Friday 25 January 2013

A call for skeptical consistency regarding political economy.

This blog has been a long time in the writing, partly because I have strived hard to appear as objective as I could, and partly because of the demands of life with an 18 month old. Now, with a pressing need to write an ebook, I have to let it go and get it out there, finished or not, for my own sanity! I hope I have achieved my aim and can illicit some ideology-free debate on the matter. Unfortunately, my experiences over the last year don't lend themselves to taking that for granted, and I'm sure you can understand why when I say that the purpose of this blog is to prove: that the skeptical community is hypocritical in the way that it deals with politics and economics; that these two fields as practised on a macro scale are inherently flawed and illegitimate; and that they should be treated by our community with the same level of respect and ridicule as we do religion. So, while your pre-formed judgements swirl into view, I'd like to provide a bit of context.

I came into the skeptical community around the same time as I begged my way onto a Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science course at university. Since I was studying Intellectual and Cultural History at the time it wasn't strictly speaking “allowed” - personally, with hind-sight, I would make it compulsory. Since that time, I have come to view skepticism as the most rational and objective way of evaluating information not only because it bases itself on facts and evidence, but because it takes that knowledge and constructs a framework that tries to account for all the foibles, errors of intuition and effects of group dynamics on individuals thinking. One thing I am absolutely adamant about is that I cannot abide submitting to ideology, and with that comes a genuine desire to practice what I preach – I welcome any and all attempts to expose my own hidden, unfounded values. I try to apply skeptical principles to all of my knowledge and beliefs, something that I always assumed the majority of skeptics (if not all) would agree with.

That assumption changed when the Occupy movement first began in 2011. From a systems perspective it was fascinating: the creation of a shared culture by people in almost 100 countries, forging links in identity beyond language and national borders. Yet as objectively as I try to explain the unprecedented significance of such an event, within two weeks I had lost count of the number of strawmen, ad-hom attacks, post-hoc justifications and outright, uninformed acts of hostility. When in debate face-to-face, I have convinced all that I have met on the merits of my arguments; it appears that the internet is another beast entirely. The realisation that, despite all the rhetoric, here was ideologically trollish behaviour fit for any of our traditional foes shook me deeply. I was left feeling as though my community had been swept from under my feet and all I could see were contradictions, illogical justifications and an illusory unity just waiting to explode...

Some working definitions

I have come to suspect that we are yet to invent or mature all of the necessary vocabulary (and certainly concepts) to talk about politics and economics in the way that I wish; that requires discourse first. Religious secularism gave rise to the realm of modern statehood, thereby creating space from which one could talk about religion, both in terms of its content and dynamics (or lack thereof). We talk freely of the faults of dogma, of organised religion, of religious fundamentalism; I have struggled in writing this blog (as have others providing feedback) to find words for these concepts outside of the religious context. If there has never been an 'unorganised politics', can 'organised politics' even make sense? In comparing politics and economics to religion, I am not inferring that there is anything inherently wrong with any of them. Rather, that when in positions of authority all three can be said to be top-down, ideological, unfounded systems of belief. Therefore, I've chosen to use the term 'political economy', as per this definition:

The study and use of how economic theory and methods influences political ideology. Political economy is the interplay between economics, law and politics, and how institutions develop in different social and economic systems, such as capitalism, socialism and communism. Political economy analyzes how public policy is created and implemented. “

Read more:
Ideally, I would like a phrase that encompasses the overall power dynamics involved in the interplay between religion, politics and economics over time, though for the purpose of this blog political economy fits my requirements. Since the skeptical community have already found a consensus regarding organised religions' legitimacy as a public authority, political economy is what remains as the target of my ire. Here are my three arguments, any of which should, in my opinion, logically lead to an objective rejection of political economy by our community comparable to our consensus on the legitimacy of rule by organised religion.

Argument 1: The moral case for secularism 
Why does the skeptical community think that secularism is an inherently justified and necessary concept? I do not think the answer can lie in the content of the dogma itself; however enlightened or repressive the dogma, content is subjective and so cannot be the source of objective proof in and of itself. I think it is pretty clear that the imposition of any religious dogma on entire populations is widely considered the immoral act that inherently justifies the concept of secularism.

