(This is also posted on the Letter website, with some minor cuts to get under the 1500 word limit.)
I agree with lots of what you say. I too value progress. And I think educating people on the history of progress, and teaching some general understanding of how modern civilization works, is a good project. And I agree with organizing lots of info around what problems people were trying to solve and what their solutions were.
You invited debate on Letter, and I agree with that too. I think interest in debate is important. So I’ll share a criticism and see how it goes. It relates most to your article: How to end stagnation?
I agree that there is a stagnation problem. And I think what you’re doing is productive and useful. But I don’t think your approach addresses the most important problems. I think there’s a deeper issue which must be addressed. You don’t have to do that personally, but some people do.
Funding, government and cultural attitudes to progress are downstream of philosophy. The root cause of the problems in those areas that you discuss is bad philosophy. So bad philosophy must be addressed.
Which philosophy? Crucial topics include how to think rationally, how to find and correct errors, how to judge ideas effectively, how to rationally resolve disagreements between ideas, and how to create knowledge. Ideas about these issues affect how people deal with ~all other topics. If people get it wrong, their thinking about government, economics, new inventions, etc., can easily go wrong, stay wrong, and be counter-productive.
A causal chain is: epistemology -> philosophy of science -> scientific practice -> lab results -> [more steps] -> new products on the market. Errors earlier in the chain cause errors downstream. And rationality actually comes up in every step in that chain, not just at the root.
There’s a lot to discuss about why ideas are important, or what to do about them. One of the major problems, in my view, is that people aren’t very good are resolving disagreements. Most debates are inconclusive. There are lots of errors that some people already know are errors, but that corrective knowledge doesn’t spread well enough. Our society isn’t effective enough at correcting errors even after they’re discovered. So we need something like a better way to organize debates. (I think the issue is primarily about methodology and organization, not the specifics of the issues that people disagree about).
You’ve probably heard something similar before about how big a deal rationality is. Many people talk about critical thinking but don’t know how to do anything effective about it. There’s a disconnect between theory and practice. (I think that means there’s a major problem and that theory should be improved, not that we should give up.) So instead of just discussing principles, I wanted to bring up a concrete example – one of the practical results downstream of my philosophical ideas.
I chose this example because it’s indirectly connected to you, and I thought it might surprise and interest you. You wrote (my bold):
Tyler Cowen has argued that "our regulatory state is failing us" when it comes to covid response (see also his interview in The Atlantic). Alex Tabarrok says that FDA delays have created an "invisible graveyard", which covid has now made painfully visible.
In 1997, Tabarrok did something to harm progress. (I included Cowen in the quote because he’s closely associated with Tabarrok, so it’s relevant to him too.) He wrote a negative review attacking the book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman (which I consider the best economics textbook, but which is not very popular).
What happened? Was it a disagreement about an economic issue which they’ve been unable to resolve in the last 24 years? That’d be bad. Was it related to one of the schisms which prevent the Austrians from being very unified? If they can’t agree among themselves, how can they expect to persuade others? Inability to resolve internal disagreements is an ongoing problem plaguing many communities that have valuable ideas, but I don’t think it’s the main issue here.
(FYI, in the 90s, Tabarrok wrote four articles in Austrian journals, one of which he called “My most Rothbardian paper.” The blog title “Marginal Revolution” is an Austrian theme and Cowen worked as managing editor of the Austrian Economics Newsletter.)
Details are in my Refutation of Tabarrok’s Criticism of Reisman, which links to the original articles. There are multiple serious issues, some of which Reisman covered in his rebuttal. The most glaring issue is Tabarrok’s position that Capitalism “has surprisingly little to say on entrepreneurship”. After Reisman refuted this, Tabarrok repeated it again anyway.
Here are entries in Capitalism’s table of contents which show that Reisman did cover entrepreneurship (I’ve read the book and judged the matter that way too; this is just a quick indication):
- The Benefit from Geniuses
- The General Benefit from Reducing Taxes on the "Rich"
- The Pyramid-of-Ability Principle
- Productive Activity and Moneymaking
- The Productive Role Of Businessmen And Capitalists
- 1. The Productive Functions of Businessmen and Capitalists
- Creation of Division of Labor
- Coordination of the Division of Labor
- Improvements in the Efficiency of the Division of Labor
- 2. The Productive Role of Financial Markets and Financial Institutions
- 3. The Productive Role of Retailing and Wholesaling
- 4. The Productive Role of Advertising
- 1. The Productive Functions of Businessmen and Capitalists
- Smith's Failure to See the Productive Role of Businessmen and Capitalists and of the Private Ownership of Land
- A Rebuttal to Smith and Marx Based on Classical Economics: Profits, Not Wages, as the Original and Primary Form of Income
- Further Rebuttal: Profits Attributable to the Labor of Businessmen and Capitalists Despite Their Variation With the Size of the Capital Invested
- The "Macroeconomic" Dependence of the Consumers on Business
I’ve seen this kind of thing before, e.g. a person argued with me rather persistently that David Deutsch’s book The Fabric of Reality doesn’t discuss solipsism (which is actually such a main theme that it has many sub-headings in the index). But that person wasn’t any sort of respected intellectual leader. Reisman’s book has over nine column inches related to entrepreneurship in the index. I know the number of inches because Reisman told Tabarrok in print. Tabarrok then ignored that and claimed again that Reisman had little to say about entrepreneurship.
I don’t think Tabarrok’s review was in good faith. (To connect this to earlier comments: his thinking methodology wasn’t rational.) I’ve tried very hard to be charitable, but I’m unable to find any viable interpretation where it was written in good faith. So I suspect Tabarrok is a social climber posing as an intellectual. A major cause of the problem is the philosophical errors (inadequate critical thinking and rational analysis) by the readers and fans who let people like Tabarrok get away with it and actually reward it. We need better error correction which is better able to sort out good ideas and thinkers (like Reisman) from bad ones (like Tabarrok, who is currently much more influential than Reisman).
A philosophical theory that my analysis relies on is that no data or arguments should ever be arbitrarily ignored without explanation. It’s unacceptable to say “90% of the evidence and arguments favor X, therefore I’ll conclude that X is probably right”. Every criticism, discrepancy, contradiction or problem has a cause in reality which has an explanation. So I would disagree with the attitude that “It’s just two bad articles, so let’s treat it as random noise”. Some errors can be explained as noise, fluctuations or variance but some can’t. Before attributing something to random noise, one should have an explanation of what is causing that random noise (e.g. medical data has noise due to variations in people’s bodies; manufacturing has noise due to imprecision of materials and tools; science has noise due to imperfect measurement; polling or survey data has noise due to people giving lazy, careless or dishonest answers). Also, people can change their minds and improve; they’re not permanently guilty of past errors; but Tabarrok hasn’t retracted this, nor explained what caused the error and how he later fixed that problem.
I do think Tabarrok should be given another chance to explain himself. I’d be grateful for the opportunity to correct my thinking if I’m in error. What I think would dramatically improve world progress (regardless of the truth of this specific case) is more people in his audience (and the audiences of every other intellectual) who would ask him to explain it – more people who question intellectual authority and expect intellectuals to respond rationally to critical arguments, and who know how to tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable ideas. But without that – without audiences that know how to tell the difference – projects like spreading reasonable ideas about the roots of progress, or writing a great economics textbook, are in a poor position to thrive.
I think that, in a world where the fate of the careers of Tabarrok and Reisman matched their merit, progress wouldn’t be stagnating. But we live in a world where good ideas don’t rise to the top very well. And the problem is related to philosophy: the methods people use to debate, review, judge and spread ideas.