On Not Getting It

As a student of economics I am exposed to idiotic statements more or less daily. What is so moronically stupid about these statements is not that they have to do with economics or that they are uttered by stupid people. On the contrary, the problem seems to permeat our postmodern society and most bright people are totally lost in “the way it is.”

What I am referring to is the scientific world view. This is not the scientific drive, i.e. the motivation to find the truth and to learn about the world, but the overly scientific anti-identification of that which is studied. It is as prevalent in the social sciences as it is in politics and buesiness management. There are no people around anymore, there’s only statistics and faceless aggregates.

In economics this is very obvious – the study of human action is almost completely reduced to discussions on how to mitigate biases and avoid multicollinearity in econometric functions. Now, in what sense would you gain understanding of why people act in certain ways through tweaking regression models? The obvious answer – and it is so obvious most economists simply don’t see it – is that you don’t. You don’t gain any knowledge whatsoever of why people acted a certain way through running tests of heteroskedasticity and deciding whether or not to use “White’s estimator.”

Economics is the most obvious victim of what I would like to call scientism, the belief that anything that uses aggregates and that is seemingly universal – through (at any price) avoiding to acknowledge the identity or personality of the individuals studied – is more valuable as a science. Actually, the common view is that as long as you can hide the fact that there are individuals in “the data” any conclusions you might draw are generally applicable.

In a recent discussion with a fellow student, I claimed that the empirical study of people is totally worthless unless your aim is to understand why exactly those individuals acted in that exact way in that exact situation. My point was that if the “experiment” would be repeated with the same people (as “data”) the outcome would be completely different because people learn. And if it would be repeated, and the situation could be set up exactly the same way, but the “data” (the people) would be different individuals the outcome would still be different – simply because they are different people and therefore react differently in a number of ways.

And on top of it all, these examples are still ridiculous – it simply isn’t possible to create the exact same situation again and expose people to it. Even if the setting (or framework) would be the same, the people would have different subjective experiences (no matter if they are “the same” or “others”), which would affect the results.

One could argue that this is why we have confidence intervals and standard deviations. But that implies that people act in such a way that the outcome of everybody’s actions are nicely distributed in a bell-shaped curve. How often would you say that happens? That would depend on what kind of people you happen to have in your sample, wouldn’t it? The point is that one cannot study people the way one studies dead matter, simply because people are people, i.e. thinking creatures that learn from experience and that aren’t reducible to a “nature” the same way a rock would be.

This “scientism” is not only prevalent in the [social] sciences – it is a cornerstone of modern politics as well as business management. In politics there is no such thing as an individual; it simply doesn’t happen that politicians discuss a certain individual. And if they happen to use the word “individual” they use it as a stereotypical “nature” of the items in the population they rule. In my ten years in party politics, I haven’t heard one politician discuss how decisions or policies affect individuals – the best I’ve heard is the use of stereotypical examples of “the average family” or “the single mom.” But never did anyone care to add flesh and blood to their dead skeletons.

There is a reason for this, even though politicians are usually too stupid to understand it. It simply isn’t possible to propose or support policies that affect people’s lives unless you make sure to forget that they are real people. Even cold-hearted, ignorant, and self-centered politicians wouldn’t have the guts nor morality to put hundreds or thousands of people in misery through pushing a button. Most people simply don’t have it in them to coldly calculate plusses and minuses while radically and forcefully change the lives of a great number of people with the stroke of a pen.

The lesson to learn is this: would there really be wars if those waging wars would see each and every person they would have to send to their deaths? It is unlikely, even though there are some really, really disturbed people out there.

The same is the case in large corporations, where the CEO or president usually has no clue about the people working for him (or her). Of course, the nature of a corporation is distinctly different from that of a state – the corporation gives, and any punishment from a corporation is to “not give”; a state takes, and any punishment is to “take more” or “kill” whereas every “reward” consists of “taking less” away from that person. Corporations can no doubt be horrible, but they are not a state.

The problem we have here is the “scientific” way of approaching one’s work: scientists who have no idea that the statistics they’re using are really people, won’t mind drawing horrible conclusions; politicians not understanding there are individuals and individual suffering as a result of every decision they make, don’t have a problem with “redistributing” from some to some or killing off some for the benefit of others; and business managers can take irresponsible risks when they can “simply”, if something goes wrong, cut the corporation’s employment with “10%” rather than, which is equally true, throw hundreds of families into unemployment and misery.

Scientism is the problem, and it arises as an effect of centralization. Centralization calls for stereotypes and grouping, for one-policy-fits-all kind of decisions, and cold-hearted leadership for some unidentified aim. What this world so desperately needs is radical decentralization. The problem with our society is not only that there is a huge parasitic cancer tumor feeding off our lives and liberties (i.e., the State), but that it is too large-scale and too centralized. Not only must the State go, but we need to get back to seeing people as people.

Seeing people as people is what so many individuals in our world have forgotten. Be they scientists, politicians or corporate managers – they all share the same fallacy in thinking that scale is a good thing, that personal ties are “in the way” and a problem for efficiency or whatever.

I am a person and I intend to continue being one. You better start seeing me as one.