Byers on the Blind Spot

by Russ Roberts on May 16, 2011

in Education, Podcast

The latest EconTalk is mathematician William Byers discussing what he calls the blind spot–the uncertainty and imperfection of science. He contrasts the science of certainty with the science of wonder. It was an interesting conversation–the part I liked the best was unplanned–an excursion into the implications of his ideas for teaching.

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Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 11:56 am

Wonderful Hayekian themes.

Hayek, Wittgenstein & Kuhn point out how the domain of shared human understandings and “ways of going on together” are primitive and primary.

That is, explanations end somewhere, and that somewhere is in common ways of going on in their practices, including in their use of language and symbols.

And note well, Hayek, Wittgenstein, Bartley & Kuhn all reject the justificational tradition that goes back to Euclid, the idea that all knowledge is demonstrable knowledge buildable from given elements and related via justification in a construct.

Hayek and Wittgenstein rejected the “God’s Eye View” assumed by the General Equilibrium math construct of economics and by the language / math as interpreted formal construct picture — these constructs failed to account for learning and judgment — the causal element of entrepreneurial learning with profit and loss signals, the causal element of training to learn the use of words and symbols, and training to learn the negative rules of just conduct.

For Hayek and Wittgenstein and Kuhn it is the shared social aspect of knowledge and learning, and the way in which learning is _embedded_ in patterned governed ways of behaving, which exposes the fallacy of the formal construct, given element picture with certain knowledge of these givens and the relations between these formal elements.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 11:59 am

The Dappled World by Nancy Cartwright and The Disorder of Things by John Dupré are good books in the philosophy of science on the radical limits of what physical science actually explains when it comes to everyday phenomena.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm

The Hayek-Popper vision of the open-ended & non-foundational nature of knowledge, contrasted with the Euclid / certainty / justificationalist tradition is well explored in W. W. Bartley’s _Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth_.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Philosopher of science & reasoning Larry Wright makes the case for deliberation, conversation and achieved shared understanding — and against the formalist / deductive ideal in a series of important papers:

“Reasoning and Explaining,” Argumentation, Vol. 16, 2002, 33-46.

“Justification, Discovery, Reason & Argument,” Argumentation, Vol. 15, 2000, 1-8.

“Reasons and the Deductive Ideal,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 23, 1999.

“Argument and Deliberation: a Plea for Understanding,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 92, No. 11, 1995, 565-85.

BonnieBlueFlag May 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

“I am only wise insofar as what I don’t know, I don’t think I know.” – Socrates

Human knowledge has its limits. Natural phenomena – especially in praexology – defy strict systematic understanding. “Knowing what you don’t know,” to paraphrase Socrates, is the foundation of wisdom. Taking action based on supposed knowledge of the unknown is the hubris of central planning and the basis of the economic-calculation problem.

Ashwin May 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Russ – Excellent conversation. Both of Byers’ books are worth reading. As the conversation touched upon, the intellectual divide in this debate can be traced all the way back to Greek times.

One the specific topic of rational contemplation vs subconscious intuition (or simplistically left vs right brain), a lot of the recent research in the neural sciences supports Byers’ view. David Eagleman’s recent book ‘Incognito’ is an excellent overview of just how much of our brain’s work is intuitive and subconscious.

At the risk of sounding mystical, the importance of the honed intuition is central to many eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Zen practitioners have understood for a long time that some knowledge cannot be articulated and therefore teaching cannot be reduced to simply a transfer of knowledge.

Daniel Kuehn May 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I don’t like everything the Post-Keynesians offer, but one thing they get right is that Keynes’s work on uncertainty and inability to predict cannot be stressed enough.

I’ll also echo Greg on the importance of Kuhn and how misleading a justificationist approach to science is. That’s not the point, purpose, or achievement of science. It never was. What I find frustrating about your “economics is not a science” posts, Russ, is that you seem to hold economics up to a justificationist standard and then critiquing it for not meeting that standard.

