Ignorance is Strength


James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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109 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    What are the really important issues of politics?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      How to stop the U.S. from going to war without good cause.

      How to get the U.S. on a sustainable fiscal path.

      How to balance the production of worthy public amenities with the need to avoid a government that stultifies innovation and liberty.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          I don’t know if that’s a sarcastic, “Oh,” or not (and it’s fine if it is), but to be sure, I bluntly reject Mark Thompson’s claim that “No amount of study will make you more qualified to say what should and should not be an “important issue.” Those who don’t study anything won’t have a good basis for determining what’s really important or not, and we all know that people tend to put too much weight on rare but dramatic events, blowing them out of proportion as policy issues.

          That doesn’t mean my issues aren’t debatable, of course, but I’m rather confident in stacking them up against the person who argues that Acorn or Obama’s birth cert are important issues.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Or Abortion? Or polygamous marriage? Or a gold standard? Or climate change? Or transgender rights? Or emancipated minor suffrage? Or handgun ownership? Or drunk driving? Or sex tourism? Or medicinal marijuana?

            Is there a sweet spot of education that will bring me in line with what you have learned are the important issues?Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Yes, you have to pay to take my classes.

              I didn’t pretend to an exhaustive list.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                So the difference between this and Tilton is what, exactly?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I don’t fart on youtube?

                I don’t really follow. To make a more serious answer to your first question, no, there’s no single sweet spot. I don’t know the important international events as well as someone who’s studied that area closely. So to compensate, when I want to figure out what’s important internationally I look to those who are studying that area. I don’t turn to my neighbor, no matter how religiously he watches cable news or reads the New York Times or whatever.

                No single smart academic or practitioner knows all the important issues. So there are multiple sweet spots, and that’s part of the important message–the knowledge necessary for knowing the important issues doesn’t come without hard work.

                And it’s not that the guy on the street never recognizes an important issue–I’m not criticizing my factory working neighbor for thinking Michigan’s double-digit unemployment is important–but that they too often either focus on issues that aren’t important (gold standard–jumpin’ jesus on a pogostick) or are unaware of issues that are important (I have a friend who gave me a heads up on Russia’s invasion of Georgia before it happened, and who the hell else was paying attention to that?).Report

  2. In general, I try to defer to academics speaking in their field, but to play devil’s advocate, let me suggest some alternatives to “failure to engage in serious study of an issue constitutes a qualification for commenting on the issue.”

    (1) “Application of social-scientific methodology is no substitute for lived experience.”
    (2) “The necessity of academic specialization means that when it comes to the big issues, academics aren’t any wiser than the rest of us.”
    (3) “The value of serious academic study is offset by the pervasive ideological biases of the modern university system.”

    In my view, (1) and (2) should at least be conversation starters. I don’t buy (3), though.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I should note that not all academics engage in serious study of all political issues, and some academics don’t engage in serious study of any academic issues. Being a smart-as-a-whip physicist doesn’t remotely qualify one to talk intelligently about most public policies.

      “Lived experience” and “serious study” (regardless of methodology, as long as it’s serious) are beautifully complementary. My adjuct prof worked as a legislative director on Capitol Hill and has run campaigns. There’s a great number of things he knows that I don’t (of course I never did serious study of those issues). At the same time, he suffers from the common malady found among practitioners that they can’t always provide a coherent theoretical explanation for the innumerable facts they know. So both aspects of learning–because both are in fact methods of learning–are valuable. The real problem is that most uneducated people who want to scoff at academics don’t actually have that lived experience. Paying taxes isn’t relevant lived experience.

      Big issues are composed of particularized parts, so the people who have studied those particularized parts are indeed wiser than the rest of us.

      Ideological bias is no more pervasive in the academy than among the general public, so that’s a pure strawman. I’m glad you don’t buy it.Report

      • Avatar Heidegger says:

        James says: “Ideological bias is no more pervasive in the academy than among the general public, so that’s a pure strawman.”

        Perhaps true, but, considering the players, much less forgivable, and infinitely more harmful.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        “So both aspects of learning–because both are in fact methods of learning–are valuable. The real problem is that most uneducated people who want to scoff at academics don’t actually have that lived experience. Paying taxes isn’t relevant lived experience.”

        There’s also the note to make that a good many academics (particularly those in public policy, at least in my experience) are not limited to their academic experience. Most of these people actually *work* in the public sphere. Just like most business professors serve on a board, many chemistry professors or engineering professors work with their college’s tech transfer office to start new companies, etc.

        The ideal academic who putters around in their office and has no real life experience is a made up character.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:

          “The ideal academic who putters around in their office and has no real life experience is a made up character.”

          Where is your proof that your statement is true, or are we supposed to believe b/c you say it is true?Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            Define a standard of proof. I know enough academics that I believe that (my experience of the academics I know) will generalize to (most academics in the U.S.)

            That’s fine, you don’t have to accept my assessment as valid. It does qualify as weak evidence, I’ll grant you, but I don’t find the claim extraordinary enough to go looking for stronger evidence without cause.

            If you’re going to ask for “proof” I want to know what sort of evidence you’ll accept as “proof” before I go off for a set of goalposts that might be moved.

            Here’s my experience: I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from a liberal arts school. I worked for 4 years at a high school, and now 8 at a research university (with a period in the public sector in between). I’ve been in graduate school since 2005 for my own edification at another research university. I know a great number of graduate students in multiple fields (public policy, business, computer science, philosophy, theology, information science, astrophysics, theoretical physics) and have personal relationships with professors in the same fields. I’m related to a Jesuit who is now the Chancellor of (coincidentally) the same liberal arts school where I got my undergraduate degree, and have been exposed to faculty from other schools since I was about 6.

            My father was an autodidact who used to hang out with an eclectic collection of academics at the bar every Thursday when I was a kid, and my parents regularly entertained them at my house (I learned how to mix a martini when I wasn’t yet 10).

            There are certainly examples of the “ideal” academic in that very wide body of academics I’ve known, but they represent less than 0.5% of all of ’em put together.

            If you want stronger evidence than my experience, that’s certainly a case you can make. But you’ve got to tell me what you want before I’m going to go looking for it 🙂Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            Regarding public policy professors, at least, I found this: http://mjtier.people.wm.edu/FP.pdf

            It lacks raw numbers, but FTA:

            “Other stereotypes, however, are stripped away.
            International relations scholars are not locked in
            their ivory towers. In fact, many of them moonlight
            in important parts of the foreign-policy making
            apparatus, serving as consultants to the U.S. government
            (25 percent), nongovernmental organizations
            (15 percent), think tanks (14 percent), the
            private sector (11 percent), and international organizations
            (9 percent). And professors are more
            engaged in practical questions than popular myth
            would have it: Forty-five percent conduct research
            designed, at least in part, to have specific policy

            • Avatar tom van dyke says:

              “How could I have been so far off base? All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?”

