Should The Academic “We” Be Ditched?

“Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.” – Mark Twain

When writing academically I use the “we” pronoun. I do so for a variety of reasons, but I am starting to rethink this practice. This may seem like a silly topic, but a quick google shows that I’m not the only one who thinks about this: link 1, link 2.

My K-12 teachers, and even my undergraduate English professor, constantly told me that I was prone to writing in a stream of consciousness. My writing, they argued, contained too much of my personality. They pointed out my constant use of “I”s of example of this. I I was, in general, an awful English student. In 12+ years of schooling, I rarely used the five page paragraph structure that American school children are indoctrinated with. I first adopted the use of the academic “we” in an attempt to force myself to distinguish between personal forms of writing, such as when I write on blogs, where these eccentricities could be tolerated and technical writing.

While that was my initial motivation for using the “we”, I also found the pronoun a way to emphasize the collaborative nature of science. I have several single authored papers, but I would be lying if I said that any of them were developed in a vacuum divorced from other’s feedback. Getting feedback at a conference or brown bag workshop may not merit including someone as a co-author, but I feel it strange to use “I” academically in this context. For anyone who disagrees with me – I ask that you compare a paper before and after submitting it to the review process. One may hate reviewer #2 for insisting on using an obscure estimation technique, but it cannot be denied that they shaped the final version of the paper. Again, I’m not saying we should add reviewers as co-authors, but isn’t using ‘we’ a simple way of acknowledging their role in the scientific process?

I admit, I also enjoy using the academic “we” in part because of its regal connections. King Michelangelo has a nice ring to it, no?

There are downsides to the use of the academic “we”. On several occasions I’ve had to clarify that I was the sole author of a given paper. What do NOL readers think? Do you use the academic “we”?

#microblog

The State in education – Part III: Institutionalization of learning

In The State in education – Part II: social warfare, we looked at the promise of state-sponsored education and its failure, both socially and as a purveyor of knowledge. The next step is to examine the university, especially since higher education is deeply linked to modern society and because the public school system purports to prepare its students for college.

First, though, there should be a little history on higher education in the West for context since Nietzsche assumed that everyone knew it when he made his remarks in Anti-Education. The university as an abstract concept dates to Aristotle and his Peripatetic School. Following his stint as Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle returned to Athens and opened a school at the Lyceum (Λύκειον) Temple. There, for a fee, he provided the young men of Athens with the same education he had given Alexander. On a side note, this is also a beautiful example of capitalist equality: a royal education was available to all in a mutually beneficial exchange; Aristotle made a living, and the Athenians received brains.

The Lyceum was not a degree granting institution, and only by a man’s knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, language, and debating skills could one tell that he had studied at the Lyceum. A cultural premium on bragging rights soon followed, though, and famous philosophers opening immensely popular schools became de rigueur. By the rise of Roman imperium in the Mediterranean around 250 BC, Hellenic writers included their intellectual pedigrees, i.e. all the famous teachers they had studied with, in their introductions as a credibility passport. The Romans were avid Hellenophiles and adopted everything Greek unilaterally, including the concept of the lyceum-university.

Following the Dark Ages (and not getting into the debate over whether the time was truly dark or not), the modern university emerged in 1088, with the Università di Bologna. It was more of a club than an institution; as Robert S. Rait, mid-20th century medieval historian, remarked in his book Life in the Medieval University, the original meaning of “university” was “association” and it was not used exclusively for education. The main attractions of the university as a concept were it was secular and provided access to books, which were prohibitively expensive at the individual level before the printing press. A bisection of the profiles of Swedish foreign students enrolled at the Leipzig University between 1409 and 1520 shows that the average male student was destined either for the clergy on a prelate track or was of noble extraction. As the article points out, none of the students who later joined the knighthood formally graduated, but the student body is indicative of the associative nature of the university.

The example of Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctoral degree, awarded by the University of Padua in 1678, illuminates the difference between “university” at its original intent and the institutional concept. Cornaro wrote her thesis independently, taking the doctoral exams and defending her work when she and her advisor felt she was ready. No enrollment or attendance at classes was necessary, deemed so unnecessary that she skipped both the bachelor and masters stages. What mattered was that a candidate knew the subject, not the method of acquisition. Even by the mid-19th century, this particular path remained open to remarkable scholars, such as Nietzsche since Leipzig University awarded him his doctorate on the basis of his published articles, rather than a dissertation and defense.