Science is not perfect – but who ever said it needed to be? It works well enough, and that’s all it really needs to do.

Ryan Vann May 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Forget this blindspot, what are his views on the blindside? Is it worth it to shell out a ton of money for a star left tackle, or should you spread that money out over the o-line or into some skills positions?

Ken May 16, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Heh. Nice one.

I’d keep it in the o-line myself (full disclosure, so as not to act like a climatologist: I used to be a messenger guard, hundreds of years before the dawn of history).

Daniel Kuehn May 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I came across this portion of the interview, and I had the same reaction I do when you talk about people thinking economics can do more than it can actually do.

You say: “And I want to just come back to that because I think it’s such a subtle idea, the idea that by defining it you then say, well, I understand it now, suggests a recipe like a cookbook nature to reality, which is certainly not true. I remember giving a talk on emergent order to a group of economists and it fell incredibly flat. They were unimpressed; they said: Well, we know all that. There’s complexity in the world. I wanted to say: But no, you don’t. It’s so rich; you don’t see it the way I do.”

I don’t think you appreciate the extent to which people actually do understand this, just like they actually do understand that economics is more like biology than it is like physics. As you yourself point out, emergent order dates back to Adam Smith and runs through everything we’ve learned about the invisible hand and the price mechanism. I first came across the idea of “spontaneous”, “emergent” order when reading Paul Krugman about seven or eight years ago, before I had read any Hayek – the same Paul Krugman that many people try to hold up as anti-thetical to emergent order in economics. I don’t understand this tendency. I don’t understand why people take the guy who is famous for his revival of Smithian themes in trade theory and treat him like an enemy of these ideas because he happens to be politically opinionated. I don’t understand the impulse to take the one economist we all deeply appreciate – Smith – and act like he’s abandoned by the majority of economists.

Social complexity and emergent order are ideas that have been around in their modern form for a long time now – and they’ve been around even longer in their classical liberal form. When people say “we know this” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take them at their word.

carlsoane May 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I would agree that Krugman understands the science of complexity. In fact, I think what aggravates people most about Krugman right now is his belief that the complex system of our economy has undergone a phase transition from normal economics to liquidity trap economics. For those who believe that the normal rules still apply, his recent recommendations sound like insanity. From his own reading, he is simply applying the appropriate laws for this phase.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 3:41 pm

People have problems with Krugman because he has character issues and because he pronounces on econ he isn’t competent to pronounce on because he’s dogmatic about stuff the is far from inarguable.

His trade stuff seems universally admired — even if the math had earlier developers.

carlsoane May 16, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Maybe I’m projecting. I don’t like Krugman’s politics and I think he’s rude. But there are millions of people who fall into that category. What has made him so annoying to me is that when he “pronounces”, as you say, he is, more often than not, right.

I have to conclude that either he’s on to something or he’s on a lucky streak. I believe he’s on to something. I also believe, however, that it’s not unreasonable to worry that his prescriptions, if followed strictly, might lead to another phase transition into something worse.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm


Advocating the inflation of a gigantic housing bubble in 2002 — a “good call” ?

Unknown Comic “carlsone” writes,

“What has made him so annoying to me is that when he “pronounces”, as you say, he is, more often than not, right.”

carlsoane May 16, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I’m glad I amused you Greg. I didn’t say he’d been infallible. Good luck finding an immaculate economist over the last 10 years.

carlsoane May 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Greg it’s not clear that Krugman ever “advocated” a housing bubble. Here’s Arnold Kling on the subject:

And, if Krugman is pronouncing on things he knows nothing about, why is his the most read blog by economists:

I, for one, have come to look at Krugman as an excellent prognostician who doesn’t worry enough about over prescribing antibiotics.