              —JFK on the Bay of Pigs

              Mr. Cahalan, I don’t want get nihilistic about knowledge, but the social sciences are only analogous to the physical sciences: You can’t run a properly controlled experiment where human beings are involved.

              Again, this isn’t to say that we can know nothing about man. But as we move away from studying individuals to studying societies, the variables increase geometrically, making it at least nearly impossible to isolate just one.

              As for academics making policy via governments, NGOs, think tanks, etc., it’s difficult to assess their batting averages since again, there are no proper controls for their experiments. What if they had done Y instead? Or nothing?

              Cato’s Marian Tupy on aid and Africa, to touch on Jason Kuznicki’s point:


              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                Tom, in an ideal sense, you can’t run a properly controlled experiment under any circumstances.

                At best, you can control for what you *know* may effect the experiment, and attempt to control for unknown factors. This is true whether your field of study is physics or sociology.

                I absolutely agree that the confidence intervals can be made significantly smaller in the physical sciences, though, lest you think I’m some sort of post-modernist arguing against positivism.

                I’d argue that it’s a lot easier to study larger populations in the norm than study individuals (unless you’re studying only a single individual), but that it’s very difficult to study large populations out of equilibrium. This actually is a truism in physics as well as social sciences; it’s easy to study the solar system as most of the mass in the solar system is fairly regularly distributed. However, if you were trying to simulate, say, what would happen if a rogue planet the size of Jupiter entered the solar system, your set of differential equations would be much many mo’ difficult.

                The part I find annoying about social sciences (when discussing them among laypersons – this includes myself in most fields) is that it’s difficult to move past a very fuzzy confidence zone into a categorical assessment with a reasonable likelihood. But that’s because case studies don’t generalize well, and experiments have observer effects, and you have to read a huge body of literature to get anything resembling a reasonable assessment of the field.

                Yes, most individual investigations in the social sciences are limited in their utility. However, there are lots and lots of investigations (even on particular questions) in the social sciences. At the very least, a well-read, actual-expert-in-a-field social scientist can probably give you a set of disconfirmations- they may not be able to tell you, “In Case X, do Intervention Y to achieve result Z”… but they can probably tell you, “In Case X, Interventions {Y1, Y2… Yn} are all shown to produce pretty bad results with high frequency.”

                If you’re really looking for high degrees of confidence, stick with mathematics. You can have axiomatic proof there. Once you switch to the sciences, the best you can do is talk probabilities.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                I have no disagreement with the above, Pat.

                But as Marian Tupy argues above, our “best guess” via social science has made things in Africa worse.

                but they can probably tell you, “In Case X, Interventions {Y1, Y2… Yn} are all shown to produce pretty bad results with high frequency.”

                Yes, “they,” in this case Tupy, can tell us that, but that doesn’t mean we’ll listen. He is not part of the “scholarly consensus.”


              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                Well, from Tupy’s piece:

                “Africa is poor not because of Western consumption and stinginess, but because it produces too little. Most economists agree that Africa’s low productivity is, in large part, a result of bad policies, such as restrictions on private enterprise, bad institutions, and inadequate rule of law.”

                You can’t conflate “aid” (necessarily) with “social experimentation”.

                The advocates of “aid” are usually not trying to change the underlying economy of the country in question. They’re just trying to prevent someone from starving to death or dying from malaria or AIDS. Whether this improves the conditions in the country or not is sort of besides the point.

                It’s also hard to say that these are abject failures, because even *if* they prolong, say, a dictatorial or corrupt construct, it’s also possible that they make the transition away from such a thing less chaotic.

                “Unfortunately, far from stimulating growth and reducing poverty over the last 60 years, aid has served as a disincentive to economic and institutional reforms. ”

                I don’t think the second half of this statement is well supported. In addition, he may be right, but “disincentive” isn’t necessarily what’s important here in any event. The sort of sea change you’re talking about in a country (economic change, leadership change, governmental change, etc.) doesn’t necessarily come about via external incentives. Seems to me that the most common sea changes (that don’t involve extreme violence) take place when the leader changes the direction of the country of his/her own volition.

                I mean, I agree, a freer market and economic growth will probably go a much longer way towards African prosperity than aid. I don’t know that we can get a freer market and economic growth by outside policies; and interventionist ones (i.e., Iraq) aren’t a great winning track record either.

                Generally, you’re going to get freer markets and economic growth when you have a critical mass of non-subsistence workforce, what we like to call the “middle class”. It’s a cart-and-horse problem… how do you get a middle class who can promote economic growth when you don’t have a middle class and the government is totalitarian (or a reasonable facsimile thereof)?

                I don’t pretend to know the answer, and it’s certainly debatable either way, but I don’t think, “Hey, look, we’ve been giving aid to Africa for years and things haven’t gotten better there yet!” is the only way of measuring the efficacy of aid given to Africa. Someone who is arguing as a humanitarian is arguing, “It’s not my job to get the country on a better track. I’m just trying to keep people from starving. I leave ‘fixing their economy and leadership’ to someone else”.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                “Justice” is, properly speaking, not a question of social science, as much as it is of your favored field of philosophy, Mr. Van Dyke. So it is dubious that Tupy is responding to “social science.” And at a quick glance at the article, it’s not apparent to me that he is actually responding to social science claims for foreign aid (Bono and Geldof are not social scientists). Most of the social scientists I know are very much in agreement with her on most of her comments. As an actual social scientist, I can assure you that claims about providing foreign aid because it’s just are not “”our ‘best guess’ via social science” about what to do in Africa.

                So once again, Mr. van Dyke, you demonstrate that you actually know nothing about the social science you’re critiquing. You put up a straw man and rip it a new asshole, and crow as though you’ve actually accomplished something of substance.

                Contra what you say, Tupy’s arguments are in fact part of the scholarly consensus, to the extent one exists, about foreign. A person who had some interest in not appearing to be a lazy, dishonest, ideological hack might have done some actual research, say via Google Scholar, about foreign aid and corruption, you would have seen that it’s a big subject of study.

                So it appears that you do in fact favor ignorance over education, because you make your claims based on your lack of research about social science claims instead of actually looking at those social science claims.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Typical you would ignore my best arguments, James, and focus on parsing the shorthand required of a comments section. That is the way of the sophist.

                You have the “ordinary” part down. The “gentleman” continues to elude you.

                My purpose was not to discuss Africa, nor to base any argument on a single Cato paper. Were you honestly interested in anything more than getting the better of me—which you still, to date, have not—you would discuss the entire topic.

                And take a shot at the “problem of experts” as well.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You don’t have a best argument here, Tom. You have an example that is supposed to demonstrate your point, but that in fact reinforces mine.

                I had no intent of naming anyone, but thanks for not only outing yourself but demonstrating my point so well.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                On, and on this: “It’s difficult to assess their batting averages since again, there are no proper controls for their experiments”

                This is true, but “difficulty” here is usually overstated. Yes, it’s difficult to have proper controls, but experimental investigation with a control isn’t always possible in the physical sciences, either. Strong experimental results are nice, because they’re clean (for the most part) and accurate (within the bounds of the measurement instruments).

