As readers of this blog will know, we regularly listen to many of the excellent radio programs on the BBC. There was recently an episode of a Radio 4 program called Analysis about the state of professional economics in the current state of the economies.
The point was to ask why the self-characterized "dismal science" of economics so dismally lived down to its reputation in failing to predict the current awful state of things. It would take a rather bold economist not to be at least a bit apologetic, and some actually are that unrepentent, justifying models as at least putting constraints on our understanding of the world, and being adjustable so as to be better next time (though without evidence that they can be better).
But that is pretty lame, to say the least, and some economists are openly nearly honest, saying that macroeconomic models (about how things work on the large scale, rather than at your local 7-Eleven) are essentially worthless. We say 'nearly' honest, because perhaps the most honest thing to say is that economics departments ought to be shut down and the resources diverted to something useful (one could say similar things about much of what happens in 'research' universities these days).
In addition to economic theory being essentially useless in making predictions, and hence guiding actions, theories tend to come around episodically. That's why there is a lot of Ode to Keynes these days. But when ideas cycle like this, it's either because we are ignorant (but then why are we so assertive about our wisdom and theories?), or we are ig-nor'-ant: we ignore the past and its lessons.
Robert Proctor, an historian at Stanford, and, sadly, late of Penn State, calls culturally-induced ignorance agnotology, although he is particularly interested in the perpetuation of knowingly inaccurate or false information for some purpose. Here, we're less interested in conspiracy theory than in why false or misleading theories are repeatedly perpetuated, in spite of their often well-recognized limitations.
Ig-nor'-ance and its consequences (or not)
Really, those who perpetrated the false theories that led to policy that led to disaster should be shunned, ostracized, and ignored. Instead, the head perps, like Alan Greenspan, will still be published, still get job offers at prestigious think tanks or Ivy League universities (at high salaries and teaching very little), will still get grants, and will get even larger fees for giving rubber-chicken dinner talks.
This is like the well-known phenomenon in sports whereby a head coach whose team regularly loses and so is fired, is quickly hired as the coach of another team, rather than left to go be a health-insurance salesman. Of course sports doesn't do much damage, except to the bones of football players, but economists have done huge damage to people (but generally not, surprise-surprise! to themselves) who lose jobs, houses, and normal lives as a result of culpably, knowingly false theories.
Ignor'ance makes ignorance a matter of policy
Ignor'ance is quite common and we can think of several anthropological explanations for it. You can't make a career in an institutionalized society like ours by echoing your masters (that was what academics did for centuries--being experts on the Bible, Aristotle, and so on--until the research focus of universities began to bloom). You have to make a name for yourself, to find something new, or to show that you're smarter than your forbears were. And because we need to earn a living, we can't agree to quit or shut down our paper-publishing factories just because we don't know as much as we need to think we do (to pamper our egos) or claim (to get grants and have secure jobs).
Ignor'ance makes ignorance a matter of policy, if students or junior faculty do not know or respect the history of their fields. It becomes a willful way to, in a sense, keep getting credit for old ideas dressed in new technical clothes. This is the case in a sense in economics, where the new clothes are the nearly instantaneous trading speeds, and vastly speedier computers that allow models to be ever more mathematical and automated, but without titering them to the real world.
Ignor'ance and biology
There are parallels in all this to the subject matter of this blog. One can go back to Darwin and earlier to see many of our current ideas in genetics or biology stated, sometimes only in rudiment, but sometimes clearly. The fact that we know much more now than they did then ameliorates this a bit, but not entirely. We engage in ignor'ance as well as ignorance in many ways when we persist in dogmatic views of evolution or genetic determinism. Often a theory drifts out of sight, and then is ignor'antly rediscovered and touted as if there was new data that made it more plausible. Sometimes there is, indeed, and that's progress!
But often the data are different but don't change things in any serious way. Analysis of human variation (and the concept of 'race', whatever euphemism is used for it), aspects of arguments about natural selection and speciation, and so on are examples. Genetics tells us nothing today that can justify human geneticists (with or without any proper understanding of anthropology) making pronouncements about human races--but they do, often based on new and exotic molecular or statistical data. But these statements are virtually identical to what was said 100 years ago, and 50 years before that in Darwin's time, and in earlier iterations. Other biological parallels include the nature/nurture gene/environment pendulum, views about the nature of speciation, the importance of selection vs mutation in adaptive evolution, and many more.
We lose touch with the valuable things in our past when professionalism in its varied manifestations leads us to engage in ignor'ance. This happens for various reasons, not least being our love affair with technology that leads students to disregard things from the past, and the lack of time or attention given to courses that include the history of our discipline. This isn't to romanticize the past or just grumble about the present. We have to make our careers, of course, but we waste resources and even those valued careers in a sense, if we don't teach, learn, or remember our past--especially when we have every way and reason to know better.
Not learning from non-progress
If we haven't progressed in understanding in 100 years, that is a sign of weakness of our science and the complexity of the world we're tying to understand. It is a problem only when we don't come clean to the public, to funders, to students, and most of all to ourselves about our limitations. Like well-done negative experimental results, non-progress is a kind of very useful knowledge: that our current approaches are not cogent or sufficient relative to the problem at hand.
An obvious part of the solution is to slow down the train and make the reward system reward conceptual novelty, not just technical production (of which, of course, there is an amazing and potentially amazingly valuable amount). Instead, our industrialized 'productivity'-driven culture has spread into science. but if the problem is hard, let's work on it humbly, rather than dismissing a new idea and recycling an older one, etc. Let's rethink our conceptual approaches, not just gear-up for more intense technological data gathering, computer programming, and the like.
A remarkable statement!
The way we are embedded in our culture is illustrated by another remarkable statement made in the BBC program about economic theory. An economic historian said correctly that the mathematizing of economics made things more structured than the real world is, and ignored the emotional or other aspects of real, local human actions.
He is an advocate for what one might call a more subjective or sociological view of economics. Rather than throw out the formal models, he said professors from the social sciences and economic 'theorists' ought to get together and unite their views. The resulting mix would be less rigidly mathematical, and 'less scientific but closer to the truth.'
This is nearly an exact quote and is a remarkable reflection of the iron cage of culture. Why is this? Because it shows the deep level to which our culture--our worldview itself--has decided that if something is rigidly mathematical (or molecular in the case of biology and genetics) it is 'science', but if it's not like that but is closer to the truth of the real world, it isn't science!
We hate to say it, but this shows the kind of thing that post-modernists, the inveterate opponents of much of our culture's obsession with science and technology, would point out as the deeply cultural matrix of all that is done. Because if something is closer to the truth that by definition should be the most 'scientific'. The statement shows, as did others on the program, the way that academicians in essence protect their territory without even realizing that's what they're doing.
Our particular concerns are genetics and evolution, but society and other sciences also face many problems with similar characteristics: in today's parlance, they are 'complex'--they involve many contributing factors and many or most may be individually very minor.
That we haven't adequately understood complexity is not a fault of ours, since the problems are tough ones. But it is a fault if we refuse to accept what we already know, and continue to do the same thing again and again (as Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to be different).
We can be excused for our manifest ignorance, but not for our ignor'ance.
-Ken and Anne