Milton Friedman’s Methodology Essay

The economist Milton Friedman wrote an essay called “The Methodology of Positive Economics” (reprinted as Chapter 7 of The Philosophy of Economics: An Anthology edited by Hausman). This essay is influential, but it is also bad.

Positive and normative economics

Friedman writes about a distinction between positive and normative economics:

Positive economics is in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments. As Keynes says, it deals with “what is,” not with “what ought to be.” Its task is to provide a system of generalizations that can be used to make correct predictions about the consequences of any change in circumstances. Its performance is to be judged by the precision, scope, and conformity with experience of the predictions it yields. In short positive economics is, or can be, an “objective” science, in precisely the same sense as any of the physical sciences.

In Section I, Friedman writes more about positive and normative economics:

Normative economics and the art of economics, on the other hand, cannot be independent of positive economics. Any policy conclusion necessarily rests on a prediction about the consequences of doing one thing rather than another, a prediction that must be based – implicitly or explicitly – on positive economics. There is not, of course, a one-to-one relation between policy conclusions and the conclusions of positive economics; if there were, there would be no separate normative science. Two individuals may agree on the consequences of a particular piece of legislation. One may regard them as desirable on balance and so favor the legislation; the other, as undesirable and so oppose the legislation.

I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight. An obvious and not unimportant example is minimum-wage legislation. Underneath the welter of arguments offered for and against such legislation there is an underlying consensus on the objective of achieving a “living wage” for all, to use the ambiguous phrase so common in such discussions. The difference of opinion is largely grounded on an implicit or explicit difference in predictions about the efficacy of this particular means in furthering the agreed-on end. Proponents believe (predict) that legal minimum wages diminish poverty by raising the wages of those receiving less than the minimum wage as well as of some receiving more than the minimum wage without any counterbalancing increase in the number of people entirely unemployed or employed less advantageously than they otherwise would be. Opponents believe (predict) that legal minimum wages increase poverty by increasing the number of people who are unemployed or employed less advantageously and that this more than offsets any favorable effect on the wages of those who remain employed. Agreement about the economic consequences of the legislation might not produce complete agreement about its desirability, for differences might still remain about its political or social consequences; but, given agreement on objectives, it would certainly go a long way toward producing consensus.

Friedman thinks that there are basic values and that there is no rational way of deciding between basic values. He thinks he can avoid talking about those issues by discussing issues of implementation of supposedly shared values. There are at least two problems with this.

The first problem is that people don’t all share similar values. Friedman’s description of the minimum wage controversy is false. There are people who think the minimum wage will help the poor. There are many other people who don’t think that, including many politicians. Politicians will vote for minimum wage legislation to get elected even if they think it’s harmful.

The second problem is that it is possible to have critical discussions about values because values are linked to other ideas, including other values. If a person is a socialist and claims to value science, then you could explain to him  that socialism is incompatible with science. Scientists create knowledge by guessing solutions to problems and then criticising and testing the guesses. They have to be free to guess even if the government dislikes a guess. They also have to be free to obtain the resources needed to test guesses. Since socialism destroys resources, the resources needed for experiments are difficult or impossible to obtain. So a socialist who values science and comes to understand these problems will stop being a socialist.

Friedman’s epistemology

In Section II, Friedman writes:

The ultimate goal of a positive science is the development of a “theory” or “hypothesis” that yields valid and meaningful (i.e., not truistic) predictions about phenomena not yet observed.

Friedman claims that the point of science is to make predictions – he is an instrumentalist. The point of science is to explain how the world works, it is not primarily to make predictions. One weakness of this way of looking at science is that it neglects the problem that predictions and observations are both explanations. For example, if you want to explain a decline in employment by the imposition of a minimum wage then you have to understand the means by which that reduction is supposed to happen. If employers are anticipating that the minimum wage will rise in the future they may stop hiring people at wages below the new proposed minimum before the legislation is passed. If employers don’t anticipate the minimum wage rise, then many people working below that wage may be fired quickly. Government unemployment figures may also need some interpretation and explanation. The government may choose only to count as unemployed people who have signed on for government benefits, so if lots of people who were fired go into black or grey markets instead it might be difficult to see the effect of the minimum wage on unemployment.

Friedman continues:

Such a theory is, in general, a complex intermixture of two elements. In part, it is a “language” designed to promote “systematic and organized methods of reasoning.” In part, it is a body of substantive hypotheses designed to abstract essential features of complex reality.

Languages include substantive claims about how the world works that have come to be regarded as uncontroversial, and those claims are sometimes wrong. For example, the term “price gouger” implies an adverse moral judgement of people who charge high prices for goods to those who are in less fortunate circumstances, e.g. – people charging a lot for food after a hurricane. In reality, “price gougers” often had the foresight to store goods in anticipation of a disaster and if they don’t charge high prices they may run out of rare goods quickly so there is nothing left for some people who would otherwise get those goods. So “price gougers” are sometimes in the right.

Later Friedman writes:

Viewed as a body of substantive hypotheses, theory is to be judged by its predictive power for the class of phenomena which it is intended to “explain.” Only factual evidence can show whether it is “right” or “wrong” or, better, tentatively “accepted” as valid or “rejected.” As I shall argue at greater length below, the only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of its predictions with experience.

This claim is wrong. Many ideas can be rejected without testing as pointed out by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality Chapter 1. For example, I can reject the theory that what I will have for lunch is determined by the atmospheric pressure in Baltis Vallis on Venus without bothering to test it. There is no explanation of why the atmospheric pressure in Baltis Vallis should have anything to do with what I eat and there are explanations of why they shouldn’t be related. I am not measuring that pressure and have no way of knowing about it, and my decisions are a result of my knowledge.