                From a philosophy of science standpoint, you’re arguing like a straight-line positivist. Positivism has some advantages, but it also has a lot of limitations, too. If you’re limiting your interaction with scientific investigations to, “Things that can be executed in a double-blind study with a control and an experimental group”, you’re losing out on a lot of very useful forms of investigation.

                A lot of the public policy debates between various schools of thought are overblown, iff’n you ask me. “Does this work with the bounds of {A1, A2,… An}” is a far more important question than, “Is Method A or Method B better within the bounds of {A1, A2, … An} given the frameworks you must assume for School of Thought A and School of Thought B”.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                A positivist, Pat? Hah! I’m trying to use the locutions of my interlocutor[s].

                My central argument is that social science is to science what military music is to music.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                I’d disagree with this strongly except for the fact that many formal practitioners of social sciences aren’t scientists. They may have a degree in sociology, but their methods are hardly scientific (by any stretch of philosophy of science) and they’re still demonstrably part of the field as far as the field is concerned.

                That said, there’s plenty of social scientists (IME) who are vastly more scientific in their methods than some physical scientists I know.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                The limiting factor is the quality of the data, and the limits of the possibility of definitive data. You can’t measure human beings with a spectrometer.

                And even when the data are hard, there is the problem of interpretation.

                This does not mean we will never understand economics, but as we know, there’s a Krugman here and a Laffer there and Friedmans everywhere [Milton and Tom].

                Everybody’s an expert, eh?

                And you know what they say about experts.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

                “The limiting factor is the quality of the data, and the limits of the possibility of definitive data. You can’t measure human beings with a spectrometer.”

                Tom, this is a well established problem in the social sciences. The amount of work which a good social scientist will put in to properly frame their data is quite substantial.

                There are entire books on how to properly compose a survey instrument, for example, to correct for instrument bias. Scads of research has been done on *this topic, alone*.

                Amusingly (if you find blatant malfeasance to be amusing, anyway) a great number of politically-influenced think tanks and other institutes which use surveys or polls as empirical evidence completely disregard proper instrument creation.

                This extends to government entities, as well. I’ve seen plenty of survey instruments which are horribly designed from a social science standpoint, but it’s certainly the case that most people who work for the government aren’t well educated in proper instrumentation composition.

                This doesn’t mean that “creating a decent survey” is a wicked problem. It’s actually a fairly well-understood problem, I’d argue. It just means that there are a lot of well meaning (or otherwise) pseudoscientists out there who make survey instruments very, very badly.Report

              • Avatar Heidegger says:

                Or what John Tesh is to Bach. Okay, that is a bit harsh. The “hard” vs “soft” science debate has been going on for a long, long time. While you won’t run into social scientists roaming high crime neighborhoods in white lab coats and clipboards gathering information on gangs, ghetto linguistics, dysfunctional sibling rivalries, adolescent inclinations towards violent resolutions of neighborhood conflicts, etc., they have to be doing something very valuable and significant, don’t they? Otherwise, wouldn’t this discipline simply die off? And who would want to study something so completely worthless with absolutely zero value or merit?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                you won’t run into social scientists roaming high crime neighborhoods in white lab coats and clipboards gathering information on gangs,

                Oh, really?

                Of course social scientists aren’t doing these things wearing white lab coats because they actually have some comprehension of appropriate methodology and want to avoid the Hawthorne Effect.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                The Wire: Season 4. It always comes back to the Wire.Report

    • The other trouble with (3) is that it completely contradicts (1), with which it is a frequent travelling partner and which would otherwise have at least a nugget of truth. By that I mean that the claim made by (3) is itself a social-scientific claim in many ways, and indeed one that any given individual can easily refute by pointing to their own lived experience. In my case, that means pointing to the fact that quite often the courses and professors that I most enjoyed and valued were the courses and professors with whom I most vehemently disagreed.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        quite often the courses and professors that I most enjoyed and valued were the courses and professors with whom I most vehemently disagreed.

        Which meant you were, depending on the prof, either their dream student or their nightmare student!Report

        • Avatar Heidegger says:

          I’ve got to hand it to you, James—that was pretty good. Touche! I’m speaking of the “Gang Leader for a Day” link. I stand corrected. How about the rest of the comment? I was lending support to the idea that there must be something very significant and valuable people in the social sciences do otherwise this discipline would have washed away decades ago.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:


            I’m cynical enough to be dubious about the idea that in the absence of significant and valuable work a discipline would have washed away. There’s too much non-significant and non-valuable work in my own discipline, and the type who does that kind of work is still too much in demand, for me to be confident about that.

            I’d like to think it’s true. And it’s probably mostly true.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

              People still study astrology and crystal healing. Un-ironically. People still employ dowsers, in spite of the lack of any real evidence showing that it works. Homeopathic remedies make quite a bit of money.

              So I’m hardly inclined to think that the persistence of any field is related to its inherent correctness or value, unfortunately.

              I’m inclined to think that from an evolutionary standpoint, most social sciences are finally starting to adopt rigor rigorously 😉 In the history of science, most sciences start off very descriptive, then attempt to apply rigor to description to gain generalizability, and then finally start to move to predictability. This isn’t exactly cyclical, but there is periodicity to it.

              Once you’ve exhausted the predictive capabilities of your current framework or paradigm, you need to start describing a new one in order to expand the capabilities of the field. You lose confidence/precision to gain a broader field of coverage, which you then need to explore and refine to regain that same degree of precision you had before. Bonus: you then describe/predict a larger field of phenomena.

              Physics has gone through this four times, really. Ballistics, mechanics, relatively, quantum mechanics. They’re working hard on the fifth age 🙂

              Most social sciences are somewhere between the first and second age of the discipline, I’d say. At the current stage of development, there’s still lots of room for descriptive work that doesn’t have much generalizability to it, so even quite a bit of non-rigorous work can still be illuminating to a degree.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                People still study astrology and crystal healing. Un-ironically.

                But they’re at least not academic disciplines, right? So there’s some purchase in Heidegger’s argument; the academy may be said to weed out valueless fields.

                I say that only tentatively, though.Report

      • I don’t see a complete contradiction. I think (3) is false, but if it were true it would be a justification for (1), since the methodologies in question would be biased methodologies.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      (3) “The value of serious academic study is offset by the pervasive ideological biases of the modern university system.”

      3a: “Which is why I put more faith in think-tank employees”.Report

  3. While I would never suggest that academics know less than the average person about the really important issues, I would suggest that academics know less about certain aspects of those issues than the average person, even as they know more about the other aspects. An deep understanding of statistics and numbers and facts doesn’t tell you much about how those statistics and numbers and facts are actually experienced.

    And Jaybird’s rhetorical question gets to the point pretty well, also. No amount of study will make you more qualified to say what should and should not be an “important issue.” Also, in many situations, no amount of study will give you a sufficient idea of how those average Joes will actually respond to policy (both in the short term and especially in the long term) based on academics’ assumptions and how they will weigh the new set of competing incentives resulting therefrom.