This exact justification for secularism should just as easily apply to political economy. We separate Church and State to remove religion from public life; yet political economy is public life, and it has created a world that is as every bit governed by imposed ideology as ever before, including religious. I have previously blogged about the myriad of ways in which political economy is merely the same, unfounded power structure as religion was/is, simply sans the ridiculous (with hindsight) metaphysics of old. Just as religion was the source of our normative culture in the past, so too are our lives now measured, structured and judged by the normative values of political economy.

Argument 2: Reference to contemporary scientific consensus as a minimum requirement for legitimacy.

It is easy to make such a post-hoc moral argument for religious secularism from way away here in the 21st century. To skeptics, as well as to many non-skeptics, the idea of a universal imposition of strict religious ideologies is clearly immoral. Yet this has not always been the case. Once upon a time, the vast majority of people would have vehemently disagreed with such a proposition, going so far as to consider atheism or critical thinking as that which was inherently immoral. The reason why secularism emerged when it did in Europe was because the growing body of knowledge accrued by early science began to challenge and disprove Catholic dogma, thereby depriving the Church of its moral and political authority (which in turn led to the reformation and the enlightenment). One of the most bloody periods of European history ensued, cementing in many of the great minds of the Enlightenment the moral case for religious freedom and state secularism.

Once early science discovered the various ways of studying nature, they used those tools (physics, biology, chemistry etc) to great practical effect, a testament to scientific method. It became clear that theology, without so much as a mention of contemporary knowledge in its methodology or conclusions, had has much legitimacy as it had reference to reality. We are now at a similar crossroads. The body of knowledge has now progressed immeasurably since the time of the foundations of almost every theory of political economy currently established, creating the same conditions as those religion faced when it was confronted with demands for secularism. We have the tools to study social systems, yet established attempts to explain the system rely on dogma that pre-dates the existence of those tools. A political theory sans so much as a reference to system theory, cognitive science, complexity etc, should be viewed by the skeptical community the exact same way as a theory of biology that ignores evolution and genetics, or a theory of the universe minus any mention physics. It doesn't even matter if you believe these tools do not represent sufficient knowledge to reach objective conclusions; legitimacy rests on using the best contemporary knowledge we have – and it doesn't make political economy any more likely to be legitimate in this sense. Whether system theory, complexity et all are sufficient for the objectification of identity and morality remain to be seen - but we should all be able to agree on the basic, and crucial to this argument, point that established ideologies are now known not to be sufficient.

Argument 3: Predicting the unpredictable

Political economy, as with religion, seeks to explain and predict the emergent properties of complex systems, be it on the individual or societal level. Yet complex systems are inherently unpredictable over enough time; how accurately and distantly one can reliably predict depends on the depth and accuracy of our knowledge of the system in question and the dynamics at play. The scientific language for such knowledge has only been in development for a few decades; we should not expect long-established political economy to be any more accurate, or legitimate, than a climate model that pre-dates meteorology, or a theory of biology pre-Darwin. Therefore, any skeptic that openly identifies with a political or economic label is in effect endorsing the legitimacy of imposing a model that claims to predict the unpredictable. While we cannot objectively disprove any theory of political economy (special pleading makes it unfalsifiable), neither can we objectively disprove religious values and beliefs. In both instances, all that matters is that we can show the dogma to almost certainly be wrong, given that they both eschew the relevant scientific frameworks available today. This isn't to say we shouldn't try, just that we must acknowledge the fact that we are probably going to be shown to be objectively wrong in our predictions at some point and build evolution into the governing ideologies of the future, i.e. full monitoring of policy, a comprehensive and fluid method of communicating best practices and lessons learned, systematic processes to avoid negative group-dynamics etc.

In summary, religion and political economy are, or have been, ideological belief systems imposed upon society as a whole that have seen their conceptual underpinnings exposed as false by the advance of science and knowledge. As such, both are equally immoral in the objective sense of each being shown to false by virtue of probability. Both should have equal scientific and moral legitimacy within our community – none – owing to their respective disregard for relevant, contemporary scientific knowledge. If the skeptical community is to be consistent and objective on the issue of political economy, skeptics should simply identify politically as 'skeptic', advocate for more political and economic data, and (if we are to be really consistent) argue the case for a new form of secularism that seeks to transition away from this newly exposed form of imposed ideology.

