Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ptolenomics

What was the big deal with Copernicus and Galileo, really? I mean, if you live on the Earth's surface, what difference does it make if the earth or the sun or some other spot is the center of the universe? What difference does it make if the sun and planets move around the Earth in epicycles on crystal spheres or if Tycho Brahe was right and Kepler was wrong. You can hold these views and still explain anything you'd be likely to observe. Stick ellipses on Tycho and you can even explain the phases of Venus. There really is no reason for such a person to prefer modern cosmology to Ptolemy, is there?

In fact, there's a good reason for such a person to reject modern cosmology. The Ptolemaic system doesn't require you to accept the obviously ludicrous notion that the earth is moving. Only some ivory tower mooncalf, with no knowledge of the real world, could possibly believe a theory that requires the obviously still and solid world to be hurtling through space.

Now replace "Copernicus and Galileo" with "modern economists" and "Ptolemy" with "certain commenters in the 'I Am Speechless' threads" and I think you'll see where I'm going.

There is, really, no reason for the vast majority of people, even successful business people, to think in the way economists think. It is not necessary for them to interpret the world with our concepts in order to make and sell products. They can happily take as given and fixed all the information that economists know is being constantly generated and recalibrated through interactions in the market. They can make decisions using this information, without being aware of their own role in changing and generating new information.

They can even believe they are putting one over on their customers -- that they are, for instance, selling them goods purposely designed to wear out "too fast" and thereby sell more and earn more than if they made the sturdy, quality products the customers really want. They can believe this even while the relative prices for durable and disposable goods are reflecting consumers' time preferences and discount rates with exquisite precision, leading the businessman to supply exactly the mix of goods the consumers desired.

I've never quite understood, though, what was the point of getting so shirty when economists explain what's really going on. But then, Galileo got a few goats in his day too.

20 comments:

S. T. Karnick said...

Great analogy, Kathy. As you say, true things are true regardless of whether anybody recognizes them to be so, and the pretense that they are untrue is a means of comfort for people who simply cannot accept that the earth does indeed move.

James Elliott said...

"As you say, true things are true regardless of whether anybody recognizes them to be so, and the pretense that they are untrue is a means of comfort for people who simply cannot accept that the earth does indeed move."

What, like evolution?

Hunter Baker said...

Oh, how droll, Jamie. Do it again.

Of course, there's only the small detail that macro-evolution is unobservable, while economic behavior is explicitly so.

You may not realize it, but one of the great unanswered questions of science is STILL, "How does one species turn into a completely different species?" Or "How and why does simple life turn into complex life?" Or "How does life even begin from non-life in the first place?"

The old theory of swampy, soupy atmosphere charged with lightning or something like it doesn't actually work. We really don't know. We have a best operating theory, but we don't know.

In other words, evolution ain't quite the elliptical path of heavenly bodies or gravity.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Better wear that orange jacket, J.E. Hunter is shooting bull's-eyes.

James Elliott said...

Too bad the target is his foot.

Tlaloc said...

"You can hold these views and still explain anything you'd be likely to observe."

They were never able to adequately explain the retrograde motion of mercury and venus using any of the "wheels on wheels" models.

Strike one, kathy.



"There is, really, no reason for the vast majority of people, even successful business people, to think in the way economists think."

And THANK GOD! (a cheap shot I know but you left it so wide open)



"I've never quite understood, though, what was the point of getting so shirty when economists explain what's really going on."

The problem Kathy darling is that you couldn't explain what was really going on. See Galileo was talking physics which means his subject matter exists separate from human will, human desire, and human action. You on the other hand are talking economics which is a social study, it cannot exist separate from people (or some other intelligent creature). That being the case if your theories fail to account for human actions then you have two choices

1) you can accept your theory is flawwed and work to improve it, or
2) you can post some silly thing about Galileo and pretend you are above having to have your theory match reality

Obviously we know which you choose. Pity it's probably why economics is such a joke: too many economists are satisified with it despite it's inability to do anything useful.

Tlaloc said...

"Of course, there's only the small detail that macro-evolution is unobservable, while economic behavior is explicitly so."

Good lord Hunter, you can't be this dense. You can observe economic behavior? I gave you a direct real world counter example to your interpretation of economic "laws" and your response is to jam your fingers in your ears and hum loudly.

The Liberal Anonymous said...

Of course, there's only the small detail that macro-evolution is unobservable, while economic behavior is explicitly so.

Would you expect to be able to observe a process that takes place over such a long period of time? Anyway, we've seen one species change into another many times. I'm not sure what else you could ask for.

You may not realize it, but one of the great unanswered questions of science is STILL, "How does one species turn into a completely different species?"

Actually, evolutionary theory answers just that question.

Or "How and why does simple life turn into complex life?"

Also answered by evolutionary theory.

Or "How does life even begin from non-life in the first place?"

