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Monday, January 25, 2016

Neurath, Krugman and prediction

“Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their clumsy vessel from a more circular to a more fishlike one. They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. In transforming their ship they take care that dangerous leakages do not occur. A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step -- and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. That is our fate.”
This is a famous passage from Otto Neurath, the socialist and logical positivist. It is grounded in Neurath’s sense that prediction is a network effect – that it exists as a hypothesis in a network of other hypotheses, and that we should judge it in terms of that network.
Because we all possess the future tense, we are all prophets. However,  good prophecy – honest prophecy - requires something more than grammar. It requires a certain predictive integrity. That is, it requires that one not make predictions based on the isolation of one hypothesis as if the others did not exist.
Poor prophecy is the rule in politics. Because prophecy is entangled with the very mechanism of advancing political figures and policies, the best we can expect is that some acknowledgement of Neurath’s raft will trail behind the prophet. Some notion, that is, that for x to become true, not only do we have to be right about current mechanisms that would lead to x, but we have to acknowledge the x effect – the fact that it comes true changes the way things are. We can’t transpose one massive change into a background that we assume stays, otherwise, stable. It is like predicting a large earthquake in a locale and assuming that all the buildings and roads will remain the same.
This is what I felt when I read the recent series of Krugman posts criticizing Bernie Sanders. Leaving aside the economic content of the criticism, it is the political content that seems to ignore utterly the context of the predicted event.
Bernie Sanders becoming the nominee of the Democratic party would be a large earthquake. I don’t expect it to happen. But when I imagine it happening, I know that I have to imagine a lot of unanticipated shifts in circumstance. As well, I would have to re-evaluate the present mechanisms that would lead to that event.
Krugman as an economist knows this. But Krugman as a supporter of Clinton has tossed these variables in the garbage. And that isnt good. It puts him at the level of those people, those multitudes of people, who comment or blog on –line with absolute certainty, and absolute lack of intellectual integrity. This is easy to confuse with stupidity, but it is far from stupidity. It is, rather, a moral blindness – a blindness to the fact that thinking has any integrity.

It is one of the expected casualties, I guess, of an election year. However, it really doesn’t do much for Clinton, much as the serious people think it does. People have very good intuitions about moral blindnesses, whether they suppress them or not.   

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