    To reference a recent sitcom re-run I saw, there’s a big difference between an anthropologist’s understanding of a given tribe’s rain dance and the understanding of a member of the tribe itself.Report

  4. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I would suggest that academics know less about certain aspects of those issues than the average person…about how those statistics and numbers and facts are actually experienced.

    The problem is, the average person doesn’t understand how those things are actually experienced, either. People mostly don’t understand their own experiences in any generalizable way that makes it a good basis for making large-scale public policy. Just because they feel it strongly doesn’t mean they’ve made any real sense out of it.

    To be sure, I don’t mean those people should shut up and not participate, nor do I think they should simply always defer to the academic. I’m really referring specifically to the claim that “the more you study the less you know.”Report

    • I think in general the notion that “the more you study the less you know” is pretty self-defeating, but at the same time there’s a nugget of truth in that there really is such a thing as over-thinking a problem. I know this because I do it far too often.

      This, however, is something I’ve been meaning to post on for a few weeks, and have a half-written post on it right now:
      People mostly don’t understand their own experiences in any generalizable way that makes it a good basis for making large-scale public policy. Just because they feel it strongly doesn’t mean they’ve made any real sense out of it.

      On the one hand, I completely agree with this, and always have (although, let’s be clear that academics don’t really have the ability to generalize their knowledge as much as they think either – hence the calculation problem). On the other hand, one of the things I’ve come to realize in recent weeks is that usually those deploying the experience argument are more often than not taking a position opposing a policy change rather than advocating it (usually this equates to saying that they’re movement conservatives, but occasionally you’ll find movement liberals making the argument in opposition to a libertarian-minded proposal). They’re essentially telling academics that they’re quite satisfied with certain elements of the status quo and don’t think those elements are worth risking to solve what may or may not be a short-term problem and may or may not be a sufficiently important problem. Or, to put it more succinctly, they’re saying “I’m happy. Stop telling me that I’m not or that I shouldn’t be.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’ll make reference to my (meager) unix skills.

        When I first got started, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

        As time went on, and I studied, and got my hands dirty, and started getting a grasp of things, I began to realize things and I then knew what I didn’t know.

        Along side of that, I developed skills. We encountered problems and while I couldn’t necessarily verbalize the problem, I sat down and fixed it. I didn’t know what I knew.

        Still hoping to get to “I know what I know”, of course.Report

        • Perhaps OT, but this reminds me of one of my favorite bits from George Carlin (I think it was him at least, and I can’t remember if it was from one of his books or from his act), and forgive me if I mess it up:

          When you’re a teenager, you don’t know that you don’t know; when you’re in your 20s and 30s, you know you don’t know; when you’re in your 40s and 50s, you don’t know you know; and when you’re in your 60s and 70s, you know you know. Y’know?Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          Here’s another case study, Jaybird.

          When I first got started in UNIX, I didn’t know anything about UNIX. I did, however, know a lot about computers. So in many cases I did already know what I didn’t know.

          And, occasionally found to my surprise, that there were new things that I hadn’t previously considered problems that were not already known, they were *well* known.

          Benefits of not starting from scratch.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        1. There’s a good point I hadn’t thought about, that most of the “experience” folks are looking to preserve the status quo. I’m not sure that’s right, but it sounds intuitively likely to me.

        2. I’m comfortable with academics saying there are things wrong that the status quo people aren’t recognizing, when they can actually point to empirical things that are wrong. But I know that set of academics who are frustrated and angry that the proletariat aren’t as unhappy as Marx says they ought to be, and that set is a bit silly. As I used to tell grad school colleagues, it’s really hard for a person to feel their alienation from their labor when they’ve got a bass boat and a trailer to sleep in up at the lake.

        3. I think perhaps you misstate the calculation problem. It’s not about an inability to generalize our knowledge, as about the general impossibility of measuring individual subjective values. I think. This is something I want to write a chapter about some day for my prospective political economy book, but I don’t yet know how to state it very clearly.Report

        • Re: 1. It’s taken me four years of arguing on the internet to make that realization. It also helped to recall studies showing that conservatives (or was it Republicans?) were generally more happy than liberals.

          2. I’m comfortable with academics saying there are things wrong that the status quo people aren’t recognizing, when they can actually point to empirical things that are wrong. I think this depends on the sense in which you intend to use the word “wrong.” If you mean it in its purely empirical sense, then I agree with you completely – in other words, if you are referring to academics simply saying “the popular assumption that problem A is caused by B is wrong, and problem A is in fact caused by C” or saying “problem X would be solved by implementing policy Y.” But if you mean it in the more normative sense of saying that “X is a problem and the fact that it is a problem is supported by empirical evidence Z,” then I must disagree.

          3. That’s probably my understanding of the calculation problem as well, or at least I think it is. I guess my point is just that in the public policy realm, any discussion inherently is based on the academic’s individual subjective values, whether or not the academic thinks otherwise. Hence the whole Kip’s Law thing that I was so lambasted for in certain quarters a few weeks back – every advocate of central planning always envisions himself as the central planner. That’s true not only of “statists” but also of anyone who advocates for a particular set of policies. I remember a discussion I had a few months back when I returned for my college reunion with one of my all-time favorite professors, in which he argued for an objective definition of “justice” based on “what is fair,” without being able to acknowledge that “what is fair” is an entirely subjective value. He’s hardly unique in making that kind of error, it’s just that on most policy questions, an academic seemingly doesn’t often need to readily acknowledge subjective assumptions underlying their argument (whether or not they would themselves characterize those assumptions as subjective).Report

    • Avatar Scott says:

      Ah yes, those plebeians, how dare they presume to understand their own experiences. That is why they need, nay, must have an academic to speak to them slowly while using small words to explain it to them. By the way, is there any specific person you can point to who is making the “the more you study the less you know” argument. Or is that simply what you think they are saying?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Scott, if you don’t think small words are necessary, you’ve obviously never taught college freshmen.

        Yes, there are some specific people I could point to. I won’t though. But I’ve encountered it in numerous blogs on the web.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        “Ah yes, those plebeians, how dare they presume to understand their own experiences.”

        That’s not precisely what he said. There are “plebeians” who understand their own experiences. Just like there are “academics” who *don’t* understand their *own* experiences.

        For the record, it’s my opinion that very few humans understand their own experiences in any depth. Most people aren’t introspective. Awareness of your own condition and how it affects your relationships with the world is a very infrequent skill set.

        This is independent of intelligence or academic training. I know plenty of really smart people who understand very complex things and don’t realize that they can’t hold a relationship down because they choose the same broken dynamic with their potential partners. They aren’t introspective. They don’t understand their own experience. This makes it very difficult for them to understand other people’s couple dynamics, as well.

