Hannah Arendt is bad on economics

I recently started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. I don’t think I’m going to finish it cuz the book is sloppy and anti-capitalist. As an example of Arendt’s writing I’ll give the following short quote from pp.174-175 Chapter 5, Section II:

What imperialists actually wanted was expansion of political power without the foundation of a body politic. Imperialist expansion had been touched off by a curious kind of economic crisis, the overproduction of capital and the emergence of ‘superfluous’ money, the result of oversaving, which could no longer find productive investment within the national borders.

Arendt hasn’t explained the meaning of the following terms anywhere: ‘capital’, ‘overproduction of capital’, ‘oversaving’ and ‘productive investment’. She doesn’t refer to any of the economic literature on capital. Since the book was published in 1951 and a lot of literature on capital was written before 1951, there was nothing to stop her from referring to it, either to understand what she was writing about or to refute economist’s theories about capital. For example, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk wrote The Positive Theory of Capital in 1888 in German and it was translated into English in 1891. Arendt could write both German and English, so why doesn’t she refer to this book or to any other book on the subject?

Arendt’s claims also don’t seem compatible with economics. Is she claiming that in the 19th century the UK had too much capital? British people in the 19th century were all so well off that they couldn’t benefit from being able to make more stuff more cheaply? That’s not true even now. Nor will it ever be true. There is always a way to benefit from being able to make more stuff more cheaply. Sometimes people overproduce some particular good, e.g. – housing before the 2008 housing crash. But that’s not the same as having too much capital. Also, there are different kinds of capital. A machine for slicing loaves of bread can’t easily be used as a component in a car factory.

I don’t recommend Arendt’s book. I also don’t think I’ll be reading any more of her writings.

Lulie Tanett vs Critical Rationalism

Lulie Tanett is posting false ideas about critical rationalism. In this tweet, she shows a set of slides about critical rationalism she posted on Instagram: they all include serious errors. I’m going to discuss problems with the slides, point out that her actions are not compatible with taking critical rationalism seriously as a guide to action and that these slides may damage critical rationalism rather than promote it.

First slide:


 ideas must be justified to be knowledge

The core part of the classical view of knowledge which Karl Popper criticised.

“How do we know our ideas are really true?” Classical theory of knowledge

“How do we correct errors?” Karl Popper (Paraphrase)

Compare to: critical rationalism

This attempt at a summary raises many questions that it doesn’t answer and is also misleading. Justificationism is the standard way of understanding epistemology, but this slide doesn’t explain the alternative and why you can do without justification. A list of references to explanations of these issues can be found at the Fallible Ideas books page.

Second slide:

justified true belief

Knowledge is belief that is true and justified.


Justification has an infinite regress.

Saying that justification has an infinite regress is misleading. In reality, there is no explanation of how you could make even a single step in the alleged process of justification. If some fact X is true, then there are many explanations that are compatible with X being true. So X just divides explanations into two classes: explanations incompatible with X and explanations compatible with X. Saying X is true is a criticism of ideas that are incompatible with X, but has no effect on any other ideas. So X can only be used to criticise ideas, not to justify them.

More content from the second slide:

Theories are never perfectly true.

The phrase “theories are never perfectly true” is misleading. Some theories are true: 1+1=2. You can’t justify those ideas, but that has nothing to do with whether they are actually correct.

Also the idea that theories aren’t perfectly true can easily be misunderstood as the idea that there is some way of measuring truth that a theory can partially fulfil to a greater or lesser extent. This is not true. All ideas are either true or false and should be judged as refuted or non-refuted and not given any other status – see yes no philosophy.

An idea may solve some problem despite being false, e.g. Newtonian mechanics. That idea may constitute knowledge, so knowledge doesn’t require truth.

Scientists needn’t believe their theories to make correct predictions.

This is true and it follows from critical rationalism that scientists wouldn’t have to believe ideas to make predictions with them since belief isn’t required for knowledge. Tanett doesn’t explain why this would matter. The reason this is important is that you can consider, discuss or use an idea without believing it. You can be critical of the idea instead and you need not be invested in it. This makes rapid turnover of ideas easier and so makes knowledge creation easier since you can get through ideas that are easy to refute quickly. This is a useful option to have that many people don’t understand.

Additional criticisms: Gettier cases

The Gettier problem is a bad problem and shouldn’t be considered a good account of what’s wrong with justificationism.

Alternative: critical rationalism

Tanett just sez critical rationalism is an alternative but doesn’t explain it, or link to an explanation or give a reference.

Third slide:


All valid ideas must be falsifiable by experimental testing.