Friedman continues:

The hypothesis is rejected if its predictions are contradicted (“frequently” or more often than predictions from an alternative hypothesis); it is accepted if its predictions are not contradicted; great confidence is attached to it if it has survived many opportunities for contradiction. Factual evidence can never “prove” a hypothesis; it can only fail to disprove it, which is what we generally mean when we say, somewhat inexactly, that the hypothesis has been “confirmed” by experience.

If a hypothesis is contradicted by evidence that’s a problem for the hypothesis regardless of whether it happens frequently. “Frequently” is a vague description that Friedman doesn’t explain. You might expect that your experimental data won’t lie perfectly on the curve predicted by a theory as a result of imperfections in the experimental apparatus, small fluctuations in the environment surrounding the apparatus and that sort of thing. Does that count as frequent deviation? If these “deviations” are understood properly then they don’t count as deviations from the theory being tested. Friedman is correct when he claims that factual evidence can’t prove a theory. He doesn’t explain how failing to refute a theory can give you confidence in it. Nor does he explain why confidence, which is a subjective feeling about a theory, is relevant to methodology.

Friedman on unrealistic assumptions

Friedman also has bad ideas about unrealistic assumptions in theories. In Section II he writes:

In so far as a theory can be said to have “assumptions” at all, and in so
far as their “realism” can be judged independently of the validity of predictions, the relation between the significance of a theory and the “realism” of its “assumptions” is almost the opposite of that suggested by the view under criticism. Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense).The reason is simple. A hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, that is, if it abstracts the common and crucial elements from the mass of complex and detailed circumstances surrounding the phenomena to be explained and permits valid predictions on the basis of them alone. To be important, therefore, a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions; it takes account of, and accounts for, none of the many other attendant circumstances, since its very success shows them to be irrelevant for the phenomena to be explained.

Not all abstractions are unrealistic. For example, treating a particular region on a computer chip as a NAND gate is an abstraction, but it may be a very realistic abstraction that models what that section of the chip will do very accurately. And there are many other examples like this. So why is Friedman saying this?

In Section III he gives an example that explains why he’s saying it:

It is only a short step from these examples to the economic hypothesis that under a wide range of circumstances individual firms behave as if they were seeking rationally to maximize their expected returns (generally if misleadingly called “profits”) and had full knowledge of the data needed to succeed in this attempt; as if, that is, they knew the relevant cost and demand functions, calculated marginal cost and marginal revenue from all actions open to them, and pushed each line of action to the point at which the relevant marginal cost and marginal revenue were equal. Now, of course, businessmen do not actually and literally solve the system of simultaneous equations in terms of which the mathematical economist finds it convenient to express this hypothesis, any more than leaves or billiard players explicitly go through complicated mathematical calculations or falling bodies decide to create a vacuum. The billiard player, if asked how he decides where to hit the ball, may say that he “just figures it out” but then also rubs a rabbit’s foot just to make sure; and the businessman may well say that he prices at average cost, with of course some minor deviations when the market makes it necessary. The one statement is about as helpful as the other, and neither is a relevant test of the associated hypothesis.

Friedman’s assumption isn’t just unrealistic. It contradicts the explanation for why businessmen actually make a profit on a free market. An individual businessman has to make guesses about how to make money and then test those guesses. The businessman might do AB testing of different products or different ways of displaying products. So the businessman would do lots of stuff that doesn’t work. And a businessman who tries too many experiments that don’t work will fail and will stop being a businessman. The resources he would have used will go to businessmen who haven’t failed. The operation of the market depends on profit and loss. Leaving out loss eliminates part of the explanation of how markets work in reality. The reason Friedman made this assumption is that it provided him with a way to construct a tractable mathematical model of a business. This made Friedman look clever to people who are easily impressed by maths. This is also the reason for his instrumentalism. By ignoring the requirements for coming up with a correct explanation he could construct a model that bears scant resemblance to reality but appears to make predictions if you don’t pay enough attention.

Children don’t respond fully to reason?

Once in a while i have a discussion with somebody who offers up the following excuse for hitting children:

Kids don’t fully respond to reason, else they wouldn’t so frequently & deliberately disobey their parents’ reasonable requests.


If children don’t respond fully to reason, then there must be some limit beyond which they don’t respond to reason, such as particular topics or whatever. But this raises a problem. Let’s say that children don’t respond to reason about jam. There are various things that related to jam in some way like glass jars. So do children respond to reason about glass jars? What about phenomena associated with glass jars, like refraction? What about the physics of the constituents of glass like silicon and oxygen? What about the constituents of those atoms, like protons and neutrons? Unless you can answer questions like that this stuff about the child being unreasonable is just an excuse. And if you can explain in what respect the child is acting unreasonably, then why not use that explanation to convince the child to act differently?

There is another problem. If the child is supposed to enact the parents ideas he has to figure out how to do this. But the claim is that children are not capable of using reason on that topic. So how could the child obey the parent?

One more problem: the author states that children “deliberately” refuse to enact a parent’s reasonable requests. If a child is doing something deliberately then he has a purpose in doing it and he is using reason to figure out how to do what he wants. So that description of what the child is doing contradicts the claim that the child is not capable of using reason on the very topic where the parent and child have the disagreement.