        Heck, even really introspective people have blind spots, or they have areas where they abandon rationality *even when they understand* that it will make them “better” in the long run. There are M.D.’s who still smoke, for crying out loud.Report

  5. Avatar MFarmer says:

    Another point to be made is that although the “average Joe” might not be all that informed, what might be argued is that a non-academic, an autodidact, can know as much or more about the issues, and sometimes is able to look at the issues more clearly, creatively, without the obstacle of an academic’s bias, depending on what knowledge was left out of the academic’s education in favor of pet theories put forth by the professor — unless the academic has furthered his or her education to cover what was left out, the academic might be at a disadvantage to the auto-didact who learned from many different views while looking at a particular issue before settling on what made the most sense. I find it hard to believe that anyone is arguing that ignorant people have a better grasp on the issues than college graduates who have gained knowledge of the issues.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I’ve met many autodidacts, both F2F and on the intertoobz. I’ve rarely met one who was very familiar with multiple viewpoints. Almost inevitably, they tend to be more limited and biased than the academics, who most often introduce students to multiple sides of issues. I’ve had a few of these autodidacts as students. Inevitably they know some facts about X event that I don’t, so they often smugly assume their superiority, but it also inevitably turns out that they can’t really make sense of the event in the larger context, because they’ve been so narrowly focused on it, and that they can’t really grasp multiple interpretations of it, because their reading is so selective (they tend to reject everything that doesn’t fit their preferred approach–simply a natural human tendency, which usually people need to be trained out of). They’re worth talking to if you want to know more factual information about, say, the Civil War or the rise of Nazi Germany. And more facts are always useful for filling in background knowledge. But an accumulation of facts does not by itself give rise to real understanding.

      The stereotypical extremely biased professor is not a non-existent creature (I’ve known a few), but it is much rarer than people outside the academy think. I remember a con law prof I had who was so biased, and so hated the approach that I (one of her grad students took) that she tried to sabotage me. I thought then, and still do, that she was despicable. But I was a graduate assistant for her, and her presentation of con law to the undergrads was scrupulously fair.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        This has not been my experience with auotdidacts. The ones I’ve known have been highly motivated to make up for lack of a formal education, and this internal motivation leads them to develop a mindset that learning is a lifelong project. The ones I’ve known have been anything but limited to a certain viewpoint. Some knowledge is best gained in a formal environment, like science and math, but political philosophy, economics and social issues are open to anyone motivated to learn.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer says:

          In a previous career in which I dealt with at least a couple of thousand individuals on a ver personal level from all walks of life, from the head of the Psychiatric Dept of a major university, to a multi-milliioniare autodidact from Brazil, I’ve found the motivation to learn a better indicator of comprehensive knowledge than whether one gained that knowledge formally or informally.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            “I’ve found the motivation to learn a better indicator of comprehensive knowledge”

            Agreed. And while I’d point out that there is a positive correlation between “length of formal education” and “motivation to learn”, there is by no means an isomorphic map from one to the other. There’s also the domain problem, which I agree *is* exacerbated by our formal education method – lots of people who are academics channel all that motivation to learn into a very small space and thus their comprehensive knowledge is entirely limited to that small space.

            I know a few autodidacts, and I find that they generally glom at least socially together with formally trained academics, because they get knowledge from there.

            The nature of autodidacts makes anyone’s experience with them very likely to be anecdotal, though. I doubt my experience, yours, or James’s is any more an accurate picture of autodidacts generally. Hey, we just came up with an academic study proposal.Report

  6. Avatar gregiank says:

    What’s missing is the distinction between what questions are answerable by scientific methods and what aren’t. Many political issues are moral or personal issues: those are not about science or facts, they are simply what people care about. But some issues, and some moral issues, have factual components that can be addresses through scientific methods. You can think all to much or to little money goes to finding a cure for AIDS, those are personal moral judgments. But the biological causes and nature of the disease is a scientific matter.

    And please, are any of the people arguing for the Avg. Joe’s judgement not just saying their biases aren’t better then those damn elites. If you are against biased people then you have to check your own biases first instead of just cheering louder for your own.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    My fundamental problem is not that I disagree that there are or can be such a thing as expertise (or whether expertise is more likely to be found hither or yon) but because we aren’t good yet at realizing whether we’ve made fundamental errors with regards to our premises. I mean, so fundamental that we can’t even tell that we’re making them.

    Let’s talk for a moment about irradiating babies.


    Back at the turn of the (other) century, society had progressed to the point where people could start wondering about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. So they’d take the suddenly dead infants, give them an autopsy, and saw that their thymus glands were FREAKING HUGE. I mean, you’d compare the thymus glands in these dead babies to the textbooks and… well, damn.

    The theory was that these freaking huge thymus glands were constricting the airflow for these babies. The solution? Radiation. If we could make sure that the thymus glands were the size we knew they ought to be, the babies would stop being self-strangled in the crib.

    Which brings us to medical school history. Way back when, medical schools needed cadavers… and they needed a lot more than the market was able to provide. So, there were folks whose job it was to dig up the freshly dead and spirit them off to a local medical school. The problem with doing this, however, is that the ignorant rubes would tend to light torches and burn medical schools down when they found out that their fathers or mothers or wives or husbands or brothers or sisters or children were being dissected.

    The government got involved and said “hey, we’ll have a compromise. If you are in the poorhouse when you die, we’ll donate your body to science.” Everybody wins, right?

    Except that the poor aren’t like normal people. They’re a lot more stressed out due to poor nutrition and whatnot and this results in such things as… tah-dah! Smaller thymus glands in infants.

    Who were then used as the models for what was “normal” in medical textbooks for more than a century.

    Which meant that the experts taught by other experts using textbooks written by experts were all wrong.

    And the tone of this very post brings to my mind the vision of a Doctor yelling at a mother in the nineteen aughts that if she cared about her baby she’d defer to the experts and have it irradiated.

    Of course we now know that we’re not like our ancestors. We really *ARE* experts.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Radiolab, show, how to cure what ails you, listen, etc.


    • Avatar gregiank says:

      So you have established that “experts” can screw up. Not exactly hard work. I await the proper Avg. Joe or libertarian or whatever explanation for curing TB, or predicting hurricanes or the mechanics behind building a better solar cell. Nobody should just be blindly believed but some questions actually require some level of expertise.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        TB has not yet been cured.

        Smallpox/Edward Jenner would have been a better example.

        I fully support expertise, Greg. I wholeheartedly oppose *ORTHODOXY*.

        The problem is not experts… it’s that expertise inevitably leads to orthodoxy. Eventually, of course, the scientific method will overcome orthodoxy even among the experts… but the orthodoxy certainly appears to come part and parcel with the expertise.

        As I’ve said before (to you! a hundred times!), I’d rather put up with the excesses of Youth Earth Creationism to the excesses of Lysenkoism.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Now that I think about it, smallpox doesn’t have a “cure” either.

          It has prevention methods… but no cure. Same for polio, I believe. Hrm.Report

        • Avatar gregiank says:

          I’m opposed to orthodoxy also. I just see the tendency of some people to denigrate and ignore those damn elite experts is a way of maintaining orthodoxy. People are usually just fine with experts who agree with them.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The problem is that real expertise is much more like the right side of this comic:


            But people assume that real expertise is more like the left side.

