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On the Limitations of Science

February 22, 2010

I just finished reading a fabulous piece in The New Yorker on “How Paul Krugman found politics.” One section in particular caught my attention, as it touches on the limitations of the scientific method, an issue I have been discussing in relation to the God question.

When Krugman began to develop his theory of new economic geography in a 1991 paper, many economists found it “deeply disturbing and troubling” due to its acceptance of seemingly arbitrary factors like history and accident in understanding international trade. Economists prefer rationality because it produces neat, mathematical models that are often — not always! — a powerful analytical tool in describing market behavior. (For more on this, see my forthcoming review of Justin Fox’s “The Myth of the Rational Market.”)

Krugman’s analysis, as summarized in the article, may appear anything but exotic:

Once an industry started up in one place, for whatever reason (the carpet industry in Dalton appears to have its origin in a local teen-ager who in 1895 made a tufted bedspread as a wedding present), local workers became trained in its methods, skilled workers from elsewhere moved there, and related businesses sprang up close by. Then, as more skilled labor became available, the industry could grow and benefit from economies of scale. Soon, as long as it didn’t cost too much to transport the industry’s products, the advantages of the place would be such that it would be impractical for someone to open up a similar business anywhere else.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet for years mainstream economists disregarded the idea, which did not fit into existing models: it was too “arbitrary.”

The article goes on to cite a related example in which eighteenth century cartographers neglected to include features of interior Africa due to rising standards as to what constituted knowledge:

Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

Now, at one level, there is nothing extraordinary about the advance of economic and cartographical knowledge I have just described. No one is accepting anything on faith, and both Krugman and nineteenth century cartographers were eventually able to bring commonsensical notions in line with the scientific method’s more rigorous demands. It is, moreover, obviously an imperative of the scientific method to replace existing models with newer and more sophisticated ones — precisely what has happened in the cases of mapping interior Africa and describing international trade.

On another level, these examples point toward the limitations of the scientific method. At any given time, there will be phenomena — often understood through commonsense, “secondhand travellers’ reports,” or “guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants” — that existing models have not yet caught up with. The tendency for those laboring under the yoke of Enlightenment rationalism — or, for that matter, existing academic orthodoxies — will be to simply dismiss such phenomena as unreal. The most virulent attacks will be reserved for phenomena that present the greatest challenge to existing models: particularly, anything possessing the “arbitrary” characteristics associated with history, culture, geography, and religion.

These apparent limitations may, of course, turn out be nothing more than a sign of how much science and its proponents have yet to learn. There may come a day when neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are able to fully explain religious phenomena, without merely reducing religion to a series of chemical reactions in the brain or an aspect of the survival instinct. (While it is clear that existing models do in fact “explain” religion, those models have yet to account for all of the evidence — namely, religion as a widely experienced existential reality.)

In the meantime, should we dismiss religious experience as “unreal” simply because it does not fit into existing models? Wouldn’t it be wiser to acknowledge the limitations of the models, and the possibility that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in natural philosophy?

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