A misconceived version of Karl Popper’s philosophy, based on mistaking his *falsifiability criterion* for an entire philosophy.

Tanett doesn’t explain falsification or falsifiability, so anybody who doesn’t know about it already won’t know what the post is about.

Falsifiability is a subtle issue. For example, any observation is itself a guess about what happened in a particular region of space and time. How can we deal with the fact that our observations are conjectures? Also many people don’t understand that observations are conjectures, so lots of people will misunderstand critical rationalism cuz Tanett didn’t bring up this issue. Tanett doesn’t explain it or link or refer to any explanation, such as Chapters 3 and 7 of “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch, Chapters 1 and 2 of “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch or Chapters 1,2,4 and 5 of “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” by Popper.




Compare to: falsifiability

Falsification occurs when an experiment or observation contradicts a theory and points out that the theory is in error. So falsification is a variety of error correction. So saying “error correction, not falsifiability” is misleading. In addition, a scientific theory can be rejected for reasons other than failing an experimental test, e.g. –  cuz there is no explanation of how it would work. In The Fabric of Reality pp. 5-7, David Deutsch gives the example of rejecting the idea that eating grass cures cancer cuz there is no explanation of how eating grass would cure cancer.

So overall the slides do not contain adequate explanations, nor do they link or refer to adequate explanations. Tanett could have made the readers’ lives a lot easier, but she chose not to. Tanett knows of many people who understand critical rationalism quite well and she could have asked them for feedback on the slides, but she didn’t.

In addition, she posted the slides on Instagram. Instagram is not a forum for intellectual discussion. If you look at how the site is designed on one of Tanett’s posts, there are several problems. The space for discussion is very small compared the the size of the slide. Instagram also doesn’t have threading or decent facilities for quoting. The slides themselves are hard to quote. I had to type out their content again in this post to comment on them. Twitter also has bad threading and facilities for quoting. So none of the platforms Tanett is posting on are optimised for discussion. Both platforms are optimised for social signalling at the expense of intellectual content. The best you can do on either platform is to link or refer to intellectual content, but Tanett doesn’t do that.

Any person who acts like this is playing at being an intellectual and an authority on whatever topic she posts about. She can post about stuff with no mechanism for feedback because she is pretending she knows so much that she needs no feedback. She is also preventing the back and forth discussion required to have several rounds of conjecture and criticism. All of these features of Tanett’s content contradict critical rationalism, which refutes the idea of intellectual authority and sez critical discussion is required for knowledge creation.

Tanett’s actions make CR look like just another source of vapid ‘inspirational’ quotes and she offers no way to correct this impression. If I wanted to corrupt and destroy the CR community I couldn’t do much better than to adopt the tactics that Tanett is following.

There are forums such as the fallible ideas list where Tanett could get criticism of her ideas, but she has chosen not to do so. So Tanett is not correcting her own errors, which is required by critical rationalism.

UPDATE – Some other criticisms were pointed out in a comment by Elliot Temple.

School strike for climate

There has been a lot of fuss recently about the school strike for climate. People on the left say these children are The Future and we must Listen to the Children. People on the right are mostly saying that children should shut their fucking faces and stay in school.

Children should be free to leave school to go to climate protests if they want. They should also be free to leave school to do anything else: watch a film, play computer games, play frisbee, masturbate, learn differential geometry, read the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories, go surfing etc. School is an institution where people who have committed no crime are imprisoned without trial. School children are forced on pain of punishment to change what they want to think about at the ring of a bell, otherwise they are guilty of a thought crime. And children are sometimes even forced to defecate in their own underwear rather than letting them go to the toilet. School is an evil institution. And just in case anyone is under any illusions, so-called private schools are also evil. They all benefit from the enforcement of truancy laws. Fuck all schools and all teachers.

A teacher is in a position to make the life of any child under his care miserable. That means a teacher can force a child to say anything. He can force a child to say that fossil fuels must be abandoned in favour of solar panels and wind farms. This whole climate strike idea should be treated as exactly what it is – a disgusting, pathetic and transparent attempt at propaganda. To the extent that this strike works, it will be because nobody wants to look closely or think carefully about what schools are, because admitting that they are prisons where children are treated like shit would be painful.

Most teachers are lefties cuz lefties are sentimental and statist, so they idolise schools as being wonderful places of instruction and fun, rather than seeing them accurately as Room 101 with bright decoration. So most teachers are happy to go along with the idea that an increase in average global temperature over several decades is an emergency that requires destroying the market economy and introducing central planning for energy – they are wrong.