Education’s institutionalization, i.e. the focus shifting more from knowledge to “the experience,” accompanied a broader societal shift. Nietzsche noted in Beyond Good and Evil that humans have an inherent need for boundaries and systemic education played a very prominent role in contemporary man’s processing of that need:

There is an instinct for rank which, more than anything else, is a sign of a high rank; there is a delight in the nuances of reverence that allows us to infer noble origins and habits. The refinement, graciousness, and height of a soul is dangerously tested when something of the first rank passes by without being as yet protected by the shudders of authority against obtrusive efforts and ineptitudes – something that goes its way unmarked, undiscovered, tempting, perhaps capriciously concealed and disguised, like a living touchstone. […] Much is gained once the feeling has finally been cultivated in the masses (among the shallow and in the high-speed intestines of every kind) that they are not to touch everything; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep away their unclean hands – this is almost their greatest advance toward humanity. Conversely, perhaps there is nothing about so-called educated people and believers in “modern ideas” that is as nauseous as their lack of modesty and the comfortable insolence in their eyes and hands with which they touch, lick, and finger everything [….] (“What is Noble,” 263)

The idea the philosopher pursued was the notion that university attendance conveyed the future right to “touch, lick, and finger everything,” a very graphic and curmudgeonly way of saying that a certain demographic assumed unjustified airs.

Given that in Anti-Education, Nietzsche lamented the fragmentation of learning into individual disciplines, causing students to lose a sense of the wholeness, the universality of knowledge, what he hated in the nouveau educated, if we will, was the rise of the pseudo-expert – a person whose knowledge was confined to the bounds of a fixed field but was revered as omniscient. The applicability of Socrates’ dialogue with Meno – the one where teacher and student discuss human tendency to lose sight of the whole in pursuit of individual strands – to the situation was unmistakable, something which Nietzsche, a passionate classicist, noticed. The loss of the Renaissance learning model, the trivium and the quadrivium, both of which emphasize an integrated learning matrix, carried with it a belief that excessive specialization was positive; it was a very perverse version of “jack of all trades, master of none.” As Nietzsche bemoaned, the newly-educated desired masters without realizing that all they obtained were jacks. In this, he foreshadowed the disaster of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s unwholesome belief in “experts.”

The philosopher squarely blamed the model of the realschule, with its clear-cut subjects and predictable exams, for the breakdown between knowledge acquisition and learning. While he excoriated the Prussian government for basing all public education on the realschule, he admitted that the fragmentation of the university into departments and majors occurred at the will of the people. This was a “chicken or the egg” situation: Was the state or broader society responsible for university learning becoming more like high school? This was not a question Nietzsche was interested in answering since he cared more about consequences. However, he did believe that the root was admitting realschule people to university in the first place. Since such a hypothesis is very applicable today, we will examine it in the contemporary American context next.

The State in education – Part II: Social Warfare

In the article The State in education – Part I: A History, we examined Friedrich Nietzsche’s opinion of the Prussian public school system and his concern when it became the model framework for public schools, both in Germany and in the world. To summarize quickly, the philosopher held that state-funded schooling was an act of social warfare – students, taught to aspire beyond their capabilities, would become resentful and angry, making them susceptible to propaganda and manipulation. Although Nietzsche did not use the term “welfare state” in the educational context, his predicated his denouncement of public education on the idea that it was a form of welfarism and increased state control.

For historical placement, it is important to understand what resources existed for parents pre-public schools. More importantly, it is also important to understand the difference in curricula and their final goals. Before the late 18thcentury, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the advent of educational “experts,” there were only privately funded schools – many of which were free to those in need – which provided a classical education.

There are two definitions, both equally correct, of “classical education.” The first literally signifies an education based on Latin and Ancient Greek and all the literature in those languages; associated with this definition are skills in music, art, drama, declamation, oratory, and debate, all of which the Romans considered essential to a well-rounded education and which they included as formal subjects in their schools. By the early 19thcentury, this education also carried the expectation that the student could easily acquire most modern European languages since to varying degrees they were all based on the classical languages.

The second definition of “classical education” focuses on the acquisition of a mental toolkit with the goal of enabling the student to think deeply and carefully throughout his life. This system is divided into the trivium and the quadrivium, roughly corresponding to the primary and secondary school levels of the modern system.

