Back Issue Volume 17 | Nos. 1-2 
Ignorance in Politics and Science

Popper, Weber, and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance | Jeffrey Friedman (.pdf of article)
Abstract: Karl Popper's methodology highlights our scientific ignorance: hence the need to institutionalize open-mindedness through controlled experiments, which may falsify our fallible theories about the world. Popper's approach to politics, however, underplays the problem of ignorance. In endorsing "piecemeal social engineering," Popper assumes that the social-democratic state and its citizens are capable of detecting social problems, and of assessing the results of policies aimed at solving them, through a process of experimentation analogous to that of natural science. But just as in science, the facts that underpin political debate are brought to our attention by theories that, as Max Weber emphasized, can be tested only through counterfactual thought experiments. And public-opinion and political-psychology research suggest that human beings are far too ignorant, illogical, and doctrinaire to conduct rigorous testing of the theories that inform their political views. F. A. Hayek realized that the public could not engage, specifically, in intelligent "piecemeal engineering" of the economy, but he failed to draw the conclusion that this was due to a specific type of political ignorance: ignorance of economic theory.

Why Talk if We Disagree? | Boris Maizel
Abstract: According to a prevailing dogma of our time, real communication is practically impossible between those who have no common "cultural language." Karl Popper disputed this widespread opinion, arguing that, while it is tremendously difficult to communicate with a real (not artificially constructed) intellectual opponent, at the same time it is infinitely fruitful to do so. He also demonstrated how, while arguing ideologically, we improve both our own ideas and the collective knowledge of our society.

Popper and the Establishment | Nimrod Bar-Am and Joseph Agassi
Abstract: The central thesis of Karl Popper's philosophy is that intellectual and political progress are best achieved by not deferring to dogmatic authority. His philosophy of science is a plea for the replacement of classic dogmatic methodology with critical debate. His philosophy of politics, similarly, is a plea for replacing utopian social and political engineering with a more fallibilist, piecemeal variety. Many confuse his anti-dogmatism with relativism, and his anti-authoritarianism with Cold War conservatism or even with libertarian politics. Not so: he showed a clear preference for the ideal of truth over relativist complacency, for cosmopolitanism over nationalism, and for democratic control over unbridled capitalism.

Popper's Social-Democratic Politics and Free-Market Liberalism | Fred Eidlin
Abstract: Holding unlimited economic freedom to be nearly as dangerous as physical violence, Karl Popper advocated "piecemeal" economic intervention by the state. Jeremy Shearmur's recent book contends that as Popper aged, his views grew closer to classical liberalism than the piecemeal social democracy he had defended in The Open Society—consistently with what Shearmur sees as the logic of Popper's arguments. But Popper's philosophy, while recognizing that any project aimed at bringing about social change must be immensely complex and fraught with difficulty, gives us grounds for hope about the purposeful use of government to bring about desirable social results.

Recovering Popper for the Left? | Bruce Caldwell
Abstract: In his recent biography of Karl Popper, Malachi Hacohen brilliantly reconstructs the development of Popper's ideas through 1946, correcting many errors regarding the sequence of their emergence. In addition he recreates Popper's Vienna and provides insights into Popper's complex personality. A larger goal of Hacohen's narrative is to show the relevance of Popper's philosophical and political thought for the left. Unfortunately this leads Hacohen to neglect and distort certain aspects of the story he tells, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Popper and F. A. Hayek.

Don't Shoot the Messenger: Caldwell's Hayek and the Insularity of the Austrian Project | Greg Hill
Abstract: Readers looking for an articulate, well-informed exposition of Hayek's multifaceted intellectual achievement will be pleased with Bruce Caldwell's new book, Hayek's Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F. A. Hayek. Readers interested in a more critical consideration of Hayek's ideas, or in their ability to withstand cross-examination from the positions Hayek himself criticized, are less likely to be satisfied. But even for the latter group, Caldwell has performed a useful service, compressing the varied elements of Hayek's complex thought into a lucid synopsis that should facilitate engagement with those outside the Austrian camp.

The Role of Ideas in Weber's Theory of Interests | Jonathan Eastwood
Abstract: Max Weber's understanding of the role of people's interests in determining their behavior has been widely misunderstood, because of a misinterpretation of a famous passage in which he analogizes interests to railway "switchmen." Contrary to this widespread interpretation, Weber does not see material self-interest as the driving force behind human action. Rather, he distinguishes between material and "ideal" interests; emphasizes the latter; and, arguably, suggests that even the former are, to a great extent, culturally constructed, not least because they rely on ideas about the way the world is. It is almost fair to say, then, that the notion that Weber reduces ideas to interests has things completely backwards.