What is actually happening is that the child disagrees with the parent. This happens because the child has to figure out what he wants to do next by himself. He can’t act on an idea in another person’s head. The parent may provide the child with assistance in figuring out what to do next by providing explanations of flaws in the child’s plans or alternatives the child might prefer. The parent might be wrong about what’s best for the child for many reasons. The parent might not understand the child’s preferences well enough to offer good suggestions for meeting them. The parent may dislike the child’s preferences and try to thwart them without knowing how to criticise those preferences. Since the parent doesn’t understand those preferences he can’t explain what’s wrong with them and so convince the child to change his preferences.

The West has a tradition of reason that involves figuring out better ideas through critical argument without violence. Using violence to get a child to do what you want contradicts that rational tradition. Parents should want to figure out ways of improving existing parenting traditions to make them more rational. For good explanations of these topics see Fallible Ideas materials on Taking Children Seriously and Parenting and Tradition.

Private property needs no justification

Matt Bruenig, a writer for a socialist website called Jacobin magazine claims that private property isn’t justified:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.”

Bruenig later quotes libertarian Matt Zwolinski:

“If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.”

No source is provided for the quotation, so Bruenig is against good scholarship as well as capitalism. Bruenig asks about justification of private property instead of looking at what problems capitalism solves. This is an example of justificationism being used to shield an anti-rational ideology, socialism, from criticism. Since justification is impossible, that is true but irrelevant. What is relevant is how capitalism solves the problem of disputes about how to use a piece of property, which Bruenig doesn’t discuss.

Private property is an institution that helps people solve disputes about how to use property and to enable the correction of errors in how property is used. Suppose that Jim wants to use a particular unowned place to grow corn. Peter would like to use the same place to graze cattle. That place can’t be used to fulfil both of those priorities at the same time because the cows will eat corn and will knock it down and trample it. No matter who uses that place somebody won’t get to fulfil his initial preference for it. If nobody ever uses that place then nobody’s preferences for how to use it will be fulfilled. So there is a problem to be solved. Note that this problem exists whether or not we have an institution of private property. So Bruenig can’t blame that problem on capitalism or private property.

Private property provides a way to solve the disagreement between Jim and Peter. Under a system of private property, the initiation of the use of force is forbidden so a person will only engage in an exchange if he prefers what he will get to what he gives up. So an exchange will solve some problems for the people who engage in it. If Jim has fenced in some land and planted corn on it and nobody else owned the land before him, then he owns the land and Peter shouldn’t use it. If Peter accepts this rule then he can move on and look for somewhere else to graze cows. Or if there is no more suitable grazing land, Peter can come up with a new idea about what he should do since he hasn’t found any grazing land. Or if Peter can make a lot of money from cows he might be able to pay Jim to let Peter take over Jim’s corn field.

In the world as it exists now, a lot of property is already owned and some of it was taken by initiating of the use of force against previous owners. In many cases the original owner hasn’t been identified. Under capitalism, you can pay somebody to find stuff you used to own and you may be able to get it back. So identifiable problems in current ownership titles can be corrected.

Intervening by initiating the use of force in exchanges of property can only thwart the process of getting property back to its rightful owners. Socialism involves initiating the use of force, and so prevents some property exchanges that would solve problems. So socialism prevents people from solving the kinds of problems Bruenig pointed out.

Escape from Jan Lester Part 1

In Escape from Leviathan, Jan Lester claims to use critical rationalism and to defend anarchocapitalism (ancap). I think that many of the arguments are wrong and some of them contradict good Popperian ideas. This post is about one example.

On pp. 137-138, Lester writes:

Popper sees that the people ‘never rule themselves in any concrete, practical sense’ ([1945] 1977, 1: 125). His understanding of ‘democracy’ is not rule by the people but rather a way of limiting bad rule, ultimately in order to preserve maximum equal ‘freedom’ – or so he asserts. But from a libertarian viewpoint, liberal democracy is a practical contradiction (at least, to the extent that ‘liberal’ means having respect for interpersonal liberty): the more liberty individuals have the less they can be ruled by ‘the people’ (or anyone else). A liberal democracy is a sort of substitute for all-out civil war. The winning side imposes its rules on the others by force and the threat of force. The taxation and regulation of people who are not imposing on anyone are themselves forms of aggressive imposition rather than peaceful persuasion. Popper insists that ‘any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state’ ([1945] 1977, 1: 111). The possibility of competing private police and courts protecting persons and their property and of anarchic defense are beyond rational consideration for Popper.

He writes that the question “‘Who should rule?” … begs for an authoritarian answer’ ([1963] 1978, 25). Libertarians disagree. ‘Each should rule himself: a sovereign individual’ is a coherent non-authoritarian answer. Popper prefers to ask, ‘How can we organise our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers … cannot do too much damage?’ ([1963] 1978, 25). But this clearly does presuppose the necessity for political authority over subjects. The very possibility of individual sovereignty, rather than the ‘institutional control of the rulers’, is also ‘thereby eliminated without ever having been raised’ ([1945] 1977, 1: 126). And with libertarianism, analogously with Popper’s defense of good democratic institutions, the institution of individual sovereignty would ipso facto be maximally spread for safety.

