Sunday, April 04, 2004

Piss Poor Reasoning

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has a post up which harbors such egregious lapses in reasoning that I am hard-pressed to understand how a lecturer in economics could have made it. Following is an excerpt from the post in question, with the most glaringly absurd bit highlighted.

As I said in Henry’s comments thread the ev psych analysis is essentially “realist”. This is the kind of style of social and political analysis that purports to strip away the illusions of idealistic rhetoric and reveal the underlying self-interest. The only question is to nominate the “self” that is interested. In Ev Psych the unit of analysis is the gene, in Chicago-school economics the individual, in Marxism the class, in public choice theory the interest group, and in the realist school of international relations the nation.

All of these realist models are opposed to any form of idealism in which people or groups act out of motives other than self-interest. But, logically speaking, different schools of realists are more opposed to each other than to any form of idealism. If we are machines for replicating our genes, we can’t also be rational maximizers of a utility function or loyal citizens of a nation. Clever and consistent realists recognise this - for example, ideologically consistent neoclassical economists are generally hostile to nationalism.

This is the sort of blockheaded nonsense that does so much to lower my opinion of the most of the Crooked Timber contributors. We most certainly can at once be both machines for replicating genes and maximizers of a utility function - all we have to do is that the utility function we're maximizing is that for reproductive fitness. Similarly, nationalism makes sense in as far as

  1. We conceive of the nation as a sort of mutual defense pact against external enemies, and
  2. Nations and ethnicities (and therefore breeding populations) are often largely coterminous, this being particularly true of those nations in which nationalist feeling is strongest (the USA being a glaring exception to this).

To speak, as Quiggin does, as if those who believe in nationalism, free markets and evolutionary psychology all at once are little more than fools is to do no more than display one's own foolishly cramped conception of what is logically possible. It is true that, say, not all forms of nationalism are reconcilable with support for free-markets, but often such arguments are more a matter of disputing the efficacy of various policy alternatives, rather than a fundamental clash of values; for instance, nationalist free-traders despise Buchananite protectionism not because their love of free-trade is stronger than their nationalism, but because they genuinely believe that the nation is weakened rather than strengthened by protectionist measures. Similarly, one can easily reconcile nationalism, even to the point of willing self-sacrifice on the battlefield, with evolutionary psychology, by drawing on the concept of inclusive fitness; being the son, brother or nephew of a deceased war hero can bring tremendous social respect, and with it, more and better mating opportunities as well as a higher chance of raising one's offspring to become successful adults. Even if this isn't true in modern society (and I think it is still true to some extent), it was indisputably true in the context in which we evolved, and that is what matters for the sake of this argument.

I am actually not much of a fan of the field of evolutionary psychology as it currently stands, as I feel that there are too many "just so stories" floating about in it, and there is too little hard scientific evidence to back them up. It is all too easy for some kook sitting in his armchair to draw up ridiculous "explanations" for social phenomena instead of doing the hard work of investigating all the possible alternatives, and that is precisely what many kooks on the right have indeed been doing - witness recent "explanations" of the Southern African AIDS epidemic as being due to Africans' supposedly greater promiscuity and lower jealousy. The problem I have with arguments like Quiggin's isn't that they've picked an undeserving target, but that they've chosen patently dishonest means of attacking it, which makes it much too easy for the practitioners of what is mostly junk science to paint themselves as victims. This is precisely the same difficulty I have with much of Stephen Jay Gould's output; hand-waving nonsense about "reification", and pointless quibbling over whether "g" was a single trait or a multitude of traits, made it easy for all sorts of quacks to shoot his arguments down while wrapping themselves in the mantle of martyrdom. In short, Gould actually set back the cause he claimed to be defending.