Yesterday I participated in a seminar sponsored by the University of South Carolina Law Review on today’s financial crisis.
It was a high-quality affair; I learned much.
One participant, however, caused me to wince. This participant was a U.S. Representative from North Carolina, the Hon. Brad Miller. He began his remarks by pointing out that he was the only non-academic speaking at the seminar. Upon hearing this remark, I guessed correctly what he’d say next. It went something like this:
Unlike academics, I don’t see things with theories. I see things with my eyes. And I trust my eyes.
Ah yes, the practical man, unhampered by the blinders of theory, refusing to drink of the inebriating elixir of abstract thought. He looks at the world as it is, straight on, seeing plainly what the theories of woolly headed academics only cause to be misperceived and misconstrued.
Of course, when this particular practical man — this paragon of common sense and enemy of scholastic ceteris paribus-es — looks at the world, he sees plainly that greed and deregulation are the cause of today’s problems. (He also, by the way, determined that greed was the cause of the Great Depression by seeing that Franklin Roosevelt said that it was so. He quoted FDR.)
The implication of this instance of ignorant populism, of course, is that theories only confound sound thinking.
The setting was not one conducive to a debate on epistemology or methodology, so I kept my mouth shut — but had I opened it, I would have simply asked the Hon. Mr. Miller what he sees when he stands outside and looks at the relationship of the sun to the earth. Surely he sees the sun revolving around a perfectly still and stationary earth. He also sees a flat earth.
Were he consistent, he would proudly claim membership in Flat-Earth Society, and wear a lapel button proclaiming that Galileo was wrong.
My great teacher, Leland Yeager, quoted Norman Campbell’s wonderful smack-down of such ignornant criticisms of theorizing:
The plain man — I do not think that this is an overstatement — calls a “theory” anything he does not understand, especially if the conclusions it is used to support are distasteful to him…. It is only because he does not understand “theory” that the plain man is apt to compare it unfavorably with “practice,” by which he means what he can understand.
The practical man is apt to sneer at the theorist; but an examination of any of his most firmly-rooted prejudices would show at once that he himself is as much a theorist as the purest and most academic student; theory is a necessary instrument of thought in disentangling the amazingly complex relations of the external world. But while his theories are false because he never tests them properly, the theories of science are continually under constant test and only survive if they are true. It is the practical man and not the student of pure science who is guilty of relying on extravagant speculation, unchecked by comparison with solid fact.
The Hon. Mr. Miller’s remark that he can see, without the need of any theory, the causes of this crisis is more ridiculous than is Tina Fey’s intentionally comical remark, in her parody of Sarah Palin, that a governor who can “see Russia” from her house is well-equipped to carry out foreign policy.