            And it doesn’t help when the experts in question make the exact same assumptions.Report

            • Avatar gregiank says:

              My experience is that most “experts” are the people trying to note all the qualifiers and limits to whatever they have done. Its the ideologues who simplify. Most scientists are the ones on the right panels which is why they don’t get nearly as much press and money as the people who make tv shows about science. there is a reason sciency types tend to love xkcd.

              There is not short cut around thinking through something.Report

              • Avatar Scott says:

                The shortcuts the experts usually take is telling the rest of us that we should shut up, believe them and do whatever they tell us to do, simply they are experts and we are not.Report

              • Avatar gregiank says:

                If thats your experience then that sucks for you. I’ve rarely seen that.Report

              • Avatar Scott says:

                Really, just look at some of the scientific proponents of global warming as a perfect example.Report

              • Avatar gregiank says:

                The scientists who study global warming are almost without exception avoiding most public discussion unless it is strictly about the science they do. Even then most of them use all the typical qualifiers that scientists do. However the science of global warming is fairly strong. If people don’t like that then the answer is more and better science instead of an endless ream of personal attacks and conspiracy theories.Report

              • Avatar Scott says:


                What about the the e-mails taken from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit that showed the lengths supposedly honest scientists were going to in order to stifle open debate about the science? Or the silence after parts of one of the UN’s own reports was shown to be with without basis in “glacier gate?”Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:


                There are numerous science bloggers who have written up descriptions of “ClimateGate”.

                Without going into exhaustive detail, I’ll simply note that if you hacked into my email archive from the last 15 years and took a minimal amount of time to pick and choose what you wanted to publish, you could put a tarball up on wikileaks that would make me look very much like a domestic terrorist.

                Hell, I could very well be on the NSA’s watch list just because of all the crap I wrote about the warrantless wiretapping program.

                Suffice to say, if the multiple investigations of CRU that have come back with “no malfeasance” don’t convince you that the whole thing was much ado about nothing, it’s unlikely that you’ll believe any assessment that doesn’t confirm your belief that it’s all made up.

                The IPCC document you refer to had the one error, yes. You’ll note, that one error had nothing to do with the rest of the report, which is (by the way) based upon conservative projections.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The second you move from “this is hard, we have to explain it again” to “And they wonder why we elitist academic snobs act condescendingly?”, I suggest that we’ve moved from being more like Ignaz Semmelweis to being more like the obstetricians who had him fired for his rules about washing up between visits to the autopsy room and the birthing room.Report

              • Avatar 62across says:

                I’ve always thought “Cadaverous Particles” would be a good name for a rock band.Report

    • Avatar Fish says:

      I feel like I have to point out that it was never the “ignorant rubes” who discovered and corrected this error, but the “ancestors” of those self-same “experts.” It’s a complete aside to your point, but it’s a bugaboo of mine whenever science gets something wrong folks are quick to point out the error, all the while ignoring the fact that it was science which discovered and corrected it’s own error. (“Too” “much” “quote” “usage!”)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Science *DID* correct its own error. Science is *VERY* *GOOD* at correcting its own errors.


        When we move from “here’s what we’ve done, here’s why, here’s the margin of error, here’s where it was peer reviewed” to “Jesus Christ, just listen to us, okay?”, we’ve moved from “science” to “being (slightly more) educated rubes”.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          It also probably doesn’t need to be restated that we haven’t exactly hammered out the size of the overlap between “science” and “the really important issues of politics” in the Venn diagram.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          That’s a really good point, Jaybird. It doesn’t help much that scientific reporting in the non-scientific literature is REALLY BAD.


          I see this all the time (on both the left and the right); people take a study that has very, very precise findings and very well spelled out limitations and they generalize the findings and downplay or ignore the limitations.

          But, generally, this isn’t a case of *scientists* saying, “Jesus Christ, just listen to us, okay?”

          This is a case of a politico using a pile of newspaper clippings handed to him by an aide as a proxy collection of scientific data to say, “Jesus Christ, just listen to me, because SCIENCE!”… when in fact, you’re looking at a childhood game of telephone where the original science has been mangled three times, once by the science reporter, once by the aide, and once by the politico.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            And that’s true too.

            Look at yesterday’s announcement over the arsenic-utilizing life.

            As it turns out, the takeaway was more of a “life is really, really, really stubborn” rather than a “we’ve found alien life”.

            But the latter is much sexier than the former… but that sort of takes away from exactly how sexy “life is really, really, really stubborn” actually is.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    And I do think that this post deserves a link to


    Where, among other things, I repeat myself.Report

  9. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I figured this off-the-cuff post would spark some comment. I’ve enjoyed responding, and wish I had time for more. Unfortunately, my schedule through the rest of today and this weekend probably won’t allow me to. Please don’t think I’m cutting and running. I have to wash dishes, do laundry, and do some house cleaning before spending tomorrow standing on a pool deck officiating a YMCA swim meet then going to a bar to watch the Oregon-Oregon State game, and then Sunday it’s Christmas decorating with the kids. Which is all to say, I shake my head in wonder when someone suggests that they live in a “real world” that I, as an academic, don’t inhabit.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Do you inhabit a world that the plebes don’t?Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      I don’t think most people think an academic lives in a different world, but that the world outside the univerisity is a university of a different kind, and not necessarily inferior to the formal learning process. When someone is dismissed because they don’t have a degree, they naturally answer back that knowledge and learning are far too important to leave solely to teachers and universities. Don’t worry, I doubt many people think you are a special kind of creature.Report

  10. Avatar James Hanley says:

    A quick all-in-one response before I move on to helping my kids decorate the Christmas tree.

    In general, I (apparently mistakenly) thought it was clear I wasn’t saying people had to have an academic degree to engage in public debate. My standard for being an appropriate participant in public debate is actually pretty low–if you’re interested and pay some real attention to a subject, I think it’s fine for you to participate in the debate. I’m just pointing out that some people are wont to say, “well, that’s what academics believe, but “real” people (e.g., lazy ass people who’ve never paid any serious attention at all to the issue, other than to engage in mutual reinforcement of beliefs with like-minded people who also have not studied the issue) know better.” Sometimes even relatively intelligent people do that. For instance, there’s one non-stupid person I’ve often argued with on-line who simply rejects social science knowledge as not being truly scientific, therefore not reliable. Fine, that’s a common claim that has some element of validity. But in its place he claims superiority his own ideologically biased beliefs, which he has never bothered to question in a rigorous manner. That person does, in fact, implicitly argue that his ignorance is the path to knowledge, at least in certain subject areas.

    Now, a few specific responses.

