Idea Slaves

Aaron Clauset has a rambling post attempting to contrast science favorably with non-science.  The key defining difference is easy to sum up; science seeks to disconfirm.  The rest of his post talks about things that are shared by science and non-science alike.

He does quote a useful little statement, which can be applied to the “Metcalfe’s Law” debates currently being retread by the A-List: “all models are wrong, but some models are more useful than others” (George Box).  I like the Richard Bandler variation, since it is more honest: “All generalizations are lies”.

The “Metcalfe’s Law” debate comes down to an argument about which “rule of thumb” is best for valuing networks.  It’s great debate fodder, because it can be used to kickstart any pet topic, like “it is/isn’t a bubble” (I agree with Umair), or “closed networks will die” (Closed networks/”moats” are still alive and well, but Marc’s ideas will win in the end).  But as Umair said last time the debate popped up, “it’s just a model, stupid!”

Since Aaron mentions Popper, I am reminded of George Soros’s crusade of the past ten years.  Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory has been responsible for massive wealth and liberty spread over the past couple of hundred years, but Soros points out that it is dangerous to extend it too far, saying “We need to maintain law and order. We need to maintain peace in the world. We need to protect the environment. We need to have some degree of social justice, equality of opportunity. The markets are not designed to take care of those needs. That’s a political process. And the market fundamentalists have managed to reduce providing those public goods.” 

In fact, his crusade seems to be falling on deaf ears.  The “market fundamentalists” are basically the same as the “evolutionary fundamentalists”, who are the same as the “scientific inquiry” fundamentalists.  And they are taking over everything.  I see evolutionary theory being used to explain all sorts of phenomena these days; and presumably all behaviors we have are related back to baboon’s desire to procreate and produce offspring.  Since B.F. Skinner is no longer fashionable, I’m trying to figure out how to train my dog via evolution (it will take a lot of dogs, but puppies are cute).  Or balance my checkbook (if we learn from mistakes, let’s make as many as possible).  All of these fundamentalists take their theories a bit too far, and fail to realize that all models have their limitations.

A rather disturbing example of this fundamentalist trifecta is the just-published “Origin of Wealth“.  Take a little bit of evolutionary “selfish gene” thinking, market speak, and cloak it in scientific discourse, and now market systems are practically laws of nature.


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