledge and imperfect reasoning.

The more challenging the circumstances, the less chance that imprecision will result in success.  If a person is to succeed in high-stakes situations, and to do so routinely, it must be by the application of his best knowledge and reasoning.   And for those who do not think for themselves, they are more likely to mindlessly emulate the success rather than the failure of others.

On a societal scale, the success or failure of a society is merely the aggregation of the success or failure of those individuals of which it is composed.   Hence a culture that fails to apply knowledge and reasoning is not sustainable, and will invariably fall to one that is superior in those regards.  But again, these are generalizations: we can recognize that imprecise or even improper action may sometimes lead to success, and the intelligent man recognizes that this is an exceptional situation whose occurrence is improbable.

And this is likely the proper reaction to the black swan: to recognize that it is an exception, an unusual occurrence that cannot be denied – its truth must be accepted.  But this does not mean that the appearance of an exception disproves a theorem, and it should certainly not serve as the foundation for a diametrically opposed school of thought, or an approach that is based on unusual circumstances.  

Such things are best relegated to the side-show: a curious novelty of no particular significance in the long run.    And this, I expect, is the fate not only of the theories, but the theorists as well.

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