Popper is right when he writes that the question ‘Who should rule?” … begs for an authoritarian answer’ and Lester is wrong when he claims that in a free society the individual would rule. Suppose that I was walking down the street in a future ancap society and somebody tries to mug me. We have a violent struggle and he dies as a result. My guess is that this series of events would lead to an investigation by ancap protection agencies to check whether I was acting in self defence or if I just murdered the mugger. As a result of this investigation they might use force against me if they decided I had murdered the mugger. Whether the protection agencies would use force or not would be a result of them applying principles and rules of law. The legitimacy of their decision would be based on whether the people conducting the investigation had acted properly and competently. The mere fact that they work for a protection agency wouldn’t be sufficient to stop people from criticising or overturning their decision. Nor would the fact that I acted on my own judgement be sufficient to defend me against a charge of murder. Under some circumstances, such as when a person is accused of a crime, the actions of an individual or an ancap protection agency would be under the control of institutions in an ancap society. So Lester is wrong and Popper is right on that particular issue even in an ancap society.

The constitution of statism

In previous posts 1,2 I have criticised material that F. A. Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom. In this post I criticise The Constitution of Liberty because it is another Hayek book that is advocated by people who claim to be in favour of free markets. I think this book is bad enough that I doubt that anyone who likes it will be a consistent advocate of freedom.

In Chapter One Hayek writes:

By “coercion” we mean such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another. Except in the sense of choosing the lesser evil in a situation forced on him by another, he is unable either to use his own intelligence or knowledge or to follow his own aims and beliefs. Coercion is evil precisely because it thus eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another. Free action, in which a person pursues his own aims by the means indicated by his own knowledge, must be based on data which cannot be shaped at will by another. It presupposes the existence of a known sphere in which the circumstances cannot be so shaped by another person as to leave one only that choice prescribed by the other.

This is not a clear explanation of coercion. Suppose that I invite a friend to my house and he falls asleep. I want to go out and I lock the back door but not the front door and there are no other exits from the house. My friend has to leave by the front door. Have I coerced him or not under Hayek’s definition? Hayek continues:

Coercion, however, cannot be altogether avoided because the only way to
prevent it is by the threat of coercion.

If the only way to prevent coercion is by the threat of coercion then any person who could get away with murder would commit murder. Suppose a man is on holiday in a large forest with his son and he could get away with murdering his son and burying the body where it would never be found. Since he won’t be coerced for this murder the man would murder his own child according to Hayek.

In Chapter Nineteen Hayek writes:

“Social insurance” thus from the beginning meant not merely compulsory insurance but compulsory membership in a unitary organization controlled by the state. The chief justification for this decision, at one time widely contested but now usually accepted as irrevocable, was the presumed greater efficiency and administrative convenience (i.e., economy) of such a unitary organization. It was often claimed that this was the only way to assure sufficient provision at a single stroke for all those in need.
There is an element of truth in this argument, but it is not conclusive. It is probably true that, at any given moment, a unified organization designed by the best experts that authority can select will be the most efficient that can be created.

Social insurance enforced by the state has not been chosen voluntarily, so there is no way of assessing whether people would voluntarily give up the required resources. So by what criterion can Hayek say that a social insurance scheme is efficient? Hayek provides no answer to this question because there is none. A government “economist” will come up with some number and call it efficiency but that number is meaningless because the people subjected to social insurance have to pay for it whether they find it useful or not.

In Chapter Twenty Hayek writes:

It is the great merit of proportional taxation that it provides a rule which is likely to be agreed upon by those who will pay absolutely more and those who will pay absolutely less and which, once accepted, raises no problem of a separate rule applying only to a minority.

If people are likely to agree to proportional taxation then the government should stop enforcing its collection because people will pay it voluntarily. The government won’t do that because people don’t agree with the rule.

Many people are puzzled by why Hayek writes so unclearly. I’m not puzzled. Unclear writing and thought are required to evade problems with statist ideas like progressive taxation that are explained by economics. Hayek was an anti-capitalist who had some mild doubts about what powers the government should have because he had read Socialism by Ludwig von Mises without understanding it properly. If you’re going to read about free markets you might as well skip Hayek and read competent economists like Mises and George Reisman.

Salmon on rational prediction

The philosopher Wesley Salmon wrote a paper called Rational Prediction criticising Karl Popper’s critical rationalism in 1981. The thrust of Salmon’s objection is the following:

According to Popper, negative instances provide rational grounds for rejecting generalisations. If, however, we make observations and perform tests, but no negative instance is found, all we can say deductively is that the generalisation in question has not been refuted. In particular, positive instances do not provide confirmation or inductive support for any such unrefuted generalisation. At this stage, I claim, we have no basis for rational prediction. Taken in themselves, our observation reports refer to past events, and consequently they have no predictive content. They say nothing about future events. If, however, we take a general statement as a premise, and conjoin to it some appropriate observation statements about past or present events, we may be able to deduce a conclusion which says something about future occurrences and which, thereby, has predictive content. Popper himself gives this account (Schilpp [1974],p. 1030) of the logic of prediction.

The problem of rational prediction concerns the status of the general premise in such an argument. One may claim, as Popper does, that we ought not to use a generalisation which has actually been refuted as a premise in a predictive argument of this sort, for we are justified in regarding it as false. We ought not to employ premises which are known to be false if we hope to deduce true predictions. The exclusion of refuted generalisations does not, however, tell us what general premise should be employed. Typically there will be an infinite array of generalisations which are compatible with the available observational evidence, and which are therefore, as yet, unrefuted. If we were free to choose arbitrarily from among all the unrefuted alternatives, we could predict anything whatever. If there were no rational basis for choosing from among all of the unrefuted alternatives, then, as I think Popper would agree, there would be no such thing as rational prediction. We are not in this unfortunate situation, Popper contends, for we do have grounds for preferring one unrefuted generalisation to another:

My solution of the logical problem of induction was that we may have preferences for certain of the competing conjectures; that is, for those which are highly informative and which so far have stood up to eliminative criticism (Schilpp [1974], p. 1024).