    Pat Cahalan: “The ideal academic who putters around in their office and has no real life experience is a made up character.
    Not entirely, but certainly far rarer than the public perception. And some of those putterers are in fields where putterering is the only real method, like philosophy. And many of those putterers never actually engage in the public debate because they’re too busy puttering. And other putterers who never go outside the walls of academe are doing important laboratory experiments (particularly in psych, poli sci, and econ), so that they’re contributing to real knowledge that has important implications for policy debate, but which few people know about. So while I think Pat overstates the matter empirically in his first post, I wholly support the point he’s making, as clarified it in his succeeding posts. And I wish him well in his graduate studies. And I wish I’d known his dad.

    Scott: “Why not name the specific people? Are you afraid that you will hurt their feelings?
    Because it’s really none of your business. I’m making a substantive point, and you just want the voyeuristic thrill of knowing who I dislike.

    Pat C. again: “it’s my opinion that very few humans understand their own experiences in any depth. Most people aren’t introspective. Awareness of your own condition and how it affects your relationships with the world is a very infrequent skill set.
    Thank you. A better statement of the case than I made.

    Re: Jaybird’s comment about learning unix: I probably gave the impression that I think formal academic training is necessary. To clarify, I have no doubt that people can become not just qualified enough to participate intelligently in the public debate (for which I really don’t have that high a standard) but qualified enough to teach me new things, even without academic training. But it’s the rare person who does so on a truly self-educated basis. Almost all of us either need the formal academic training or the hands-on experiential learning. Most of those who think they’re adequately self-educated are not actually among that set of rare people who are. Contra the mythology of professors who push a narrow-minded ideology, one of the advantages of formal academic training is that it normally introduces students to a wider set of views, whereas most self-educated people don’t take the trouble to introduce themselves thoroughly to a diverse set of arguments.

    MFarmer: “I’ve found the motivation to learn a better indicator of comprehensive knowledge than whether one gained that knowledge formally or informally.” Yes, agreed, although I argue there are advantages to the formal method, as I suggested in the preceding paragraph. The self-educated person may not be tipped off to some valuable lit in the field they’re studying, whereas contact with multiple profs in that field, in an academic setting, would bring it to their attention. The self-educated person who makes the effort to talk to other educated people and gets tipped off to, and explores, the diversity of that lit, is a person worthy of great admiration. But the person who reads every pamphlet put out by Lew Rockwell on the gold standard–that’s the self-“educated” person for whom I have no respect. At best only pity, and more normally deep antipathy.

    MFarmer: “Many political issues are moral or personal issues: those are not about science or facts”Yes, but every person who argues a moral position in politics uses empirical claims to back them up (allowing gays to marry will do X, Y, and Z; abortion causes Q, R, and S). Empirical research can confirm or rebut those empirical claims. See the Federal Circuit Court decision on Prop 8 as exhibit A.

    Scott: “The shortcuts the experts usually take is telling the rest of us that we should shut up, believe them and do whatever they tell us to do, simply they are experts and we are not.”
    That’s a bullshit stereotype. I challenge you to prove that this is what they “usually” do, instead of “sometimes.” But maybe you should at least seriously consider believing what they tell you, when it’s the result of actual research you lack the skills or interest in conducting yourself.

    Jaybird: “Do you inhabit a world that the plebes don’t?”
    I don’t think any two people inhabit the same world. Even my wife and I don’t. The real question is how much our world overlaps with other people. For my own part, most of my close academic friends–through grad school and now into my professional life–are those who have lived, or still do live, a considerable life outside the academy. I rarely get along well with those who went straight from high school to college, straight through college, straight into grad school, and then straight into teaching. Most of my friends took detours along the way, whether it was several years working temp jobs, military, a few years in factory work, or in one case, several years as an executive in international shipping. For my part, I dropped out of college and worked as a bike messenger and cab driver before completing college and going to grad school. My neighbor two doors down is a chopper-riding factory worker, and my family and I often go to their house for cookouts with all his chopper-riding friends. I’m not sure there’s a college degree, or cumulatively the equivalent of one, among them. It’s a little hard for me to communicate with them, to be sure, but they’re good folks. And as a good (I like to think) social scientist, I listen to them to grasp what their concerns, interests, and beliefs are. But mostly I go for the brats, beer, and laughter. So what world do I inhabit? A bit of a complex one, like most people, that intersects different people’s lives in various ways. And I learn from those intersections–but what I learn is what people think, believe, and are concerned about. I don’t learn from them what is in fact true and accurate facts about the world.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke says:

      That person does, in fact, implicitly argue that his ignorance is the path to knowledge, at least in certain subject areas.

      No, I don’t. I’m no advocate of “ignorism.”

      My objection to the social sciences is that there are too many variables in the human condition to isolate them discretely enough to run a proper “controlled experiment.” At best, we get an educated guess.

      Which is fine, as an educated guess is better than an uneducated one. But social science claims [or is being yielded] an authority it can never have: a) it cannot achieve the rigor and methodology of the physical sciences and b) in the end, it cannot tell us what is good in any moral or philosophical sense, only what is useful. [The useful may indeed be good, but “useful” and “good” are not synonymous.]

      Oh, and c) there is a question of bias on behalf of social scientists, as well as the risk of one’s career if one comes up with something conflicting with the academy’s prevailing sentiments. A PhD does not make someone a more honest man, nor a more courageous one.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        Yes, yes! Especially when half of the information collected may or may not having anything to do with what one is trying to predict, control, or model.Report

  11. Avatar James Hanley says:

    OK, I will name one person. Victoria Jackson.Report

  12. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    James, you never fail to disappoint. How disingenuous. Of course you were talking about me. I’m in your head, because you have no answers to my arguments.

    Cutting off my ability to reply admits the bankruptcy of your argument. And of course, you stated my position dishonestly. All’s well with the world.Report

  13. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Pat, since Mr. Hanley is monkeying with the reply function [an admission he’s losing yet again], I can’t properly reply to your last. I have no doubt that the best social scientists make heroic efforts to achieve the cleanest data possible, and good on them.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Mr. van Dyke, I certainly have not “monkeyed” with the reply function or cut off your ability to reply. I do not control the level of nested replies available on this blog (that is controlled by the blog administrator). I think that you would make such an accusation with no evidence reveals rather more about your character—and your previously noted tendency to avoid the effort of finding evidence–than it does about mine.

      And I see that once again you have simply claimed victory, but without being able to specify the victory conditions–i.e., you claim victory over my argument without actual specifying an actual rebuttal of it. I never tire of pointing out this persistent dishonesty on your part.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Mr. Hanley, after your similarly shoddy treatment of Michael Heath, I can surely expect no better.

        And no, I don’t claim victory, nor do I call you a hack or any of the ungenteel pejoratives you hurled my way. [And Mr. Heath’s as well.]

        Should you engage any of my remarks substantively, I shall reply. Mr. Cahalan has proved to be suitable company and a principled interlocutor on this subject, so I see no need to continue with you.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Mr. van Dyke, pointing out that your example (the Tupy essay) does not support your hypothesis (that “our “best guess” via social science has made things in Africa worse”), so that you in fact have no support for your hypothesis, and that in fact the evidence rebuts your hypothesis…well, out here in the real world we call that a substantive response. If the rebuttal of a hypothesis and the purported evidence for it isn’t a substantive response, it would be hard to figure out just what a substantive response would be.