The right likes school cuz it is tradition. The problem with their attitude is that some traditions just suck and should be dismantled, and school is one of those traditions. How should this be done? I’m fucked if I know, but it would be nice if we could start by not lying constantly about school and admit that it is one of the worst institutions that exists in the West today.

UPDATE – Elliot Temple made some good suggestions for reform in a comment.

Stephen Hicks on Popper

Stephen Hicks’ book Explaining Postmodernism has been endorsed by Jordan Peterson and is popular among many of his followers. I’m not going to address most of the book. I’m going to stick to addressing what Hicks claims about Popper (Hicks, Stephen R. C.. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Locations 1417-1424). Kindle Edition):

By the middle of the century, the dominant conclusion about perception was that it is theory-laden. The biggest names in the philosophy of science—Otto Neurath, Karl Popper, Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, and W. V. O. Quine—despite wide variations in their versions of analytic philosophy—all argued that our theories largely dictate what we will see. [97] Putting their point in Kant’s original language, our perceptual intuitions do not conform to objects but rather our intuition conforms to what our faculty of knowledge supplies from itself. This conclusion about perception is devastating for science: If our percepts are theory-laden, then perception is hardly a neutral and independent check upon our theorizing. If our conceptual structures shape our observations as much as vice versa, then we are stuck inside a subjective system with no direct access to reality.

Hicks cites “Objective Knowledge” by Popper, p. 68 n. 31, p. 72 and p. 145. In the note Hicks cites Popper writes:

The epistemological realist is right, in my view, in insisting that all knowledge, and the growth of knowledge – the genesis of the mutation of our ideas – stem from ourselves, and that without these self-begotten ideas there would be no knowledge. He is wrong in failing to see that without elimination of these mutations through our clashing with the environment there would not only be no incitement to new ideas, but no knowledge of anything. (Cp. Conjectures and Refutations, especially p. 117.) Thus Kant was right that it is our intellect – its ideas, its rules – upon the inarticulate mass of our ‘sensations’ and thereby brings order to them. Where he was wrong was that he did not see that we rarely succeed with our imposition, that we try and err again and again, and that the result – our knowledge of the world – owes as much to resisting reality as to our self-produced ideas.

So Popper’s position is that we can have knowledge of the world because our attempts to impose interpretations on it fail and we can learn from the failures. Hicks’ ideas about Popper are contradicted by the first paragraph he quotes from Popper. He doesn’t discuss Popper further anywhere else in the book. Hicks doesn’t understand Popper and ignores information in sources he cites that contradict his ideas. RIP.

Non-profit use vs free speech

The EU is trying to pass a copyright law that will severely damage free speech. Users on internet sites will be allowed to upload content that uses copyrighted material provided they don’t make significant revenue by doing so. This is effectively a ban on free speech.

First, if you are not allowed to make money by commenting on stuff online, then such commentary can’t be your main or only source of income. So you can’t devote much time to commentary and can’t keep up with events or culture or whatever unless you can make lots of money without much work. So this law is an obstacle to most people making commentary in any serious way.

Second, you can’t tell in advance whether a particular item of commentary will make you money. As a result, platforms will have to ban all commentary that uses quotes or clips to be safe.

This problem illustrates the principle that economic and political freedom are linked to one another. If you’re not free to make a profit, you’re not free to survive without begging the state for your life. This law will kill independent political and cultural commentary in the EU. I think that is the intended result of this law. The EU wants no more objections to their plans from the little people, who’ll just have to put with a boot stamping on their face forever in silence.

Mental illness as a strategy – the Michael Sandford case

I watched a documentary called “The boy who tried to kill Trump” about a 20 year old man called Michael Sandford, who tried to take a policeman’s gun to shoot Donald Trump at an election rally. The judge blamed Sandford’s attempt at murder on mental illness and sent him back to the UK. Mental illness is not like physical illness, it is a label for behaviour that people want to condemn or to excuse without considering the moral issues involved as explained by Thomas Szasz. This story provides multiple examples of people using mental illness as a strategy to get what they want or to avoid dealing with issues they find difficult to examine. It’s interesting to pick those strategies apart and look at what people are concealing.

