Wednesday, April 23, 2014

1393. Are Paradigms, Theories, Methods Value Neutral?

By Kamran Nayeri, April 23, 2014


1. The problem
In this part of my discussion of Saral Sarkar’s essay and letter claiming natural causes for the Great Recession, I will focus on his proposition that paradigms, theories and methods are value-neutral.   

Let’s begin with some of Saral’s statements. In his letter, he advices me: “[i]t is not good to label some people and their writings as bourgeois. Theories, explanations, assertions, etc. are either right or wrong.”  To understand the context, in my “Economics, Socialism and Ecology: A Critical Outline,” Part 1, I argued that economics is a bourgeois science primarily concerned with justification and maintenance of the capitalist system.  And, in my critical discussion of Saral’s essay, I protested Saral reliance on the wage-price spiral theory of inflation that place blame on workers for problems of the capitalist economy.  Long ago, Marx has discredited similar claims in his Wage, Price, and Profit (1865).  

Further, I have never simply dismissed paradigms, theories or methods by classifying them as bourgeois.  Witness my criticism on neoclassical and Keynesian theories in “Economics, Socialism and Ecology,” Part 1.  As a trained political economist who spent 30 years in research and teaching at American universities I could not have simply dismissed theorists and theories that I found distasteful to me for any reason. For my own approach to criticism in economic theory, Saral can review my The Role of Competition in Theories of Late Capitalist Development (1991) where I critically examine nine major post World War II theorists of late development (unfortunately, it is currently not available online due to problems with Green Praxis website where it resides. However, it can be found at libraries in research universities).  

Thus, our difference lies in presumption of value-neutrality of paradigms, theories and methods. Saral seems to assume that perhaps for reasons of “objectivity.”  I believe paradigms, theories and methods are socially and historically condition, thus, they cannot be value-free. Why does this matter? Because as active participants in the realms of thought and society we must be able to pass judgment not just on this or that claim made by any given theorist but on entire schools of thought and categories of policy. In fact, this is is how Saral and I both became socialists in our youth.  This is also how we became ecological socialists later.  That is, by deciding to reject the capitalist system and its intellectual defenders. 

2. The case of natural limits to growth
Let’s cite another instance where Saral presumes paradigms, theories and methods are value neutral.  Defining a paradigm, Saral writes:

It is a framework made up of accepted basic facts and a basic theory, thesis or hypothesis, within which scientists, thinkers, policy makers etc. do further research or think further or lay down policy. They may lay down different policies, but all such policies remain within this framework. Example: In astronomy there was a shift from the geocentric paradigm to the heliocentric paradigm Limits to growth as a paradigm pertains to areas such as economics, politics, social and social welfare policies. It is not the task of a paradigm to offer an ethical perspective for a good society.(emphasis in original). 

But examples he cites belie the view that paradigms, theories and methods are value free.  Saral cites the intellectual transcendence from geocentrism to heliocentrism as an example of paradigm shift in astronomy but does not recall how proponents of the latter were shunned and even prosecuted by the proponents of the former. In particular, has neglects the Catholic Churchs inquisition against Galileo, a key proponent of heliocentrism, that is actually a textbook example of value-laden paradigm shifts in history and philosophy of science (see, for example, Robert Hollingers Introductionto the section on Science and Valuesin Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, E.D. Klemke, R. Hollinger and A. D. Kline editors,  1988, p. 319).  The other example of value-laden paradigm shift Hollinger cites is Darwins theory of evolution that remains controversial hundred and fifty years since The Origins of Species

It is an unfortunate mistake that Saral cites limits to growth as a paradigm that bears on economics, politics, social and social welfare policiesbut again fails to acknowledge their ideological trappings of all these fields of inquiry.  As it is well known, social science and policy are eminently ideological because the social scientist and the policymaker cannot reasonably claim that they stand aloof from their subject matter. That is why heterodox economists in the United States have a hard time finding jobs in a profession dominated by the neoclassical orthodoxy. On this, let me cite James K. Galbraith who is quoted on page 1 of Richard Heinbergs The End of Growth (2011). Galbraith writes about the American economic profession (and I presume Heinberg agrees):