As Dr. Peter Lynch of University of Dublin explained,

The organisation of the quadrivium was formalised by Boethius, and this structure endured for more than a millennium. It was the mainstay of the medieval monastic system of education, which had a structure of seven subjects – the seven liberal arts – comprising the quadrivium and the trivium. The trivium was centered on three arts of language: grammar, for ensuring proper structure of language; logic, for arriving at the truth; and rhetoric, for the beautiful use of language. Thus the aim of the trivium was goodness, truth, and beauty.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), an Oxonian classicist and author, explained in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the trivium is the more crucial of the two since it provides all the skills needed to be an independent thinker and learner. In her essay, she also detailed a scheme whereby the modern institutional schools could implement the trivium in place of contemporary curricula. She recognized, though, the unfortunate tendency of 20thcentury society to prefer for “education” to have a concrete banality, with parents focusing on what their children could “do” with a subject.

The quadrivium, though elucidated by Boethius (480 – 524 AD), was based on the writings of the philosopher Proclus (412 – 484 BC), whom the Renaissance men and women relied upon when they incorporated the quadrivium into formal education.  The subjects of the quadrivium are: arithmetic, music, geometry, and cosmology (sometimes listed as astronomy). As Dr. Lynch noted, mathematician Morris Klein described these subjects as “pure,” studying as they do, the abstract and the relationship between the concrete and the metaphysical. In philosophical terms, the trivium is aristotelian and the quadrivium is platonic.

Before turning to the subject of Nietzsche’s Cassandra-like predictions and the loss of classical learning in America, we must briefly look at the history of institutional education since it is the primary component of the American version. As Dr. Lynch remarked, the classical education remained alive in the European Catholic monasteries and convents, which acted as an early form of boarding school.

The schools associated with religious houses were open to all, regardless of rank or income, and did not necessitate a commitment to religious life at the end. That said, it was primarily the nobility who took advantage of the monastic and convent schools, more, in all honesty, because the principle of religious sanctuary meant that the children were secure from predation in times of unrest than from any love of learning. Although there was no prestige associated with this type of education, under these conditions, it became a noble prerogative but not necessarily ennobling in itself. Despite aristocratic mamas and papas seeing education as much less important than sanctuary, the result of this symbiotic relationship was that the upper classes really were better educated than the middle and lower ones, laying the foundation for the educational class war that Nietzsche identified in the 1800s.

Let us fast forward past the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, all of which had profound effects on education, though always within the classical framework, and look at the roots of American public education. The concept of publicly funded education occupied Thomas Jefferson, who initially supported it unilaterally, then opposed it, then compromised (Hegel would be proud) by suggesting that grammar schools might be locally funded and universal but anything beyond that had to be either private or competitive entry, if publicly funded. In general, the Founding Fathers took a laissez-faire view on education, focusing on the aspects of freedom and personal choice. This truly enlightened attitude did not last.

By the 1830s, progressives, including Horace Mann, fell under the spell of the Prussian system. In the 1840s, Mann used his position as Secretary of the (Massachusetts) Board of Education to introduce public schooling. Post-Civil War, in the 1860s, he used his position as a US Congressman to make public schooling compulsory, while homeschooling his own children in a stunning display of “for thee but not for me” hypocrisy. In 1848, as Secretary of the nascent Board of Education, Mann opened his report with these words:

According to the European theory, men are divided into classes, – some to toil, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn. The latter tends to equality of condition; the former, to the grossest of inequalities. Tried by any Christian standard of morals, or even by any of the better sort of heathen standards, can any one hesitate, for a moment in declaring which of the two will produce the greater amount of human welfare, and which, therefore, is more conformable to the divine will? The European theory is blind to what constitutes the highest glory as well as the highest duty of a State …

The truth is that Mann openly declared that the public school’s purpose is to render control to the state. The awful truth is neatly dressed in a virtue signaling garb that makes reference to religion and God (I challenge anyone to find a single passage in the Bible where God says “go build a public school.”). Buried in this paragraph is one of the major fallacies that afflicts contemporary American society: linking formal education to earning power and social worth. This particular problem we will address in a subsequent article, but it is important to know that promoting this fallacy was a crucial part of the mandate of state-run education.

At the same time as Mann was advocating mass education and social equalization on one side of the Atlantic, on the other side, Nietzsche exposed its flaws:

Let me tell you what I think characterizes the vital and pressing educational and pedagogical questions of today. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansionand disseminationof education; the other is the drive for the narrowingand weakening of education. For various reasons, education is supposed to reach the widest possible circle – such is the demand of the first tendency. But then the second tendency expects education to give up its own highest, noblest, loftiest claims and content itself with serving some other form of life, for instance, the state (Anti-Education, Lecture I).