Popper’s concept of corroboration is designed to measure the manner in which conjectures have stood up to severe criticism, including severe testing. This, I take it, is the crucial thesis – that there is a rational basis for preferring one unrefuted generalisation to another for use in a predictive argument. If that is correct, then Popper can legitimately claim to have solved the problem of rational prediction.

Later in the paper Salmon writes:

I must confess to the feeling that we have been ‘given the run-around’. We begin by asking how science can possibly do without induction. We are told that the aim of science is to arrive at the best explanatory theories we can find. When we ask how to tell whether one theory is better than another, we are told that it depends upon their comparative ability to stand up to severe testing and critical discussion. When we ask whether this mode of evaluation does not contain some inductive aspect, we are assured that the evaluation is made wholly in terms of their comparative success up to now; but since this evaluation is made entirely in terms of past performance, it escapes inductive contamination because it lacks predictive import. When we then ask how to select theories for purposes of rational prediction, we are told that we should prefer the theory which is ‘best tested’ and which ‘in the light of our critical discussion, appears to be the best so far’, even though we have been explicitly assured that testing and critical discussion have no predictive import. Popper tells us, ‘I do not know of anything more “rational” than a well-conducted critical discussion.’ I fail to see how it could be rational to judge theories for purposes of prediction in terms of a criterion which is emphatically claimed to be lacking in predictive import.

There are a lot of problems and misconceptions packed into this paper. Popper criticised inductivism by pointing out that it is impossible. Induction involves starting with observations, using them to get a theory and then doing more observations that somehow confer higher probability or confirmation or something like that on the theory. How is one supposed to choose what to observe? Inductivists have no answer. How is one supposed to get from observations to a theory that is not implied by those observations? Inductivists have no answer. How do observations confer more probability or confirmation or whatever on a theory when the theory is true or false independent on how many of your observations agree with it? Inductivists have no answer.

Salmon is asking for a way of justifying rational predictions. This is impossible because justification is impossible. A justification is a procedure of some kind that supposedly makes a theory more likely to be true or good or useful or something like that. No such procedure exists. Your theory is either right or wrong. You can categorise it as right or wrong or say you don’t know if it’s right or wrong. In the case where you don’t know whether an idea is right or wrong your ignorance doesn’t provide any way to attach any kind of numerical value like a probability to your ignorance. An idea that some idea is probable or improbable is a vague, intuitive judgement that there are arguments that would persuade you to accept or reject that idea if you took the time to state those arguments. People should actually state arguments and assess them rather than try to muddle through with vague feelings. For explanations of how to do this see Elliot Temple’s writing on Yes or No Philosophy.

Another problem with Salmon’s insistence that we must somehow use induction on observations to get theories to use for rational predictions is that observations are guesses about what happened in a particular region. For example, there are devices called radiosondes – sets of instruments that scientists attach to a balloon and send up into the sky to record atmospheric conditions (temperature, pressure, altitude), cosmic rays and stuff like that. The scientist who uses observations from the radiosonde doesn’t float with the balloon up into the atmosphere to monitor the instruments and check they are working correctly. Rather, the scientist has to look at the readings and try to explain them by guessing about what’s happening to the instruments. The same would be true even if the instruments were in front of the scientist on a bench in a lab. Scientists can and do make mistakes in interpreting the results of measurements. I could write a long series of blog posts on examples of this from physics alone. Treating observations as anything other than fallible guesses is wrong and extremely dangerous. For more explanation of the point that measurements are guesses about what is happening in a particular region and involve guessing about the explanation for experimental results see “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch, Chapter 2 and also Chapter 5 of “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” by Popper (LScD). Salmon could have known about this by reading Popper and taking his writings seriously. For example, at the end of Section 25 of LScD, Popper writes:

This doctrine founders in my opinion on the problems of induction and of universals. For we can utter no scientific statement that does not go far beyond what can be known with certainty ‘on the basis of immediate experience’. (This fact may be referred to as the ‘transcendence inherent in any description’.) Every description uses universal names (or symbols, or ideas); every statement has the character of a theory, of a hypothesis. The statement, ‘Here is a glass of water’ cannot be verified by any observational experience. The reason is that the universals which appear in it cannot be correlated with any specific sense-experience. (An ‘immediate experience’ is only once ‘immediately given’; it is unique.) By the word ‘glass’, for example, we denote physical bodies which exhibit a certain law-like behaviour, and the same holds for the word ‘water’. Universals cannot be reduced to classes of experiences; they cannot be ‘constituted’.

I have one more point to make. Salmon is in part looking for a way to make practical predictions:

Third, we sometimes find ourselves in situations in which some practical action is required, and the choice of an optimal decision depends upon predicting future occurrences. Although wagering is by no means the only such type of practical decision-making, it is a clear and comprehensible example. We all agree, I take it, that scientific theories often provide sound bases for practical prediction.

In general solving practical problems involves a lot more than making predictions. The laws of physics don’t imply one particular solution to a problem. If you have a guess about a solution the laws of physics might tell you something about whether it will work or not. For example, a solution to a problem that involves breaking the conservation of energy won’t work in reality. Other general theories can play a role in eliminating solutions like the laws of biology or economics, but they don’t dictate a particular solution to a problem either. In addition, in general when you solve a practical problem you may have missed something and you will in general want to monitor whether your solution is working. There is no shortcut to having a working solution to a real problem: you have to guess and check your guesses, not wish for some way of guaranteeing correctness or probable correctness.

