Epistemology and Social Sciences

This is an extremely insightful piece, if anything for underscoring Frederick Hayek’s deeply held perspectives on epistemology of social sciences, especially his skpeticism that we can know enough to risk making major policy around the belief that we know how the world works.

Hayek is one of the most misunderstood economists by political commentators who have little awareness of his intellectual contributions, but only his association with the free marketeers.  Unlike, say, Milton Friedman who was an unapologetic advocate of free markets, that markets necessarily represented the best path to socio-economic outcomes, Hayek was a skeptical pessimist in general.  He felt that humans are always constrained greatly by our incomplete understanding of the universe and eagerness to substitute our preconceptions and prejudices for actual knowledge which we may not even be able to recognize when we run into them.  He objected to the planned economy not necessarily because he felt that markets were inherently superior, but because the former was too risky.  He saw a marketplace of many firms as inherently superior to an oligopoly, whether gov’t sponsored or private, because the former spread out the risk and ensured that a total collapse is improbable.

This is the perspective of an old European conservative, someone who lived through revolutions and was deeply skeptical of their promises while wary of the risks of disruptions.  Unfortunately, he was also a product of a pre-PR era and society, who did not believe in using academic knowledge as the basis for advocacy, or, to put more crudely, he was no shill.  I always felt that it was a great tragedy of American economics profession that an intellectual lightweight like Friedman became the most prominent advocate in economics rather than a circumspect thinker like Hayek, but perhaps this was unavoidable.  The audience of the economists want to find an excuse to justify their beliefs and preferred policy choices.  They lack the wherewithal to evaluate economic expertise, and, for his shilliness, Friedman was, after all, a competent economist if lacking in real insights.  Shills make their arguments in clear declarative sentences, so to speak, while the real insights tend to be wrapped in complex philosophical language, which Hayek was wont to do.  Perhaps it is not shocking that Hayek did not have the impact that Friedman did, after all.  (You’d notice a similar pattern about my view towards Dawkins and evolution.  The linked op-ed is wrong about biologists being “humble”:  biologists are just as bad as any other social scientists–yes, biology is a social science, too–about using their “science” for political advocacy.  It takes real natural sciences like physics to separate science and shilling:  Teller might have loved the bomb and Szillard skeptical, but their beliefs about nuclear power and weaponry had nothing to do nuclear physics, which was true regardless of what their opinions were.  Their science was good enough that they did not need to dress it up in gaudy garb of alleged morality.)

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