In the documentary, starting at about 6:19 Sandford’s mother describes his life before he went to the US. Sandford apparently began to behave angrily at about the age of eight, possibly in response to his parents’ divorce. He was also said to have Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At about 8:20 Sandford is quoted as writing that the sun will destroy the Earth in five billion years, but he thinks humans will destroy the world before then. Sandford was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was thirteen cuz he had difficulty with social interaction. He was bullied at school and ran in front of cars to try to get knocked over so he wouldn’t have to go. He was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital at the age of fourteen cuz he didn’t eat much – the fancy pseudo-medical word used for this is anorexia. He said life isn’t worth living, it’s too hard. Instead of considering alternatives to school, Michael’s teachers and parents labelled him mentally ill and locked him up to stop him from committing suicide. Questioning school is unthinkable, locking up dissidents from school and lying about why you’re doing it is much better by the standards of parents and teachers.

Nor did anyone think it might be a good idea to look critically at environmentalists’ prophecies of the end of the world. The idea that we’re going to destroy the world depends on the assumption that we’re not going to solve problems caused by our actions. Since nobody can know whether or how we’ll solve these problems before we make the relevant choices, such prophecies are irrational. Taking environmentalist prophecies seriously was interpreted as a problem with Michael, not a problem with the prophecies.

When he was eighteen Sandford moved to the US to be with his girlfriend. He threatened to attempt suicide if his parents didn’t let him go. Michael’s family paid for a year’s rent for a flat for him in Hoboken, New Jersey. Michael had learned to use the idea of mental illness as a weapon to get stuff from his family.

At about 22:36 the documentary sez that he went to a firing range to learn how to shoot. He also told the authorities that he wanted to buy a rifle to shoot Trump from a distance but he couldn’t buy one. At about 37:54 his mother insists he’s mentally ill and needs psychiatric treatment. Shortly after that we see footage of Sandford saying that Trump is racist and needs to be stopped. He sez he didn’t want to hurt any innocent people. So he considers murdering Trump acceptable because he considers Trump guilty of racism. At about 40:00, the documentary sez he planned the attack for more than a year. Michael apologised but according to Michael’s father the judge said he had ‘nothing to be sorry for’ and that Michael had a condition like a heart condition. As Szasz noted in Part 3, Chapter 8 of Insanity: the idea and its consequences especially pp. 255-267, people are often described as mentally ill precisely because they consistently adopt and enact values that other people dislike. Sandford is being described as mentally ill because he took deliberate actions to try to commit murder. He didn’t lack agency, he used his agency in a way that makes other people uncomfortable. So instead of treating the issue seriously the judge only put Michael in prison for another year cuz he’s mentally ill. Another issue people seem to want to avoid is how and why Michael decided to murder Trump. How did Michael Sandford get to the age of 20 in a free society without knowing that murder is a totally unacceptable way to deal with political disagreements?

Questioning the idea of mental illness and its use as a strategy isn’t acceptable in polite society. The use of such strategies to cover up problems like the examples above is what should be considered unacceptable.

The alleged data drought

Sabine Hossenfelder has written there is a drought of data in physics:

Nothing is moving in the foundations of physics. One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

I agree that there is a real problem here. There is no particular reason to think that building yet another particle accelerator at enormous expense will produce much progress in fundamental physics. Nor is there any reason to think that theories of new symmetries or particles will produce progress. Current ideas in particle physics are solutions searching for problems. There are a bunch of constants with unexplained values, but there is no particular reason to think those values will be explained by symmetries or whatever.

There are other cases of research programs that exist despite the absence of any serious problems or ideas about solutions. The controversy that is commonly said to be about the “interpretation” of quantum mechanics is a result of physicists refusing to take the theory seriously as a description of how the world works. The standard approach is to assume quantum physics is false and then look for another theory that reproduces its predictions, e.g. – hidden variables, the pilot wave theory, spontaneous collapse and so on. There is a lot of theoretical and experimental effort looking for problems with quantum physics without bothering to refute proposed solutions to those problems: the many worlds interpretation and the decoherence research program. “I don’t like this theory” is not a refutation, but it is the substance of all the complaints.

Scientific progress starts with a problem: an incompatibility between existing theories, or between existing theories and experimental data. There are many such problems in physics as it stands now. The lack of a quantum mechanical theory of gravity is one such problem. In cosmology the fact that supernova brightness deviates from standard models of cosmology is another problem. Physicists need to get back to looking for problems of this sort and to considering a wider range of potential solutions.

In addition, academic physics is in need of some institutional change. Elliot Temple has suggested that physicists should have discussion forums open to the public. I also think that part of the uniformity in physics is a result of the economics of government funding of physics. Academia is a cartel that directs money toward particular fashionable projects because they don’t pay any price for indulging their whims. If government funding of academia was eliminated physicists would have to get funding from elsewhere or change jobs. A wider range of projects might be funded, which I think would be an improvement.