The silent school

The British education minister has praised a new school in London:

Pupils at the City of London Academy move between classrooms in line, while mobile phones and cash are both banned.

“Children were walking down the corridors in silence, in order, going to their classroom on time and getting straight on with their work,” said Mr Williamson.

So cash, talking and means of communication are banned from the school. That school now resembles a communist dictatorship even more than other schools do. The news story continues:

Figures from the Department for Education show the number of permanent exclusions in England due to physical assault on an adult has increased from 490 in 2012/13 to 845 in 2017/18.

To put this in context, the government threatens every school child and his parents with force through truancy laws. Parents can be criminally prosecuted, fined and imprisoned for truancy. So the government can threaten people with force for changing their minds about using its “services”, but if a child hits an adult in the school that is unacceptable. There is one rule for government officials who are allowed to initiate the use of force and another rule for the ordinary people. I think that nobody should be allowed to initiate the use of force, but I’m just one of the commoners so the British government would prefer that I fuck off and die in a fire.

The government also plans to impose a new regime of internet censorship to shut up the plebs. They want to turn the entire country into the equivalent of that silent school hallway where everyone is too terrified to say anything. In the light of all this I think the British government should adopt a motto that reflects their actual philosophy. I suggest the motto from Plato quoted at the start of Volume I of The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals .. only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Steele on Szasz

There is a book called Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and his Ideas edited by Schaler, Lothane and Vatz.

A libertarian called David Ramsay Steele contributed a chapter called “What follows from the non-existence of mental illness?”. This chapter is quite bad and Steele has been promoted on a libertarian podcast as an expert on Szasz, so I’m posting a criticism.

On p. 85 of the book, Steele writes:

Szasz evidently believed that there is a tight connection between the proposition that there is literally no such thing as mental illness and the proposition that all psychiatric coercion is wrong, or at least unjustified. Again and again he reveals that he assumes some such tight connection (1976, p. 189, 2010, pp. 267–268), but he never spells out an argument demonstrating this connection.

Steele has completely misunderstood Szasz’s argument. In Chapter 4 of “The Myth of Mental Illness” Szasz writes:

In my opinion, this sort of search for the biological and physical causes of so-called psychopathological phenomena is motivated more by the investigator’s craving for prestige and power than by his desire for understanding and clarity. I have suggested earlier that patterning his beliefs and behavior on the medical model enables the psychiatrist to share in the prestige and power of the physician. The same applies to the psychiatric and psychological investigator or research worker. Because theoretical physicists enjoy greater prestige than theoreticians of psychology or human relations, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts stand to gain from claiming, as they do, that, at bottom as it were, they too are in quest of the physical or physiological causes of bodily illnesses. This impersonation makes them, of course, pseudo-physicists and pseudo-physicians, and has many regrettable consequences. Yet, this imitation of the natural scientist has been largely successful, at least in a social or opportunistic way: I refer to the widespread social acceptance of psychiatry and psychoanalysis as allegedly biological—and hence ultimately physicochemical—sciences, and to the prestige of their practitioners based, in part, on this connection between what they claim they do and what other scientists do.

To put it bluntly, the idea that mental illness is a disease is a lie. Psychiatrists tell this lie to gain prestige and then use that prestige to persecute people they dislike and help people they like. Explaining that such claims are lies is a reasonable way to try to undermine the power of psychiatrists. Some mental patients also endorse this lie because they want to get out of criminal responsibility, or ask for help in a deniable way or for other purposes. Steele doesn’t bother to explain Szasz’s arguments about these issues let alone refute them, which makes his entire chapter irrelevant to any issue of any real importance.

Another quote from this chapter that represents the level of arguments offered by Steele is the following (p. 87):

Since Szasz accepts the common-sense medical view that many patterns of behavior and feeling were once observed and discussed (and even treated) without their neurological causes being known, and that these causes were later identified, he has to acknowledge that there are very likely some present-day patterns where the neurological cause is unknown, but where this cause will probably be discovered in the future (Szasz, 1997, 52).

Let’s have a look at the actual quote from Insanity: The idea and its consequences:

In view of the relatively unsophisticated state of pour understanding of neurophysiology and neuropathology, it is more than likely that there are diseases of the human brain, just as there are diseases of the human immune system, that have not yet been discovered. However, ordinary honesty, not to mention scientific integrity, requires that we distinguish between proven and putative diseases, lest we discover diseases by fantasy and fiat, and we do when we attach disease labels to disapproved behaviors such as gambling.

Steele has missed the point entirely. The problem is that if we say a behaviour is a result of a brain disease when we have no way of knowing that it is, then we will attribute choices to diseases in cases where no disease is relevant.

I could keep going, but I won’t. Szasz’s position isn’t that there is some fancy argument that’s supposed to lead from the idea that mental illness is a brain disease to involutary commitment. Rather, it is just a lie told by psychiatrists to legitimise involuntary commitment and other psychiatric practices. Szasz wrote an entire book called Psychiatry: The science of lies in which he made exactly this point. Looking for anything other than specious plausibility in arguments by psychiatrists is a mistake. Trying to refute psychiatric ideas as if they were strictly logical arguments would also be a mistake.

Psychiatrists are not the only people to make specious arguments that are either deliberate or negligent lies. Anyone looking for prestige or power may fall into this trap. This includes intellectuals writing authoritative sounding essays on subjects they don’t understand. David Ramsay Steele fell into this trap when writing his essay on Szasz.