The absurdity of the contradiction

Having outlined my arguments, I just want to further draw on this analogy between politics and religion and what that might suggest about the challenge facing the skeptical community. Be forewarned: I am now entering rhetoric mode befitting the passion for which I feel about it. I would really appreciate it if any counter arguments focus on the summary above, since that which I seek above anything else is a logical refutation to the charge that politics and religion should be considered by skeptics as equivalent, as per the arguments stated.

In my opinion, the skeptical community of today is analogous to the early, Christian, scientists who could not yet bring themselves, be it through fear of persecution or genuine belief/lack of questioning, to challenge the orthodoxy of the day – despite the immense suffering that was happening all around them. Many today express surprise that such great minds could have seemingly not questioned their own religious belief given the lack of evidence, but many would also know that surprise is merely a product of our own post-hoc rationalisations. Back then, God and religion was everywhere; culture was saturated with it and so, in turn, were the vast majority of individuals. One should not underestimate the power of cultural saturation of ideology to blind even the greatest of minds to its absurdity and illegitimacy. Today, it feels as though we are once again in the early enlightenment – the evidence is now there for people to see, but there are not yet enough eyes open to see it. Instead of ignoring the wanton abuse of power by the Church, ahem, I mean State, and instead of focusing all our efforts on pagan heathens, sorry, homeopaths, might I suggest we collectively look at the bigger picture? If we do not, I dread to think of what excuses historians of the future deploy to explain the deeply ironic case of the skeptical community largely unaware of its own political and economic ideology.

I'm sure that many might object to comparing religion with politics on the grounds of severity or scale of consequence (perhaps quoting Pinker), or on their differing capacity to adapt and change to shifting cultural values. However, these are quantitative arguments; they are not sufficient to falsify the arguments previously presented - incidentally, given the huge population growth post-secularism, and the incredibly large net cast by a small number of nations, I would argue that in terms of scale, the State could well rival Religions collective past (and we've seen all too clearly what the State can be capable of in terms of severity) Objectively, I believe that there is no inherent difference in the objective legitimacy of authority of religion or politics, since both ideological foundations have now been shown to be false by the progression of science and culture. I regard someone who declares themselves a Libertarian Skeptic to be as objectively wrong as someone who calls themselves a Christian skeptic (although, to be fair. it's more understandable outside of this framework, since it is, imo, ahead of its time rather than a centuries out of date.)

The challenge ahead

Unfortunately, the majority of high-profile skeptics in our community seem to promote scientific skepticism and so do not address political economy, citing a pre-requisite of hard data in forming skeptical conclusions: SGU doesn't do politics (and when it does, as with Rebecca Watson's work on feminist issues, you end up with petitions calling for their removal.); Brian Dunning, amongst others, blithely say that skepticism is not applicable to political “values”; and economic and political issues are barely represented at conferences, on podcasts, and in blogs, despite the disproportionate suffering it causes compared to staple feed such as homeopathy and psychics. In my opinion such views do not portray any sense of debate regarding the extent of scientific skepticism's remit. Instead, they present the impression of an established orthodoxy that definitively dismisses social sciences (and the social issues therein), since empirical data, a degree of scientific consensus, and, I suspect, an absence of established ideology within the community, appear pre-requisites for an issues smooth inclusion into mainstream skeptical discourse. It seems to me that the vast majority of skeptics I speak to are far more confident in the legitimacy of applying skepticism to political values than is suggested by the choice on offer within our shared, mainstream culture. Whether that is for business reasons, ideological reasons, group-think, I don't know; more than likely a combination of all that and more.

We must recognise and challenge these contradictions and hypocrisies inherent in us, of all people, absolving political economy of skeptical reasoning on the grounds of them being 'values' (oh, how the religious would love us to accept that argument from them!). Obviously there are values in politics (in the study of complex systems, there will likely remain considerable unknowns for some time to come) that should continue to be included for as long as they persist. I heard (and agreed with) Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto, elucidating the same point at Norwich SiTP recently – 'That is what democracy is' (incidentally, he apologised for being unable to answer my question regarding why the imposition of political and religious ideology aren't treated by skeptics as equivalent). As a matter of public policy, values must be allowed to proceed at their evolutionary pace – too quick, or as now too slow, and the immorality grows. Yet I do not see why we should entertain such nonsense within our community.