And, Greg, when you’re mocking someone, you should try to spell their name right.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Plenty think that if it’s knowledge he complexity has or will be captured in a math construct or measured somehow — and that our knowledge of, say, entrpreneurial learning & judgment as the fundamental cause in econ, isn’t science and doesn’t count as part of justified demonstrable science because we can’t measure it and test it — and we know of iit the wrong way, because we share similar minds as fellow learners.

Russ Roberts May 16, 2011 at 10:16 pm


I disagree.

Part of my disagreement is introspective. I was trained at the University of Chicago which is a place that at the time was extremely interested in the Invisible Hand and related insights. I read Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society. When I compare my understanding of the concept today to what it was ten years ago, I am amazed at how much richer my understanding is. The real test of whether you understand complexity is not whether you think there are unintended consequences, for example. It is much richer than that. Vernon Smith, who has a Nobel Prize, made a similar confession on EconTalk that he did not appreciate Hayek’s insights in that article until he had read it many times.

The idea of complexity is very deep. The more you think about it, the more you apply it, the more you understand it.

Greg.Ransom May 16, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Thomas Sowell said the same thing about reading “The Use of Knowledge in Society” as a student in Friedman’s class, and then reading it again in the mid-1970s, after teaching at UCLA with Alchian, etc.

Alchian, by the way, is one of the few who were blown away by Hayek’s essay when he read it — he ran down the hall to tell a colleague what an amazingly goofpd article it was, and the article was immediately important to Alchian.

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 5:41 am

Certainly some groups of people are more familiar with Hayek than others. But what are we talking about – specific Hayekian writing on it or complexity and emergent order? That’s largely my point. These ideas come from more places than Hayek.

Hayek is certainly a good place to get it, of course.

Daniel Kuehn May 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Two other sources that come to mind when Byers mentions Newton holding ideas in his head.

- Dewey on the Reflex Arc in Psychology (1896), which also holds that learning and experiencing isn’t sequential and mechanical and instead is a matter of seeing things as a whole.

- Keynes on Newton “Newton, the Man” (1946). Keynes played a critical role in collecting and buying up Newton’s papers (in many cases reading them for the first time since Newton had written them) so that they could be preserved together at Cambridge. One of the things he noted in this address on Newton (he died before being able to deliver it) was this ability of Newton’s to instinctively come to a solution to his problems before working out the solution.

Greg.Ransom May 16, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Yes, Dewey is an important early anti-foundationalist, “evolutionary” epistemologists.

There are some papers in the literature exploring the Hayek / Dewey compare and contrast.

Hayek was a Dewey critic — Hegelian / rationalist constructivist elements remained in Dewey.

Daniel Kuehn May 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm

There is a null hypothesis journal, which you may be interested in – it’s called the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis. I think hiding null results is less common than you think. They drill into you so thoroughly that data mining is a huge taboo that I don’t think that’s the problem.

What may be a problem is a publication bias – not that studies omit their insignificant regressions, but that studies with insignificant findings don’t get published because they’re not interesting (the exception, of course, is if you’re disproving someone else’s earlier finding – in which case it is interesting). Wider publication of null results would help this publication bias.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 4:59 pm

How about a 10 year moratorium on the publication of math constructs & econometric studies: force economists to do what biologists do — field research.

Daniel Kuehn May 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Biologists model things all the time, and biostatistics is as essential as econometrics is.

Your excesses on this end are as bad as the excesses that Byers notes.

Greg Ransom May 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I’m obviously exaggerating, Daniel. Lighten up.

There are BIG differences between (most) biologists and (nearly all) economists, however.

Field research is standard part of their work for many classes of biologist. Almost no economists do it.

The underlying fact is that (most) biologists are intimately familiar with some aspect of the real world — this can’t be said of economists.

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 5:45 am

Clearly you weren’t proposing an actual moratorium, but it’s interesting to hear you of all people tell me to lighten up. You are “excessive” in your critique of mathematical economics and econometrics. It was exactly the right word for it.