Ruffalo on Szasz and civil commitment

In a recent Psychology Today article Mark Ruffalo, a psychiatrist in Tampa, alleges that Thomas Szasz who opposed involuntary psychiatric commitment and the idea of mental illnesses in fact supported involuntary commitment in a public interview:

Thus, I was surprised to come across a videotaped 1983 interview in which Szasz does just that. In his discussion with Jonathan Miller in an episode of Miller’s television series States of Mind, Szasz concedes that society should treat the gravely disturbed (“mad” or psychotic) person in the same way it treats the person who has been rendered unconscious by an accident, implying support for involuntary treatment in these cases. This is a rare admission for Szasz. To my knowledge, it may represent the only such statement he ever made publicly.

I have transcribed the exchange below, emphasizing the pertinent points. Readers can view the full video here.

Szasz’s remarks regarding society’s role in treating the gravely disturbed can be found around the 33-minute mark.

Miller: What do you do about those people who, in fact, are, for reasons which we needn’t discuss—either because of brain disorder or something else, some existential disorder—have become mad, and mad in a way which renders them incapable of asking for the help which, in fact, a profession might be able to give?

Szasz: What do we do about this? Well, we can have a conversation about this, obviously, and your question is, again, well-taken.… But again, let me first say, this is why psychiatry is so powerful—because it is so useful…. Now, whether it is as good a thing as we can possibly do or not is debatable. Obviously, many people think it’s the best we can do, and in many situations, it may be the best thing we can do…. To the extent to which people behave that way [mad], there is no great problem, and there is no great conflict between my views and those of traditional, ordinary, regular psychiatrists. Because these persons, then, should be treated more-or-less on the model of someone who has been hit by a taxi and is unconscious. The ordinary channels of medicine, science, compassion, and humanity should be mobilized and this person should be cared for and treated in whatever way makes sense to society, scientifically and humanly. There is no great problem.

I have watched the relevant part of the interview and made the transcript below:

Miller: There are nevertheless the problems of helping the apparently helpless, the agonised, the distressed and those who are not merely agonised and distressed themselves, but those who agonise and distress their relatives, who, for reasons of their madness, whether you call it illness or not, are not in a position to offer themselves as plaintiffs in the way that a patient suffering from a physical disease is able to do. What do you do on the basis of philanthropy one the basis of helping in terms of kindness about such people? While I agree with you wholeheartedly that there is always the threat of the tyranny of the involuntary commitment of simply taking away someone’s liberty merely because you have denominated them one way rather than the other, what do you do about those people who are – for reasons which we needn’t discuss either because of brain disorder or something else some existential disorder – have become mad and mad in a way which renders them incapable of asking for the help which in fact a profession might be able to give?

Szasz: What do we do about this? Well, we can have a conversation about this obviously and your question is again well taken and I would like to say all sorts of things about it and will. But again let me first say that this is precisely why psychiatry is so powerful because it is so useful. I love to paraphrase Voltaire to say that if there were no god we would have to invent him. I believe that if there were no psychiatry we would have to invent it because psychiatry in fact comes in and does something in these existentially, humanly very difficult situations. Now whether it is as good a thing as we could possibly do or not is debatable. Obviously many people think it is the best we can do and in some situations it may be the best thing we can do. Now in some ways we have to break down the kind of phenomenon which you described because first of all you emphasised the helpless, the inability of the patient to act as their own agent seeking help. Now if we really take that seriously you see that is not a very that does not characterise the whole panoply of the situation but that is certainly one part of the group you are talking about. To the extent to which people behave that way, there is no grave problem and there is no grave conflict between my views and those of traditional, ordinary psychiatrists because these persons then should be treated more or less on the model of somebody who has been hit by a taxi and is unconscious. The ordinary channels of medicine, science compassion and humanity should be mobilised in this person should be cared for and treated in whatever way makes sense to society scientifically and humanly, there’s no great problem.

Miller: No I see that.

Szasz: But Doctor Miller, you know very well that this is a minute problem because what happens very often is, and there are such people, is that although they are helpless in many ways, and don’t seek help, the one thing they seem to want to know, and want to do, is to get out of a mental hospital as soon as they are taken there, that’s why they are locked, so that the people can’t walk out. So although they don’t quite know what to do with themselves they do know they don’t want psychiatry. Now but this is not really a representative sample.

Szasz then goes on to discuss Lady Macbeth whose problems he regards as more typical of psychiatric patients. Szasz is not completely explicit in this interview, but his position as I read it is the following. Some people are helpless and don’t seek help. Szasz’s position is that facilities should be available for such people to get help that resembles the help offered by psychiatrists in some respects. But those facilities shouldn’t lock up the people in their care. This has the merit of being consistent with other material Szasz wrote, such as his detailed discussion of how to reform the mental health field in Chapter 19 of Law, Liberty and Psychiatry. Whether or not Szasz’s position is good he isn’t supporting involuntary treatment of mental patients.

Ruffalo is trying to smear Szasz as a hypocrite rather than actually discussing his position with full and accurate quotes interpreted in the light of the rest of Szasz’s work. This is a common problem in discussion of Szasz’s work. His views are very different from those of other psychiatrists. Psychiatrists and supporters of psychiatry aren’t interested in stating his position correctly and discussing it rationally: they prefer lies and hostility.

Against “The Righteous Mind”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (TRM) by Jonathan Haidt is a book that has been praised widely including by libertarians and conservatives.

Haidt is not explicitly insulting non-left-wing people or calling for them to be deplatformed, but this is the only good feature of TRM. TRM shares the same flaws as other psychology books: the author treats his moral philosophy as if it’s a factual description of the world while ignoring criticisms of his ideas. He describes libertarians, conservatives and lefties without explicitly explaining and discussing their ideas and pretends to be above the fray.

