Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Insider/Outsider Approach to Ideas

This is really just a pedestrian observation, one that ties together a few things I've written before.

The basic idea is this.  Facing a scarcity of resources, we have to make compromises.  One of those compromises is that intellectual approaches are more rigid and more "top-down" than they would ideally be, which in turn creates an "insider/outsider" dynamic reminiscent of Straussian "esoteric" writing.

I'll give an example that will hopefully illustrate my point.  Sometime just before the middle of the 20th century, economists developed the concept of national income and started to measure it rigorously.  I don't want to imply that people like Simon Kuznets, who played a central role, did a bad job.  Quite the contrary:  they did such a good job that I believe their concepts have been handed down with little modification to the present day, and their work ushered in the modern era of careful measurement of economic activity.

Of course the concept of national income involved a lot of careful tradeoffs, and one can (in theory) criticize those tradeoffs, or at least take them into account when using the concepts.  But here's the crucial point:  economics students are generally taught national income concepts as a kind of received wisdom, the same way students learn about electrons and species of animals:  GDP = C + I  + G + NX.

The instruction might include a few qualifications about how GDP isn't really the only thing we care about, with a few examples of how it can be misleading, but then the instruction continues as if GDP were a completely coherent and uncontested concept.  (By the way, I chose electrons and species because those, too, are conceptualizations that would, in a world with no scarcity, attract more scrutiny and a more nuanced approach.)

Now I want to emphasize, I think this is for the most part appropriate.  If anything I think undergraduate education often goes too far in the other direction.  Students are often asked, in introductory classes, to criticize the giants of the field.  (This is a complaint Tarun has leveled at undergraduate philosophy education.  Students are expected to come up with something original to say before they are equipped to understand the concepts, much less respond intelligently to them.)  It's a waste of time and inculcates an inappropriate arrogance, a lack of respect for deep reading.  Students actually think they've come up with a refutation of Kant or whatever...  and why wouldn't they?  Their instructor has given them every indication that this is an appropriate way to think about it.

Similarly it would probably be a waste of time to walk economics students through the intellectual history of national income statistics.  Most undergraduate economics students won't do any further work in the field.  And there is a sort of intellectual "division of labor" in which very smart people like Kuznets develop ideas that can then be used in an "off-the-rack" way within the field.  This is the essence of scarcity management:  Kuznets does the work once, and then the knowledge can be replicated millions of times without further effort.  It's mass production in the intellectual space.  The same approach is used in math, certainly, and probably in every area of study.

But there is a danger that a gap will develop between people who think they understand a concept and people who have a true appreciation of the history of the idea.  People who only understand ideas as received wisdom (which is most people) struggle to accommodate criticisms of the framework without really having the tools to do so.  When they identify weaknesses, they think they're treading new ground, or they think they've been sold a bill of goods.  Or, possibly, they remain ignorant of any weakness in their framework and they apply it robotically.

Just as an example, it was recently brought to my attention that the cutoff for "statistical significance" is arbitrary:

On some level, I knew this, but I wouldn't have been able to articulate it with any precision (I still can't, really, but now I know enough to invoke the concept and dig deeper if I need to).  In the statistics courses I've taken, statistical significance is exactly the kind of received wisdom that gives students enough to do most of what they need to do, but leaves them vulnerable to overconfidence and unable to critique their own field.

I don't have much more to say - I think these tradeoffs are pretty much unavoidable, and we can only hope that academics do a good job of picking the framework and providing at least some context so that students can, if they choose, learn more about the intellectual history of the concepts they are using.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  And similarly, "When the conceptualization becomes fact, print the conceptualization."  But it still feels elitist and a little gross to proceed this way.