          And while you are making a pretense that you not not engage in ungenteel behavior, I await your acknowledgment that you made a false accusation about my “monkeying” with the reply function to prevent you from replying.Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke says:

            Mr. Hanley, you treated Michael Heath shabbily. Michael kindly left you an escape route, so as to not corner you like a rat, yet you counterattacked instead. And this is someone you tend to agree with.

            I didn’t insult you or question your character.

            If I play Charlie Brown [again!] and you play Lucy with the football [again!], I suppose I’ll show my foolishness by giving you what you want. You have ignored a dozen of my strongest arguments and focused only on 1 1/2 where you might have some traction.

            I was pleased, or at least gratified, that you admitted your disingenuousness in writing about me without naming me.

            Of course I recognized your misrepresentation of my position, your caricature of me! I’m in your head, dude. As I should be, because your approach to knowledge, especially wisdom about the human things, is under grave threat.

            I’m glad you’re questioning it. Your obsession with me is proof that you are. You write to me, for me and about me. and no, I don’t flatter myself. The proof is here on this thread. But I’m glad I’ve got so under your skin. The question we’re kicking, in between the attacks, is the question of our age, and that Jaybird fellow quite got to the point in the first comments on this 100-comment thread.

            So, James, shall I give you what you want, an admission of being wrong about anything, so you can use it against me, that it’s “just another example” of my blahblahblah [bad]? Shall we play Charlie Brown and the football, as we have so many times before? What of our Mr. Heath, who showed you mercy when you asked for none and indeed gave none?

            I really have no idea. Our history has been when I give an inch and you take a mile. If I give a mile, you still take another inch.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              I didn’t insult you or question your character.

              Accusing me of tampering with the reply function so that you couldn’t reply certainly is questioning my character.

              You have ignored a dozen of my strongest arguments and focused only on 1 1/2 where you might have some traction.

              You’ve made a dozen distinct arguments on this topic here? List them and I’ll give $50 to your favorite charity, so long as you can get just one other principal Gentleman to concur that there are a dozen arguments.

              I was pleased, or at least gratified, that you admitted your disingenuousness in writing about me without naming me.

              I’m not sure what to say about a person who can’t distinguish between courtesy and disingenuousness. I chose not to name anyone publicly because I didn’t think it would be appropriate to do so (please see my reply to Scott on the issue of naming names). You chose to out yourself.

              So, James, shall I give you what you want, an admission of being wrong about anything, so you can use it against me, that it’s “just another example” of my blahblahblah [bad]?

              By saying “I’ll admit to anything,” without being specific, you actually admit to nothing. It’s neither a serious nor an honest statement. You falsely accused me of tampering with the reply function to hinder you. Do you have the integrity to specifically withdraw the accusation?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                So, no specific withdrawal of the accusation, or even acknowledgment that you made a false accusation? Deut. 19:19, brother.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Mr. Hanley, I wish more folks hereabouts were following this exchange. It is the question of our age; it is the question of the ages.

                Your unjust and unmerciful treatment of Michael Heath screams injustice and betrayed the mercy he showed you, letting you out of the corner you’d trapped yourownself into.

                Odd, Mr. Hanley, how loudly the unjust scream for justice.

                And how the unmerciful take for granted the mercy they are shown, and still demand their pound of flesh.

                You know your Shakespeare, yes?

                Perhaps you do know it, but the lesson is still clearly lost on you. Even when you are given a mile of mercy, you still demand your inch of justice.

                This is the human equation. And so, my answer remains the same. Sure.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Indeed. Let loose the dyspeptic beavers of blogospheric indignation.Report

              • Avatar Anna says:

                Mr. Van Dyke

                Michael Heath can stand up for himself without your help. I didn’t see you coming to his defense on the debate and Hanley was not the only one involved in that debate either. Mr. Hanley’s post stated, the discussion would be vicious, but that he has the utmost respect for Michael. Nice try acting as champion for someone who didn’t ask for it, and doesn’t need it to avoid the fact that you wrongfully accused Hanley of comment tampering and aren’t man enough to own up to it. Man up dude, you can’t use someone else’s debate to defend your actions.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Mr. van Dyke,

                I’ve noticed your increasingly desperate appeals to Michael Heath. He is, of course, capable of speaking for himself, and does so quite eloquently. Perhaps if you continue to beg for his attention he might come to your defense.

                But here you simply are trying to deflect attention away from your own action, hoping that others will follow your pointing finger and forget to notice your inability to admit your own error.

                You made a false accusation, You are unable to be honest about it.
                Please understand, I’m not pressing this because I’m offended or hurt. I’m pushing this because I take grim amusement in seeing just how far you’ll go to avoid admitting error.Report

  14. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The problem isn’t even that we’re discussing whether education will result in a better grasp of statistics or the unintuitive parts of the hard sciences.

    We’re talking about, and I’m quoting here, “the really important issues of politics”.

    When it comes to most of the interesting ways to unpack that, I quite usually find myself smack dab in the middle of “matters of taste” rather than “matters of morality” (the uninteresting ways to unpack that focus on stuff like rape, murder, and other things that are brought up in response to people saying “you can’t legislate morality”).

    I don’t see how “the really important issues of politics” are better sussed out by this form of being told what to do compared to that one. I have a number of ancestors who couldn’t so much as read (Dear Momma, I’m told, was someone that I would be likely to consider a Holy Person (for lack of a better term) and she couldn’t read the Bible she loved so much). I have a number of acquaintances in the academy whose most interesting part of their thought is how much in lockstep it is with their peers.

    I don’t see how an education necessarily improves one’s ability to suss out what the really important issues of politics are LET ALONE which side one ought to be on when we finally hammer them out.

    The Academy seems to be no better than the Church at these things. No better than Washington. No better than us here flailing about on a blog.Report

  15. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Regarding the distinction between science and social science. I ran into my biologist friend in the grocery tonight. In a discussion about the different types of lab requirements in chemistry and biology (we have an upcoming renovation of our science building that has him worried), he commented, “biology is really different than chemistry, much more diverse–in fact we’re so diverse that some of what we do isn’t really even science; we’re a lot like you political scientists.” OK, he threw in that last line in part to appease me, but he does in fact recognize that the more scientific aspects of the social sciences are, at a minimum, comparable, to parts of the biological sciences, and that the more rigorous social science work is more rigorous than the less rigorous biological science work.

    That’s part of the reason I crack up when people make the “social sciences aren’t sciences” claim. All they’re really revealing is their ignorance of the diversity of approaches within the natural sciences.

    I even go so far as to argue that the social sciences, done right, are part of the field of biology, broadly speaking, because our subject is a biological species called homo sapiens. (And my criticism of sociology, generally speaking, is that its subject matter, “society,” is a mythical construct.)Report