Posted by: Chris | November 25, 2012

Razib Khan on Epistemology, Empiricism, and Conservatism

In keeping with a current theme in these parts, Razib Khan has detoured from genetics blogging to write a couple of recommendable posts on the benefits and limits of appealing to contemporary expert opinion instead of accepting received wisdom.  Some choice quotes:

All that being said, the economist’ faith on the power of mass market signals (“the crowd”) often strikes natural scientists as peculiar. When talking about elections it does seem that the “crowds” are going to be superior to the judgement of individuals or powerful quantitative models (after all, elections are about crowds!). But there is a long history of the crowd being wrong in the very specific areas of natural science which rely on contingent and formal fameworks to make non-obvious predictions on somewhat complex systems. But that’s because in some areas of the natural sciences humans have a systematic bias due to intuitive psychological tendencies. Aristotle’s model was just more intuitively plausible than those of his skeptics’ for a few thousand years. And quantum theory would never win a crowd-vote. One Bohr is worth a thousand other humans. I think this long history of the worthlessness of mass market intuition across large swaths of the territory of science is why many scientists find technocratic solutions very appealing. The formal reflections of the elect has worked miracles in physics, so why not “social physics” (i.e., economics)?

Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness. Science is the true ladder to heaven, anyone who has practiced it can not be help be amazed by its miraculous powers of prediction.

Non-scientific domains are not like this. A lawyer sees in the Corpus Juris Civilis a document which is different in degree, not kind. It is not obvious to me that modern ethics has progressed appreciably in substance as opposed to taste beyond Aristotle. The Iliad is still poetic greatness, in whose shadow moderns dwell. New Age reflections generally pale in comparison to the Bhagavad Gita. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can speak still to us down the ages.

All political persuasions are a mix of norms and assumptions about the way the world is arranged. When you make false assertion about the nature of things, you will make worthless inferences. The cultural Left which denies non-trivial differences between the sexes engages in faulty social engineering, because the science is not robust. Similarly, the cultural Right which denies the biological nature of much homosexuality does a disservice to its ultimate project of fostering virtue. Note that any assumption of what is does not here necessarily entail what ought to be. But it is much easier to achieve an ought if you accurately characterize the is.

Relatedly, Razib gave a great speech to some secular organization defending political conservatism, properly understood, on empirical grounds.



  1. […] linked to an essay by Razib Khan arguing that empiricism implies conservatism.  Khan defines empiricism […]

  2. […] Note that this is not an argument against market intervention or wealth transfers generally.  It is, instead, an argument against accomplishing these goals using the antitrust laws.  Hovenkamp’s argument for the underlined portion, which is the crucial premise, is that because antitrust is devoted to protecting the market from abuses — i.e. deviations from the norm — “[o]pting to have antitrust at all entails a belief that in most cases the market will produce the correct amount of competition and innovation” (Hovenkamp, 15).  Hovenkamp’s view therefore does not follow from any kind of dubious skeptical conservatism. […]

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