Do we expect History to look back on this time, this early growth of this special movement, and ignore the question as to why we all put so much efforts into fringe issues whilst allowing the present ruling conflation of woo to run amok? Or will Historians say that perhaps many turned a self-censored-eye to the drones, the wars, the inequality, the global suffering, the economic models and systems driving this race to an ever-warmer bottom, in favour of bravely battling Homoeopaths and people claiming to be psychics? To ignore the worlds most ironic case of group-think ever witnessed? I sincerely hope that they do get to say that, for it will mean we have managed to progress beyond it to look back.. This whole issue pains me greatly, for the world desperately needs people to encourage and nurture a transitional, controversial culture derived from contemporary concepts and data to help pull us away from this thus-far unbroken cycle of imposed ideology, before it either nukes or asphyxiates us. If it isn't going to be us, the self-proclaimed vanguard of independent thinkers everywhere, then who the hell is it going to be? 


To read PZ Myers' polemic futherences of this blog, click here: HERE

To read Steven Novella's tactful response to PZ's response, in which it seems he agrees that ideology is inconsistent with skepticism but that it's fine if people don't see it that way, click there: THERE 

And for PZ's tour de force of a reply to that, click here again: HERE AGAIN

Here's an excerpt:

"As for that awful, dishonest, destructive claim that “Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity” — I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property? If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily."

Continuing, this is Steve's second reply, which I have only had time to skim read, in which he makes some very good points but again, imo, presumes too great a level of discipline and free inquiry in dealing with politics within the community. In my experience, people struggle with the very notion of post-ideological political discourse, skeptics included. Click away: AWAY

You guessed it - PZ replies to the reply of the reply to the reply....and this time he's clearly calmed down a bit (not that I allow his rhetoric to influence my thinking on his actual arguments - though it seems many skeptics make no such basic allowance). It is, in my opinion, right on the money, and exposes some pretty weak flaws in Novellas arguments.

Here's an excerpt:

"...then there’s this distinction between empirical claims and faith-based claims, which I simply don’t see. “Faith” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free word; I don’t think Novella would be stopped cold in his tracks if a homeopath invoked faith and god as a mechanism behind succussed water. Faith-based claims are empirical claims! When someone claims a vast cosmic intelligence named Jesus created the universe, I’m going to ask for their evidence for that claim; it is an empirical claim not just about how the universe works, but about how they arrive at their conclusions and what the chain of evidence that led them to that assertion is. If they openly admit that their beliefs are not based on empirical knowledge, that does not mean we retreat; it means we present the evidence for how the universe actually works and was created. Faith does not insulate a claim from skepticism as Novella argues; there is still a body of evidence that may contradict their claims, and it does as no service to simply throw up our hands and declare their arguments out of bounds for skepticism".

Additionally, here's some commentary from Marc Barnhill

And here is some balanced commentary from Richard Reed 



Grimeandreason said...

I'm glad you feel you can speak for what "the movement" needs. Not at all an indication of what I am talking about.

JSladden said...

I think you're confusing "political economy" (by your definition, 'the study and use of how economic theory and methods influences political ideology') with the current, orthodox theory which purports to be informed by political economy.
Your argument seems to reject "political economy" rather than what I think you mean, "the mainstream approach to the economy". To reject political economy is to reject the assertion that economic theory and methods have an influence on political ideology.
I don't think there's any doubt that x does influence y, the doubt should be in our current view of what exactly that influence is and how it works.
It sounds like you are rejecting the study of a field, because the field has come to wrong conclusions. Reject the conclusions, not the field.
Also, how can you even hope to illicit "ideology-free" debate? Unless you have an unusual definition of ideology, you must admit that one cannot be ideology-free.

Grimeandreason said...

Thanks for the reply. I don't doubt x does influence y here. That's part of the problem. What I reject is the study AND conclusions of political economy that is not founded on the correct scientific framework, namely complex adaptive systems.

It isn't just the current orthodoxy of any particular country I object to. It is ALL established theories of political economy that have been incorporated as ruling ideologies.

Regarding ideology-free debate. I regard it as a spectrum, and I think there is FAR more scope to head in the right direction. I would consider myself far more ideology-free than the majority, and the ideological constructs that are still apparent are sought out, examined, and recognised as the cultural pollution it is.