Popper and Poincaré’s findings limit our ability to see into the future, making it a very complicated reflection of the past — if it is a reflection of the past at all. A potent application in the social world comes from a friend of Sir Karl, the intuitive economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is one of the rare celebrated members of his “profession” (along with J.M. Keynes and G.L.S. Shackle) to focus on true uncertainty, on the limitations of knowledge, on the unread books in Eco’s library.
In 1974 he received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, but if you read his acceptance speech you will be in for a bit of a surprise. It was eloquently called “The Pretense of Knowledge,” and he mostly railed about other economists and about the idea of the planner. He argued against the use of the tools of hard science in the social ones, and depressingly, right before the big boom for these methods in economics. Subsequently, the prevalent use of complicated equations made the environment for true empirical thinkers worse than it was before Hayek wrote his speech. Every year a paper or a book appears, bemoaning the fate of economics and complaining about its attempts to ape physics. The latest I’ve seen is about how economists should shoot for the role of lowly philosophers rather than that of high priests. Yet, in one ear and out the other.
For Hayek, a true forecast is done organically by a system, not by fiat. One single institution, say, the central planner, cannot aggregate knowledge; many important pieces of information will be missing. But society as a whole will be able to integrate into its functioning these multiple pieces of information. Society as a whole thinks outside the box. Hayek attacked socialism and managed economies as a product of what I have called nerd knowledge, or Platonicity — owing to the growth of scientific knowledge, we overestimate our ability to understand the subtle changes that constitute the world, and what weight needs to be imparted to each such change. He aptly called this “scientism.”
This disease is severely ingrained in our institutions. It is why I fear governments and large corporations — it is hard to distinguish between them. Governments make forecasts; companies produce projections; every year various forecasters project the level of mortgage rates and the stock market at the end of the following year. Corporations survive not because they have made good forecasts, but because, like the CEOs visiting Wharton I mentioned earlier, they may have been the lucky ones. And, like a restaurant owner, they may be hurting themselves, not us — perhaps helping us and subsidizing our consumption by giving us goods in the process, like cheap telephone calls to the rest of the world funded by the overinvestment during the dotcom era. We consumers can let them forecast all they want f that’s necessary for them to get into business. Let them go hang themselves if they wish.
As a matter of fact, as I mentioned in Chapter 8, we New Yorkers are all benefiting from the quixotic overconfidence of corporations and restaurant entrepreneurs. This is the benefit of capitalism that people discuss the least.
But corporations can go bust as often as they like, thus subsidizing us consumers by transferring their wealth into our pockets — the more bankruptcies, the better it is for us — unless they are “too big to fail” and require subsidies, which is an argument in favor of letting companies go bust early. Government is a more serious business and we need to make sure we do not pay the price for its folly. As individuals we should love free markets because operators in them can be as incompetent as they wish.
The only criticism one might have of Hayek is that he makes a hard and qualitative distinction between social sciences and physics. He shows that the methods of physics do not translate to its social science siblings, and he blames the engineering-oriented mentality for this. But he was writing at a time when physics, the queen of science, seemed to zoom in our world. It turns out that even the natural sciences are far more complicated than that. He was right about the social sciences, he is certainly right in trusting hard scientists more than social theorizers, but what he said about the weaknesses of social knowledge applies to all knowledge. All knowledge.
Why? Because of the confirmation problem, one can argue that we know very little about our natural world; we advertise the read books and forget about the unread ones. Physics has been successful, but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful, and people tend to generalize that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly nonlinear) weather than the origin of the universe.