(Warning: this post is written after a glass or two of wine and is about the things that concern me after a glass or two of wine. It is not about investment.)
Brian Cox (read one of his books if you want some light amusement) pointed me (via Twitter) to this abominable article in the The Times Higher Education Supplement. It is quoting an Belfast Professor arguing for a "values based" higher education in the social sciences. To quote:
“At the back of all this is my vision for the public responsibility of social science: we’re about educating global citizens for the 21st century, not just factory-like graduates with their 2:1s,” Professor Brewer said. “It’s about inculcating within our students a set of values, an attitude towards others, that realises the public value.”The Professor (John Brewer) is aware of the obvious criticism... to quote the Times article...
Although he is well aware that many people would like to remove all talk of “values” from the social sciences, Professor Brewer said he sees himself instead in the tradition of 18th-century Scottish moralists such as Adam Smith and David Hume - “the cohort of people who gave us social science in the first place as it grew out of moral philosophy. They did not see any incompatibility between their practice as scientists and their argument that society was based on values.”Professor Brewer tells us that David Hume - of all people - did not see any incompatibility with his practice as scientists and his argument that society was based on values. Well - only if you ignore the fact that he wrestled with it extensively. This is probably the single most famous paragraph ever written by David Hume:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”Hume here is quoted as "the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relationship of objects, nor is it perceiv'd by reason".
Hume had plenty of ideas of where morality comes from but they were incompatible with the practice of a scientist no matter what John Brewer says.
John Brewer - and his attitudes - are precisely what make the social sciences useless. The social sciences can work on some entirely useful facts - and these facts can inform decision making independent of values. Try these for size for recent important arguments:
(a). Did Saddam Hussein in any way contribute to the 9/11 events.
(b). Does the Chinese political system preclude any deal including China on global warming? If so what deal?
(c). Would further regulation of semi-automatic weapons in the US actually reduce the chance of a Sandy Hook like event or are the guns irrevocably in circulation such that this regulation would not make people safer.
(d). Would a three trillion dollar expansion in the US Government debt funded entirely by expanding the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve increase inflation substantially? If so by how much?
(e). Would reducing the penalty for illegal drugs - especially cocaine - reduce violence in Mexico and ultimately would it reduce the illegal immigration pressure on the US-Mexico boarder?
All of these are questions that might concern social scientists (including economists) and in every case people who start with prior ideological commitment (an "ought statement") to one or other position disqualify themselves from the debate. If you don't start by thinking you might be wrong you are far more likely to be wrong. Being guided here by ideology (or the belief in God or John Brewer's values) will make you intellectually useless. Whether printing more money (d) increases inflation is a simple fact - and if you thought it did you might have made your bet and lost considerably...
But hey then - I should not be concerned about a(nother) generation of intellectually useless social scientists and mad classics professors coming out of the British schools. The people who think that Ernest Rutherford was not an intellectual make great trading counter-parties. The best people to trade against are people who do not devise tests for their ideas - whether the tests are as simple as chatting to a few Herbalife distributors or putting a profile up on a Cupid PLC owned dating site.
So - selfishly - I want to wish John Brewer and his ilk the best at destroying the minds of a generation. I only wish he taught at Oxbridge or Harvard (not some Belfast school) as it seems to be Oxbridge and Harvard types I trade against.