Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The structure of science

Ian Stewart, in his book Does God Play Dice?, describes how science is structured. The explanations and theories provided by science are hierarchic; they start from the theories of fundamental particles and atoms, follow through theories of fluid dynamics, ecosystem, etc and finish with theories of sociology and art. Each explanation is constructed on top of the theories that are at a lowest level but in the same time, it does not care of the detail of these lower-level theories: the equations of fluid dynamics are constructed for a small water parcel, typically several moles of water, but it does not care about the individual atoms, nor about the fact that gravity has yet to be explained by the physics of particles. This important view of science is also shared by Edward O. Wilson in his book Consilience. Here is Ian Stewart's quote:

"Current science possesses no truly fundamental theories - not in the sense that they describe what nature actually does. They are all approximations, valid within some reasonably well-defined domain. Quantum mechanics work well at the submicroscopic level. General relativity is great for describing entire universes [...]. Science is a patchwork of models, each of which has been enormously refined within its own domain. The models habitually disagree when those patches overlap. Some disagreements are relatively harmless: atomic theory and continuum fluid mechanics disagree on the fine structure of water, holding it to be respectively to be discrete and infinitely divisible, but on macroscopic scales continuity and discreteness effectively approximate each other. Others are fatal: for example, as I write, the best current theory of astrophysics and the best current theory of cosmology compel us to accept stars older than the universe that contains them. Today's science is a pluralist patchwork of locally valid models, not a global monolith. Indeed it succeeds because it is a pluralist pacthwork of locally valid models.
Our concept of explanation is also a patchwork. A philosophical model that fits it well is what Richard Dawkins calls 'hierarchical reductionism', which sees scientific theories as a hierarchical structure, with some on different levels from others, corresponding to different levels of description of phenomena. (The hierarchy is not rigid and the levels need not be like layers of bricks in a wall.) For example, the complexities of ecosystems are explained by referring them back to those of organisms; organisms are explained by the growth of spatially organized proteins and other macromolecules; the complex organization of organisms is referred back to the linear complexity of their DNA code; the complexity of DNA is referred back to combinations of simpler atoms - and so on, right back to the Theory of Everything.
As Dawkins rightly remarks, it is not necessary to trace every phenomenon right back down this chain of reductions in order to understand it. Chemistry can be considered as 'given' for the purposes of understanding DNA; DNA can be taken as 'given' for the purpose of understanding protein manufacture in organisms, and so on.
What we tend to forget, when told a story with this structure, is that it could have had many different beginnings. Anything that lets us start from the molecular level would have done just as well. A totally different subatomic theory would be an equally valid starting-point for the story, provided it led to the same general feature of a replicable molecule. [...] It has to be or else we would never be able to keep a goat [within a wooden fence] without first doing a Ph.D. in subatomic physics."
Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice?, Farewell, Deep Thought.

A flaw in the model

Excerpt from the Government Oversight Committee (chaired by Rep. Waxman) interviewing Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US central bank on October 23, 2008 about the financial crisis:

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: The question I have for you is, you had an ideology, you had a belief that free, competitive — and this is your statement — “I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We’ve tried regulation. None meaningfully worked.” That was your quote. You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying its price. Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to — to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I’m saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality…

ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak. [...] I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks, is such that they were best capable of protecting shareholders and equity in the firms.
Thus if the banks themselves, the pinnacle of capitalism, fail to follow their own self-interest, what about the rest of the society. Where was that cherish "invisible hand"? invisible.

watch the PBS report.

see also this post from "A sociologist's commonplace book" blog.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"The shock doctrine" by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein lays down in "The shock doctrine, the rise of disaster capitalism" a powerful thesis backed up by an impressive list of evidences, quotes and facts. She argues that, contrary to the claims of Milton Friedman and his followers, hard-core globalist capitalism has not been followed by peace and prosperity but rather by violence and the demise of democracies: Chile, Argentina, Russia are examples where that extreme breed of capitalism has lived on undemocratic regime. Using the pressure of the national debt, the pro-american international financial institutions even forced newly democratic governments to comply to their directives, open their markets to international companies, and shred down the existing net of social measures, all against the will and expectations of the people.

The preferred technique, as Klein explains, is that of the shock doctrine: use a shock, either a natural disaster, a coup d'etat or a political revolution, to take benefit of the stress and the weakness of the people to impose the hardship of lawless capitalism:

Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture -a flood, a war, a terrorist attack- can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world.
Naomi Klein, The shock doctrine, Introduction.

One of the interesting example is that of South Africa that tries to explain why, several years after the coming in power of the African National Congress (ANC), more (black) people are poor than under apartheid: while negotiations for the share of political power were done in the open, the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was negotiating in secret with the international institutions and the economic power of the country detained by the white community. The political agreement gave full human rights to the blacks, while the economic agreement was stripping down the socialist chart of the ANC and was assuring that little economical power can be transferable to the rest of the population:
A longtime antiapartheid activist, Rassool Snyman, described the trap to me in stark terms. «They never freed us. They only took the chain from our neck and put it on our ankles.» Yasmin Sooka, a prominent South African human rights activist, told me that the transition «was business saying, 'We'll keep everything and you [the ANC] will rule in name... You can have political power, you can have the façade of governing, but the real governance will take place somewhere else.'»
Naomi Klein, The shock doctrine, Democracy born in chains.

Although the book is convincing, I do not reject the possibility that a selection of the facts has been done to support overwhelmingly the thesis. Is Naomi Klein entirely balanced? Likely no, but nobody could argue against what happened in Chile, Argentina and South Africa and deny the role played by Milton Friedman and his supporters. Those examples, alone, are enough to make Klein's thesis a likely and worrying story.

Naomi Klein finishes positively by assuring that the people has learnt from the damages of the shock doctrine and will be ready next time. We are at the time of a serious financial crisis. Is it part of the hard-core capitalist agenda and is the people ready for a next round of salvaging measures? Or, on the contrary, is that crisis the end of that extremist capitalism and a return to a humbler, fairer and more social view of capitalism?

He disappeared, 30 years ago...