Yesterday’s Post–Tyson & Piketty

Thomas Piketty, 2015 (cropped).jpg
Thomas Piketty

I made a mistake in yesterday’s post. Immediately after the summary of Piketty’s and Tyson’s position I wrote: “Rosenberg believes that both messages are ‘almost quasi-religious,’ which is why they strike fear into economic and religious conservatives.”

The actual quote from the article is: “If this sounds almost quasi-religious, you’re right. And that’s really the deepest terror that conservatives have when encountering Tyson, and the whole sweep of scientific discovery he articulates.” The quote immediately followed the summary of Tyson’s position and was meant to apply to the quasi-religious implication of cosmology. It had nothing to do with Piketty’s economic theories. I apologize for the error.] 

A Few More Thoughts

Also Rosenberg is not suggesting there is anything quasi-religious about the social or the natural sciences—they are based on reason and evidence. What he is saying is that the meaning or implication of scientific theories can have a religious-like effect on people. Persons may be moved—in a near religious way—-by astronomy, economics, biology, or any other science. (They also may be religiously fanatical about astrology, scientology, libertarianism or Ayn Rand too.)

But the evidence for gravity, biological evolution, climate science, or economics stands on its own—as both Tyson and Piketty maintain. Here is how Rosenberg makes the point:

Indeed, open-mindedness lies at the heart of what both Piketty and Tyson are up to. “My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer,” Tyson said. It’s a profoundly anti-dogmatic view, though well in keeping with mystical traditions of all faiths. As for Piketty, a similar spirit is reflected in the data openness that’s an integral part of his work, which makes it particularly easy for others to criticize it — as has happened with the Financial Times recently. Lest there be any doubt, here are the first two paragraphs of his initial response to FT’s criticism:

“I am happy to see that FT journalists are using the excel files that I have put on line! I would very much appreciate if you could publish this response along with your piece. Let me first say that the reason why I put all excel files on line, including all the detailed excel formulas about data constructions and adjustments, is precisely because I want to promote an open and transparent debate about these important and sensitive measurement issues” (if there was anything to hide, any “fat finger problem”, why would I put everything on line?).

As Piketty goes on to explain, wealth data are not nearly as systematic as income data are, so the challenge of making them comparable is considerable, as are the benefits of open dialogue, collaboration and debate. He continues in the same spirit in his detailed response, which he begins by saying, “This is a response to the criticisms — which I interpret as requests for additional information — that were published in the Financial Times on May 23 2014 (see FT article here).” Here, specifically, as is generally the case, openness is a requirement for the advancement of knowledge.

Final Thoughts

I am not an economist and will not revisit these issues again, especially since I have no expertise in economics. Moreover, economics, ethics, politics and religion are notoriously controversial subjects which elicit fervent emotions—and I am too old to argue about such matters. As the body withers and the mind slows down the debates of youth seem less relevant. Besides that I’ve found, as I’ve stated many times in this blog, that you almost never change anyone mind, primarily because people are wedded emotionally to their views. I am sure that I am guilty of this too. To avoid the pitfalls of emotionally based confirmation bias all one can do is apply the scientific method as assiduously as possible and proportion one’s assent to the evidence. This is what real seekers of the truth do and what I have tried to do all my life. Of course scientific truth is always provisional and evolving, so we can never be sure of our answers, as I’ve stated many times in this blog.

Finally the main point of the previous post, and of Rosenberg’s piece, was not to discuss the intricacies of economic theory, but to reflect on the desperate human need for new ideas about how to create a more just and meaningful world. In that spirit I’ll let Tyson have the final word:

“I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

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