I would no more expect evolutionary theory to explain abiogenesis then I would expect it to explain quantum mechanics.

We really don't know. We have a best operating theory, but we don't know.

Actually, we know.

In other words, evolution ain't quite the elliptical path of heavenly bodies or gravity.

Which, by the way, could not explain the motion of Mercury without Einstein's theory of relativity. I suppose that's "only a theory" too, though.

Tlaloc said...

You have no idea how incredibly amusing I find it that the economists here can't even defend their own field but instead retreat to some quasi-philosophical argument and an allusion to physics (which is just so much like econ, really it is) when challenged.

Here's a clue: a useful and successful field of human knowledge is one that's able to predict accurately the result of a given action within it's realm of interest. The physical sciences can do this unbelievably well. The social studies are less successful and range from pretty good to downright awful. And economics is at the bottom of the list.

Kathy once wrote that the underlying assumption of economics is that people make rational decisions. If she really believes that she is the most gullible person on the planet (after Judy Miller). The counter evidence to that claim is so ridiculously overpowering that I can't imagine how someone can write it down with a straight face (much less TEACH it to gullible college students).

But of course our most recent argument has proven that evidence is anathema to the economist who relies instead on dogma and their belief regardless of how contravened it is by reality.

I do have to thank you for one wonderful bit of insight. I had often wondered how it is that the Republican party manages to keep both the fundamentalist Christians and the money grubbing business community together. Now I see that they aren't so different after all. Both are merely manifestations of blind faith.

James Elliott said...

Tlaloc, you should check out the Harpers Magazine archives. There's an utterly brilliant piece by Gordon Bigelow on just that subject. It's awesome.

Oh, and Hunter? Don't call me "Jamie," please. If you want to be informal, call me Jim. If you want to be rude, go ahead and use a real insult instead of a condescending dimunitive.

Hunter Baker said...

Sorry, JFE, it may just be that you hit the "anybody who questions anything about Darwin must be irredeemably stupid" button one time too many.

Tlaloc said...

my bad you actually observe retrograde motion of the outer planets (not the inner ones) kathy still had it wrong but I also made a mistake in correcting her.

James Elliott said...

Hunter, don't worry, you're not irredeemably stupid. You're redeemably so.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Tlaloc -- have you ever personally observed retrograde motion of the outer planets? My point was not that Ptolemaic cosmology explains everything, but that it explains everything the vast majority of people are ever likely to witness. Just like the half-baked economic ideologies that include nonsense like the profitablity of planned obsolescence are good enough for the vast majority of business people, who are not trying to explain a global economic system, they're just trying to make do with their little piece of it.

Hunter Baker said...

I just think I have a shot at being redeemed period.

James Elliott said...

I have a personal theory that God has a low tolerance for a-holes. You and I are burning forever, dude.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I've learned one thing on this blog, and that was Bono's "Being a Christian in a nutshell." (sorry, I don't have the link, but you can search this blog and find it).

His synopsis is that if we were to rely on karma, we'd ALL be screwed, not just a-holes (or condescending jerks like me) but EVERYBODY.

Thus, we can't rely on karma, but instead need God's grace. Its really quite simple ... and beautiful.

Hunter Baker said...

But James, you haven't observed my a--hole curve in action. I am far less a--holish than I was at, say, 19 or 20. I might get somewhere if you give me another couple of lifetimes.

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc -- have you ever personally observed retrograde motion of the outer planets? My point was not that Ptolemaic cosmology explains everything, but that it explains everything the vast majority of people are ever likely to witness."

It's easy to do Kathy. All you have to do is look at the position of an outer planet relative to the constalations near it over a series of nights. It was discovered long before the copernican view of the solar system. In other words it was something widely known by ancient people who watched the sky.



"Just like the half-baked economic ideologies that include nonsense like the profitablity of planned obsolescence are good enough for the vast majority of business people, who are not trying to explain a global economic system, they're just trying to make do with their little piece of it."

The part you still don't get though Kathy darling is that the sun centered solar system explained real world observations. Theory is great and it can be the most sublimely beautiful theory in the world but the minute it fails to explain observation you have a giant problem.

Your theory, or at the very least your interpretation of it fails to explain real world observation. After that comes the character test of whether you'll grow from adversity or cling to your failed dogma.

xScottAllen said...

Kathy, thank you for an excellent analogy regarding how economic agents need not understand how they operate within a system in order to attain a desirable outcome. James, have you actually studied Intelligent Design? Kathy's Galileo analogy applies. Those who attacked Galileo were enamored with Greek philosophy/science and would not accept any contradictions. [Belief that a motionless earth stood at the center of the universe was not founded in the Bible, though church "intelligentsia" defended it.] Possibly the same applies to those who embrace macroevolution today. Too often we see them shouting down ID proponents. Could it be that today's "intelligentsia" lack logical answers?