Ep 16: Knowing When We Do Not Know

How may we know, when we don’t know?

Science is a process of determining—what is reality—objectively—screening in what is true, and screening out that which is not.  Therefore it can be used to eliminate false propositions about the way in which the world actually works.

Two types are of interest, here, although the latter is more religion than science and therefore does not permit falsification.  More on subjective propositions in a moment.

Regarding scientific propositions, it might be asserted, for instance “the cat is on the mat.”  If a cat enters the room and lays down on a mat, then the proposition is sustained scientifically.  Pretty straight-forward, really.  Of course, if no cat appears on the mat as expected, then the proposition is invalidated.  Simple science, simply explained.

Few economic propositions are this straight-forward, of course, and tend in the direction of murkiness and complexity.  Even so, it is best to structure economic inquiry scientifically, rather than subjectively, whenever possible.  Especially, it is crucial to acknowledge we don’t know, infact, when we do not know objectively.

To illustrate the process of science, we draw upon a cat-on-the-mat-type proposition from supply-side economics.  It asserts a cut in tax rates leads to an increase in total tax revenues collected.

According to proponents, tax cuts allow households to retain more income, then spend most of it to buy more stuff.  No quibbles here.

Next, however, proponents claim new income associated with tax cut-fueled purchases, continues to accumulate—causing any associated revenue shortfall to replenish itself, eventually.  This argument is overblown, however, and has been invalidated scientifically, repeatedly.  Proponents rely upon an unrealistically large number of expansionary cycles, among other criticisms; therefore, their faithfully held proposition that tax cuts pay for themselves is misleaading.

Too often, politically motivated advocates on propositions such as this, fail to relinquish their invalidated claims.  Instead, losers may protest vociferously, for instance, against what they view as sloppy science by biased liberal researchers.

Unfortunately, when subjective belief takes precedence above objective inquiry, then policy debates within Congress and other civic spaces—risk becoming mere self-congratulatory, shout-down matches.

So, let’s move on, to the second class of propositions that are innately subjective in nature.  An example is the assertion that God lives.  According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, due to their ultimate subjectivity, propositions such as God lives cannot be invalidated.  Therefore, neither can they be validated objectively.  Instead, they remain only within the realm of belief.

As an illustration, consider the subjective laissez-faire proposition, the economic world operates in an orderly manner.  It is of limited usefulness because it imposes a belief requirement upon adherents, in which religion-like faith preempts objectivity.

So, here’s the conclusion.  In our highly conflicted political environment, it is disrespectful, I believe, for advocates to foist subjective views upon others, particularly in important civic spaces including Congress.  Better to acknowledge upfront, the religious nature of one’s commitment.  As such, it is not likely to appeal to others, beyond those who hold similar religion-like convictions.

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for Capitalism in Crisis.