My View of Advanced Studies and Science

I’ve at the time of writing this post spent over a year in an American graduate program (doctorate) and there are some things I want to share with you. It is of course the case that most things taught are so-called mainstream science and as such it is as blindly fixed on empiricism and technical details as it is ignorant of the unreasonableness of the often contradictory underlying assumptions and premises. It has also, at least in my case as a graduate student in economics, evident that the science itself have to a large extent adopted statism in order to “fit” in the overall government command of education and research.

But it is not these problems, however important, that I want to discuss in this post. Instead, I want to discuss the structure of the education I’m getting and what it seems to focus. Herein lies an important lesson to be learned about education in general and especially how students are treated. It is obvious that many professors seem to struggle with understanding how to treat graduate students, which means they sometimes fall into the “undergrad trap” and talk to us like were we at the very beginning of our studies on a higher level.

An even more obvious fact is that professors seem to lack an understanding for the greater issues. Someone has told me that students tend to focus on theory and theoretical reasoning because “it is easier” than “real” empirical research. I strongly disagree with this view; I find it ignorant and, frankly, stupid. It is not easier to develop a good theory than, as is supposedly “more difficult,” to grab a data set, run [standardized] regressions and then claim to have found The Truth. Such a statement makes me lose whatever respect I had for the person making it; they deserve no respect – rather, they deserve to be despised.

Even though most professors do not share (or at least not state) this view, misunderstanding or non-understanding is common. Often the problems I identify with premises for published papers that we’re reading are ignored, probably because they require a philosophical mindset. I’m not saying I’m a prodigy or hyper-intelligent and that “all professors” are stupid; on the contrary, my experience in both the Swedish master programs and the American PhD program is that the professors are usually highly intelligent people. However, they are not scholars and therefore cannot grasp the essence of discussions on a purely conceptual or theoretical level. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they are not many.

Professors have chosen to (in some cases been forced to) focus on details for so long that they have more or less forgotten what they’re doing is all about. They no longer have an interest in finding Knoledge or Truth (if this ever was the case), but are more interested in specific “cool” details of theoretical-empirical papers that have, for some reason, become famous. It is no doubt the case that details can be interesting – and even very interesting – but a detail or sub-reasoning can only be interesting if the overall theoretical framework is a reasonable construct upon a basis of sound premises. This is, I’m afraid, not often the case. Papers are very often empirical or try to develop a theory from a semi-inductive approach to knowledging, and as such it seems the authors have not spent much time thinking through the foundation of the theory developed.

It is a sad truth that even academic researchers doing theoretical work have been so “empiricized” by the pressure of mainstream that have lost touch with the real world as well as interest in and understanding for the importance of premises and assumptions.

This brain washing (to use my adviser’s words) begins early in people’s academic careers. Graduate school is supposed to create a basis of knowledge while teaching the student how to think critically, but the real nature of the programs is that they aim for the streamlining of thought rather than encouragement for individual, unique, pioneering thought. It is true that all programs pay lip service to the dogma that students must learn critical thinking and that they must engage in research on their own even if they are taking a heavy course load. But the truth is that as little time as possible is left for the student to actually engage in such activities.

My own experience is that advanced studies are not very difficult; there are of course problems of notation, language and concepts one has never encountered before, but the level of difficulty is not unsurmountable. It appears to be difficult simply because there is so much work involved with learning what is taught in the course, but the work is not primarily time and effort spent tryting to wrestle complex concepts or advanced reasoning. Most courses cover fairly intuitive concepts.

I realize that I sound like someone who believes he is a Nietzschean übermensch, but that is not at all what I try to say. I have struggled quite a bit with the courses I’ve taken; it is only after finishing the course work that I have realized that the level of difficulty was not as high as I thought. And it has nothing to do with my “understanding what I [now] know.” The problem i have with the structure of the courses is that they seem to focus so much on details and technicalities that students cannot grasp what the professor is trying to say.

Take, for instance, a course I took in advanced micro economic theory. The theory itself, and especially the concepts behind it, is relatively simple – if you know anything about economics you should understand what make actors demand or supply goods and services on the market. But that is not what the course is about. Instead, the course barges into a jungle of calculus where the student struggles with finding first and second order conditions of abstract functions supposedly symbolizing a person’s “utility function” or a firm’s “production function.”

