Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Bullshit, philosophy and regulatory capture

The Dunning-Kruger effect is great fun, because it gives you scientific respectability when you tell someone they’re so stupid they don’t even know they’re stupid. It’s a brave person who’ll double down in the face of such an accusation. Besides being fun, the effect is probably real, and it’s not really mysterious. The idea is that the ability to do something well often overlaps a lot with the ability to tell whether it’s done well. So people who are very bad at something will also often be bad at telling how good they are, and so will be prone to erroneously believing themselves to be experts. According to Wikipedia the effect was first tested by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, and as with so many simple ideas one wonders what took us so long. Perhaps skill in coming up with seemingly obvious ideas overlaps with skill in discerning in retrospect how obvious those ideas really were.

The Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t apply to everything, of course. In some areas, ability to perform well doesn’t overlap much with ability to discern good performance. You don’t have to be able to run fast to use a stopwatch, and (to give a less clear cut example) great football managers were often fairly ordinary players. But one kind of area where the effect is very likely to arise is academia. One area of academia is philosophy. And people with no expertise in philosophy do love trash-talking philosophy. A particularly embarrassing recent case is Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Philosophy is probably a friendlier environment for bullshit than many other areas of academia, because it’s not very testable. Now, some of it is a bit testable. Karl Marx was a philosopher, and it’s probably fair to say that his ideas had undergone a lot more testing by the end of the 20th century than they had at the start, and that the history of the 20th century should inform the discussion of his ideas. Philosophical arguments that human cognitive faculties are located in the heart rather than the brain have been empirically refuted even more decisively. We probably have some empirical evidence that matter is composed of indivisible particles which wasn’t available when the ancient atomists first proposed the idea. But some philosophy seems not to be testable at all. David Chalmers is a philosopher, and he argues that philosophical zombies are possible, which means that there could have been creatures physically identical to humans but lacking any consciousness. How do you test that? Maybe you can. But it’s at least not obvious that we’ve gathered any empirical evidence that bears on the question at all. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that rocket science helped put twelve men on the moon, and you don’t have to be a political philosopher to see that communism didn’t pan out quite the way some people expected. But the only way to assess whether the people talking about philosophical zombies are on to anything is to understand the methodology and the arguments, and once you’re at that point you’re already pretty good at doing philosophy yourself. You can’t tell if philosophy is a problem without becoming part of the problem.

Bill Nye Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes.jpg

One variant on the age-old “who watches the watchers” problem is called regulatory capture. Part of the problem is that it’s in an industry’s interests to gain control of whatever government body is charged with regulating it. But another part is just that competent regulators will be drawn from the same profession they’re regulating. They know each other, they like each other, they share assumptions, and these conflicts of interest can lead to the regulation not being done properly. It didn’t have to be this way. You could have parallel institutions which train and employ regulators, the way different countries train their armed forces largely independently, and the instituitions and personnel of law enforcement and organized crime are mostly separate. But it’s expensive, and it’s not usually what happens. Regulatory bodies hire people from the industries they regulate. And there just isn’t a group of people who have the expertise to call bullshit on philosophy but aren’t heavily associated with and invested in the discipline. Bill Nye isn’t competent to call out our bullshit, but the people who are competent aren’t impartial enough. The inevitable conclusion is that philosophy is doomed to raise sceptical eyebrows forever. It could all be bullshit and nobody would ever know.

But this conclusion is not inevitable. Philosophy does in fact take very seriously the idea that large parts of itself are bullshit, or meaningless, or obvious, or obviously false, or completely unimportant. One reason it does this is that it’s the sort of issue philosophers are interested in, another is that these kinds of critique sometimes follow from other philosophical positions, and a third plausible reason is that philosophy attracts disingenuously self-deprecating navel-gazers. If the watchers are self-involved enough they will watch each other, especially once they have tenure.

Another aspect of philosophy’s tendency to call bullshit on itself is less inspiring, however. It smacks of tribalism, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a general Anglo-Saxon distrust of all things French. There’s a tendency for analytic philosophers, at least in English-speaking countries, to think that all that stuff that goes on in continental European philosophy departments is a load of garbage. But we’re not competent to judge. Maybe they hear us calling Derrida a charlatan and think “how do they know?”, but maybe they react to it the way we react to Bill Nye. And I think that if they reacted the second way they’d usually be absolutely right. We don’t know what we’re talking about. But they do, and I hope they’re self-involved enough to take the possibility that their whole field is a load of garbage seriously.

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