The Trouble with Social Science | Liah Greenfeld
Abstract: Some of the most celebrated theories of nationalism exemplify the self-confirming, evidence-averse, deterministic, and ideological aspects of social science as we know it. What has gone wrong? The social sciences have modeled themselves on physics, failing to grasp the essential difference between the contingent, historical development of cultural particularity and the universal, lawlike regularities of inanimate matter. The physicist's tools for conducting the method Popper called "conjecture and refutation" are largely inappropriate when dealing with imaginative and therefore unpredictable human beings. Obsessive quantification and the assumption of universal social "laws," in particular, need to be de-emphasized in favor of a Weberian willingness to make conjectures about the cultural causes of unique events, and to test those hypotheses by comparing them to apparently similar cases.

Is Economics Scientific? Is Science Scientific? | S. Phineas Upham
Abstract: The usefulness of models that describe the world lies in their simplicity relative to what they model. But simplification entails inaccuracy, so models should be treated as provisional. Nancy Cartwright's account of science as a modeling exercise, in which fundamental laws hold true only in theory—not in reality, given the complexities of the real world—suggests that Rational Choice Theory (RCT) should not be rejected on the traditional basis of its lack of realism: that, after all, is to be expected of any simulacrum model. But when it is extended to domains such as politics, in which there is no necessary reason to expect systemic pressures against people who depart too far from the model, RCT becomes a simulacrum without any particular claim to expressing underlying causal laws. This cautions against the tendency to rest content with social-science models, and to treat their assumptions as if they were true.

Critical Thoughts About Critical Realism | G. R. Steele
Abstract: As microeconomic calculus and macroeconomic estimation superseded earlier approaches to political economy, broad questions about how things are (ontology), how things might be known (epistemology), and how science should proceed (methodology) were neglected. As a corrective, Critical Realism (CR) has been proposed as an alternative to the orthodox deductive-nomological (ODN) tradition: i.e., to mathematical deduction and statistical induction. In their place, retroduction—the use of analogy, metaphor, intuition, and ordinary language—is supposed to illuminate root causes by identifying the deep mechanisms that govern events. CR offers guidelines for social science that are of a most general kind: from initial "premises," retroduction proceeds to hypotheses about deep structures and mechanisms. The initial premises are determined by a desire to understand events that surprise us. However, nothing is thereby excluded, including ODN. And since historical processes are revealed neither by assumption nor by the net effects of whatever initial conditions hold, it might be apposite to drop the search for (deep) socio-economic laws and instead use whatever evidence is at hand to see whether, and the extent to which, ideal types apply to any given historical sequence.

Still Impossible After All These Years: Reply to Caplan | Peter J. Boettke and Peter T. Leeson
Abstract: Socialism is strictly "impossible." Its impracticability is not, as Bryan Caplan has suggested in these pages, a "quantitative" matter; nor does he show that real-world socialism's incentive problems outweighed its informational ones. Caplan's response to Ludwig von Mises's critique of the "possibility" of socialism fails to appreciate what Mises meant by "socialism," and misunderstands Mises's argument about economic calculation. History, too, suggests that socialism's informational deficiency was the most significant problem facing those who tried to implement socialism.

Calculation and Chaos: Reply to Caplan | David Gordon
Abstract: Ludwig von Mises argued that (1) economic calculation under socialism is impossible, and that (2) the lack of calculation would entail chaos and starvation. In these pages, Bryan Caplan has accepted the first claim but rejected the second, and has argued further that in real-world attempts to implement socialism, it was the lack of incentives, not the absence of economic calculation, that was responsible for economic chaos. I suggest, against Caplan's interpretation, that by "chaos," Mises meant the lack of calculation--not some further state of affairs entailed by this lack. So interpreted, Mises's argument escapes the brunt of Caplan's criticisms.

Incentives vs. Knowledge: Reply to Caplan | Rodolfo A. Gonzalez and Edward Stringham
Abstract: In the 1920s, Ludwig von Mises claimed that the problem of making economic calculations without market-generated prices would be an insuperable difficulty for socialist systems of production. Bryan Caplan is right to argue that there is no theoretical way to infer the magnitude of the difficulty Mises pointed out, but he is wrong to insist that the history of poor economic performance displayed by real-world socialism should be attributed to inadequate work incentives rather than to the socialist-calculation problem. A state that had solved the calculation problem would have well within its means the solution to the incentives problem, too. History suggests that real-world "socialist" states failed to solve either problem.

Toward a New Consensus on the Economics of Socialism: Rejoinder to My Critics | Bryan Caplan
Abstract: This has been an unusually productive exchange. My critics largely accept my main theoretical claims about economic calculation and socialism. They have also started to do what advocates of the Misesian view should have been doing for decades: offer empirical evidence that the calculation problem is serious. While I continue to believe that incentive problems explain most of the failures of socialism, I am slightly less confident than I was before. Fortunately, there are many unexploited sources of information to help resolve the issue.