Of course, in the real world there is no such thing as a production function – a firm has assets and produces output using the resources and assets at hand in the best way possible. They are not making a generic function of their business processes and then taking derivatives to find the “optimal point.” And there is even less of a utility function (a somewhat humorous concept, I might add).

The details and technicalities are what is important and the understanding for what is really going on – or why the discipline ended up with these functions and conditions in the first place – is not only left out, it is ignored, dismissed, and considered “unimportant.”

As an analogy, imagine an automobile manufacturer where the engineers are hired to focus on making components as efficiently as possible without thinking of their use in the whole. If no one thinks of what the automobile is supposed to do – or how to put it together – there will be no automobile. Just like experts in economics (which is my field) can talk of “properties” of functions for ages without ever mentioning or even considering what the functions are for, where they come from, or what they try to explain.

What is the importance of the generic, differentiable, mathematical function to how people act in a market?

Academia is so consumed by discussing the details that nobody has time for or ever considers the so-called “whole picture.” Even in “softer” courses it is the case that students need to read as many articles as possible on certain details and technical matters that there simply is no time for reflection. After reading a couple of dozen articles – in a short time period – that all discuss the same technicality, how many students would you think are able to take a step back and reflect on the importance of the technicality qua technicality? Not very many.

It is therefore the case that academic education of today bears no resemblance whatsoever with the classical education of Ancient Athens (such as Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum) or even the education in the modern era. For instance, when German philosopher Immanuel Kant taught courses he discussed problems of morality and let the students consider his own theory and comment on it. I am not saying that the education of that time was unstructured or that it was some kind of dopey discourse post-modern style, but that there was a fundamental interest in ideas.

It may be unfair to compare the modern “hard” science of economics with the soft philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. But the thing is that Aristotle, for example, spent a lot of time on explaining natural phenomena and did so systematically and in an as structured and scientific way possible in that time and age. Yet his aim was not to dissect a detail of a small part of that which he found – he strived to understand and explain the world around him.

A criticism to my comparison of modern economics and the natural science research of Aristotle is that today’s society – as well as our knowledge – is way too advanced to use Aristotles methods. This may be true to some degree, but do not kid yourself – we are not as advanced compared to previous times as you would like to think. In terms of knowledge, we’re to a large extent in the process of rediscovering what scientists hundreds of years before us discovered, described, explained, and understood.

As a matter of fact, we have forgotten the reason for doing scientific work and research. We have to rediscover the purpose of what we are doing, but so far we are so focused on the details and technicalities that we haven’t even started acknowledging that we’re missing the whole picture and even parts of it through staring at one stroke of the pen.

Science is literally worthless if we cannot allow us to reflect on it and make it useful on a higher level of  abstraction; we are so busy doing scientific research that we have forgotten what the research is for.

So it is not surprising that that the [few] questions I [find it worthwhile to] ask aren’t understood. I am no Cicero, so perhaps my questions could be much more clearly articulated. But I doubt that the problem is primarily my inability to phrase the questions clearly enough – the problem, I maintain, is that they are of another nature than what science is thought to be all about. I cannot help finding similarities between theories, conflicts in implicit underlying assumptions, and problems in the questions being asked (rather in how they are answered). I am not interested in the technicalities or detailed answers; I am interested in the questions.

Perhaps you say that it is sad that I was not born a few hundred years ago, in a time where people still thought the way I think and were interested in the kind of things I am interested in. That is, in a time before the sciences were divided into separate disciplines and before the quantification of knowledge-seeking. And you may be right – I was born too late.

But on the other hand, science has lost its way and is maundering without compass or aim. I am certain that we will soon discover that we are not asking the right questions – and that we aren’t really asking questions at all. The recent interest for so-called “interdisciplinary research” is definitely a step in the right direction, even though it is a very small step. Science, I believe, will once again find a way back to the path of knowledge discovery; it is a matter of when not if.

From this perspective, I’d like to think that I was not born a few hundred years too late. Rather, I was born too soon. Or perhaps I can help science find its way back to its roots and purpose; that is, find the way home.