Don’t slip into scientism – economics is more like biology than physics – I’ve said this for a long time. But just because it is similar in terms of complexity, etc. doesn’t mean mimicing the methods of biology is the right way to go. Our methods have evolved over decades if not centuries. Superimposing your own blueprint on that natural evolution is going to be unlikely to produce good results.

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 11:35 am

You need to substantiate this with at least one fact. I say this is bunk — a falsehood. I’ve pointed out that mathematical economics and econometrics have important uses. What I’ve done in addition is I’ve shown unassailable significant limits to what these can do, and along with others I’ve pointed out pathological uses of these.

People who abuse mathematics and statistics have no foot to stand on accusing me of being “excessive” — especially when their replies to me invariable are constituted by demonstrable false attributions of positions I don’t at all hold.

I’m guessing you fall in the same category, because there seems to be no ground for you claim, only an attitude.

Daniel writes,

“You are “excessive” in your critique of mathematical economics and econometrics.”

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 11:37 am

I’ve never done this,

“But just because it is similar in terms of complexity, etc. doesn’t mean mimicing the methods of biology is the right way to go. Our methods have evolved over decades if not centuries. Superimposing your own blueprint on that natural evolution is going to be unlikely to produce good results.”

I’ve studied the methods of biology with one of the best philosophers of biology in the world. I’m guessing I have a better sense of the differences between these explanatory programs than you do.

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 11:38 am

Look what Coase did — just a bit of field research, and he came away with enough to transform economic thought …

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 11:45 am

Greg – no one is disputing the value of field work. The problem is your baseless attacks on mathematical theory and statistics.

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 11:46 am

And don’t put me in the camp of people who abuse economic methods.

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 11:51 am

re: “I’m guessing you fall in the same category, because there seems to be no ground for you claim, only an attitude”

And this is also rich coming from a guy that deletes substantive comments from me on his blog – comments that didn’t have any animosity or personal attacks at all. You delete them, and then turns around and accuse me of having not provided substantive arguments in the exact same comment thread! Give me a break, Greg.

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Daniel, you have several posts on my blog.

None engage substance on the useful and abusive use of math & statistics in economics.

There’s no evidence you’ve posted anything else.

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Again, you’ve asserted this, you haven’t backed up your assertion with even the very slightest substance. You haven’t engaged me, you haven’t engaged the arguments of Wittgenstein, Hayek, Kuhn, Mises or dozens of top economists and philosophers writing on the limitations, misuses, and _proper_ uses of math constructs, statistics, “predictive testing” and “measurement” in economics.

Every single person who’s engaged me on this topic has put up nothing but absurd and patently false and incompetent characterization of my position and that of Hayek and other’s I’ve put forward.

Incompetence is not an argument

Daniel writes,

“The problem is your baseless attacks on mathematical theory and statistics.”

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Daniel, I’ve never deleted any comment by you. NONE.

There is a chance the SPAM filter grabbed something, but you’ve never as much as sent me a note to give me a heads up on any such problem

Not a single note.

Daniel writes,

“And this is also rich coming from a guy that deletes substantive comments from me on his blog.”

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Daniel, I’m not Brad DeLong, and this is FALSE.

In the last month I remember deleting one message from pseudonymous poster spouting obscenities. Not you, I gather.

Daniel writes,

“You delete them.”

Greg Ransom May 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm

You’ve NEVER substantiated this. You haven’t even tried.

Stop making stuff up, unless you can but up with, like, actual substance.

Talking out of your hat with NOTHING doesn’t count.

Daniel writes,

“The problem is your baseless attacks on mathematical theory and statistics.”

J Cortez May 16, 2011 at 6:22 pm

This econtalk was great. Thank you.

Daniel Kuehn May 17, 2011 at 5:45 am

This was my favorite econtalk in a while. Very good.

Jake W. May 17, 2011 at 6:48 am

“I don’t know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment.” – Vonnegut (RIP)

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