Leading active members of todays economics professionhave formed themselves into a kind of Politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general ruleas one might generally expect from a gentlemans clubthis has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not recently but for decades. They predict disaster when none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happenThey oppose the most basic, decent and sensible reforms, while offering placebos instead. They are always surprised when something untoward (like a recession) actually occurs. And when finally they sense that some position cannot be sustained, they do not re-examine their ideas. They do not consider the possibility of a flaw in logic or theory. Rather, they simply change the subject. No one is dis-invited from presenting papers at a later annual meetings. And still less is anyone from the outside invited in.(James K. Galbraith, quoted in Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth, New Society Publisher, 2011, p. 1).

3. Origin of value-neutrality in science
Let us focus on science where the presumption of value neutrality would be more likely.  The origin of the claim for value neutrality in science is in the so-called mechanical picture of the world and the scientific revolution, especially the epistemological and methodological revolution in science and philosophy inspired by its main architect, Renè Descartes.  Hollinger describe it as follows:

According to this view, we must make a sharp distinction between what is objective and what is subjective in order to acquire reliable (i.e., objective) knowledge of the world.by the use of reliable (rational) methods of inquiry. Since, according to the mechanical world picture, nature is a vast machine governed by quantitative laws and relationships, the objective features of the world turn out to be those featuresmatter, motion, and physical magnitudeswhich constitute the nuts and bolts of the machine, together with the laws governing it. Only such features of experience are truly objective

In sum, objectivity means both: (a) objective in the sense of being about what is objective, and (b) objective in the sense of arriving at objective truths by methods which themselves take no account of anything subjective,i.e., which are unbiased.(Hollinger, 1988, pp. 321-322).

4. Why presumption of value-neutrality in science is wrong
Hollinger then describes insuperabledifficulties of this value-neutral view of science. 

First of all, to paraphrase Woody Allen (Love and Death):  Objectivity is subjective, and subjectivity objective; at least the latter point is certainly true: the fact that I am (say) in pain is no less objective a fact about me than the fact that I weigh 160 pounds.

Second, the view being considered is, paradoxically, rooted in the notion that objective knowledgeis a rational reconstructionof the private, i.e. subjective,experiences of a collection of knowers (viz, out of those subjective experiences which represent the essence of the world). Modern epistemology is rooted in this conundrum.

Third, as M. Polanyi and others show, if we merely wanted objective truths, we (as a species) would devote virtually all our intellectual energy to study interstellar dust, and only a fraction of a microsecond studying  ourselves (or anything else for that matter) since, objectively speaking, human beings are of no cosmic significance in the objective order of things!  Obviously, no one would take this requirement on objectivity seriouslyWhat we are seeking are truths which are interesting, which are useful and valuable to us. In a word, knowledge, truth, and objectivity are (or are rooted in) values and human purposes. 

Fourth, not only do knowledge, objectivity, and truthand thus methodologyturn out to be, or at least be grounded in, values; on some views they are, or are grounded in, moral ideals. In any event, the search for knowledge expresses a value; and thus distinctions between reliable and unreliable knowledge claims, between good and bad methods, and so on, are partly normative judgments.(Hollinger, 1988, pp. 322-323). 

Thus, I cannot share Sarals view that paradigms, theories and methods are value-neutral. In fact, they are eminently social, historical, hence value-laden. The question for the thinker and activist alike remains: on what side of history are you on?  Saral and I long ago decided this question by becoming socialist and later ecological socialists.  That is we chose to defend and promote a system of values. In fact, the future of humanity and much of life on Earth depends on whether the majority of humanity also decide on similar values and build alternative institutions to support it as opposed to the ideology of alienation, domination and exploitation promoted by the capitalist world market. 

In the next segment of the critical discussion, I will take up Saral’s statement that “Bourgeois Malthus was right, while Marxist Marx was wrong.”  That is on the population question. 

To be continued…

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