In the Introduction Haidt writes:

Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

So everyone’s moral ideas are just excuses for what they want to do anyway. According to Haidt the unenlightened non-psychologists are fooled into thinking there are important objective differences between their worldviews.

Haidt claims there are six types of morality:

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt is implicitly assuming there are no moral explanations. All people do is mix different tastes. Trying to cram every idea into this model prevents him from considering arguments for or against different worldviews.

In Chapter Three Haidt writes:

The current triggers of the Fairness modules include a great many things that have gotten linked, culturally and politically, to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating. On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation—wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I visited in October 2011 (see figure 7.5). On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

Haidt completely ignores moral explanations that the welfare state hurts welfare recipients by making them dependent on government and encouraging them to envy and hate other people: see the description of Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Haidt also ignores explanations that say giving out welfare on the state’s behalf corrupts and harms welfare statists. For a description of this see the character of Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, who starts working as a social worker and changes as a result (Part Two, Chapter 13):

In the last few years, with her uncle’s help, she had become an able social worker. She held a paid job in a settlement house, she had a small bank account of her own; she took her friends out to lunch, older women of her profession, and they talked about the problems of unwed mothers, self-expression for the children of the poor, and the evils of industrial corporations.

“But that’s not all. There’s something much worse. It’s doing something horrible to me. I’m beginning to hate people, Uncle Ellsworth. I’m beginning to be cruel and mean and petty in a way I’ve never been before. I expect people to be grateful to me. I…I demand gratitude. I find myself pleased when slum people bow and scrape and fawn over me. I find myself liking only those who are servile. Once…once I told a woman that she didn’t appreciate what people like us did for trash like her. I cried for hours afterward, I was so ashamed. I begin to resent it when people argue with me. I feel that they have no right to minds of their own, that I know best, that I’m the final authority for them. There was a girl we were worried about, because she was running around with a very handsome boy who had a bad reputation, I tortured her for weeks about it, telling her how he’d get her in trouble and that she should drop him. Well, they got married and they’re the happiest couple in the district. Do you think I’m glad? No, I’m furious and I’m barely civil to the girl when I meet her. Then there was a girl who needed a job desperately–it was really a ghastly situation in her home, and I promised that I’d get her one. Before I could find it, she got a good job all by herself. I wasn’t pleased. I was sore as hell that somebody got out of a bad hole without my help. Yesterday, I was speaking to a boy who wanted to go to college and I was discouraging him, telling him to get a good job, instead. I was quite angry, too. And suddenly I realized that it was because I had wanted so much to go to college–you remember, you wouldn’t let me–and so I wasn’t going to let that kid do it either….Uncle Ellsworth, don’t you see? I’m becoming selfish. I’m becoming selfish in a way that’s much more horrible than if I were some petty chiseler pinching pennies off these people’s wages in a sweatshop!”

Haidt also can’t deal with economic arguments against socialism and government intervention in the economy, which are relevant to why conservatives, libertarians and Objectivists see problems with the welfare state. All of the arguments I have mentioned are relevant to understanding the thoughts and feelings of welfare opponents, so Haidt’s book doesn’t work as an explanation of those thoughts and feelings. As a result, it won’t help lefty people understand the right well and it hasn’t done so.

In addition to obscuring understanding Haidt’s approach requires harming the side that is in the right on any particular issue. To avoid taking a side he has to avoid stating their arguments. He also has to avoid stating arguments from the wrong side that make them look bad. The effect of this attempt at neutrality will bias the discussion toward the wrong side.

Haidt’s book has some of the same problems with explaining lefty ideas and motives. But Haidt is biased toward the left, as illustrated by passages like this:

Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.

So in Haidt’s view righties don’t care about reducing harm or increasing fairness because they didn’t support left wing coercive government policies that claimed to address these problems. But some right wing people think the state is one of the main reasons for a lot of the harms and unfairness in the world. The policies suggested by the left would give the state more power that it would use to harm people unfairly.

More from the Introduction:

A slave is never supposed to question his master, but most of us can think of times when we questioned and revised our first intuitive judgment. The rider-and-elephant metaphor works well here. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it’s a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master. Good lawyers do what they can to help their clients, but they sometimes refuse to go along with requests. Perhaps the request is impossible (such as finding a reason to condemn Dan, the student council president—at least for most of the people in my hypnosis experiment). Perhaps the request is self-destructive (as when the elephant wants a third piece of cake, and the rider refuses to go along and find an excuse). The elephant is far more powerful than the rider, but it is not an absolute dictator.

Haidt’s model of decision making is wrong. In reality, a person chooses some particular option when he makes a choice. That option is picked according to some standard even if the standard isn’t stated. That standard is doing the work in that decision. A man might make a choice to have bareback sex with a woman despite the risk of getting her pregnant or catching a STD because he is not willing to resist his desire to have sex if he is very horny. He has chosen to value being horny and to interpret his horniness as an indication that he should have sex. The strength of his sensations of horniness wouldn’t lead to sex if he chose to interpret them differently, as a sign of being sinful, say. In addition he could choose not to get into situations that he knows will result in him being horny if he didn’t want to be horny, as many married men do. So Haidt is actually picking his positions according to an unstated and uncriticised standard.

Many people are praising and quoting TRM because they think it gives them some understanding of people with different political views and preferences. It doesn’t. Pretending that TRM is a solution to current controversies or contributes much toward solving them is a very serious mistake. The only way to solve a controversy in any lasting way is critical discussion.