The conflation that most concerned Nietzsche was that mass literacy did not equal mass education since the connection between reading and thinking was lost. For him, nothing epitomized this more than newspapers and journalism – “Journalism fulfills its task according to its nature and as its name suggests: as day labour.” Everyone learning to pretend to the laurels of the literate, through simply being able to decipher words on a page, created a societal need for professional intellectual caulkers:

It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge: education’s expansion and its narrowing. The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism – a substance as sturdy and permanent as the paper it’s printed on – to grout the gaps between every form of life, every social position, every art, every science, every field. The newspaper epitomizes the goal of today’s education, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages.

Systemic education was the death of the Renaissance man. It created a strange world where everyone could read but no one was learned. This intellectual world is the United States today.

After Mann forced compulsory education on the American people, the literacy rate, previously rising, declined, an event which occurred in Europe as well when Great Britain and France followed Germany’s lead. When angry parents, appalled at the poor quality of the new “free” education, withdrew their children to place them in private schools, Mann launched a media war against them, branding them un-American elitists and/or social malingerers and starting a social shouting match that continues to the present. Discovering that parents, naturally, disregarded name-calling when their children’s future was at stake, the progressives brought the state apparatus in the form of taxation to bear.

Today, the United States ranks in the middle percentiles in education internationally. The nation is behind all of east Asia, even very poor countries like Vietnam, and most of Europe, including poor Eastern European countries. According to the report, over 40% of American high school seniors rate “below basic” for science and mathematics, which by extension indicates an inability to read and reason adequately (both subjects are more tests of those two skills than anything else at that level). Yet the nation houses the greatest number of elite universities and institutions of higher education in the world. The American people have known since the early 20thcentury that public school graduates could not enter these institutions and thrive – Sinclair Lewis’ book Babbitt describes beautifully the dichotomy existing between 1920s middle-America and the push for an elite education – yet only now has the public decided that this is a problem, but only on superficial grounds. No one is interested in discussing the foundational flaws that result in American students lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts.

We are aware through personal experience that the skills of the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium are gone. We can cry in vain after the American reading public, which, before the advent of public schools and their version of literacy, created one of the first best seller phenomena with James Fenimore Cooper and later devoured the works of Edgar Allen Poe – during his life writing high literature was lucrative. Just as extinct is the British public that devoured Jane Austen with such an insatiable hunger that she could not keep up. The people whose appetite induced Charles Dickens to exploit it with publishing deals that paid him by the word are gone; for that matter, the ability of the reading public to recognize and delight in Dickens’ colorful language and skillful use of words is moribund – alas the trivium! The rage for reading and, by extension, autodidacticism in Britain reached such a pitch that, in the words of a Mises Institute commentator,“England eventually passed a paper tax [raising the cost of books] to quell a public the leaders felt was too smart.” A public too interested in books is not a contemporary problem.

In his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump described the public school system as having “failed so many of our beautiful young people.” In context, the sentence implied that the public school is supposed to turn out competitive, educated smart people. There is a question to this statement, though: Is it really a failure if a system cannot accomplish that which it was never designed to do? On the contrary, if one takes Mann’s opening report as a plan of action, the American public school has succeeded fantastically. Now everyone is equal in mediocrity and lack of knowledge. One of its missions has not been achieved: forcible creation of a classless society. We will examine the causes of this failure next since it relates to Nietzsche’s predictions of unhappiness for those who believed in state-mandated educational equality.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

The State in education – Part I: A History

In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.

Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.

As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.

On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.

Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.

Nietzsche asked,

Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!

Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.

It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.

The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.

At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.

Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.

On the popularity of economic history

I recently engaged in a discussion (a twittercussion) with Leah Boustan of Princeton over the “popularity” of economic history within economics (depicted below).  As one can see from the purple section, it is as popular as those hard candies that grandparents give out on Halloween (to be fair, I like those candies just like I do economic history). More importantly, the share seems to be smaller than at the peak of 1980s. It also seems like the Nobel prize going to Fogel and North had literally no effects on the subfield’s popularity. Yet, I keep hearing that “economic history is back”. After all, the Bates Clark medal went to Donaldson of Stanford this year which should confirm that economic history is a big deal.  How can this be reconciled with the figure depicted below?

EconomicHIstoryData

As I explained in my twittercussion with Leah, I think that there is a popularity for using historical data. Economists have realized that if some time is spent in archives to collect historical data, great datasets can be assembled. However, they do not necessarily consider themselves “economic historians” and as such they do not use the JEL code associated with history.  This is an improvement over a field where Arthur Burns (former Fed Chair) supposedly said during the 1970s that we needed to look at history to better shape monetary policy. And by history, he meant the 1950s. However, while there are advantages, there is an important danger which is left aside.

The creation of a good dataset has several advantages. The main one is that it increases time coverage. By increasing the time coverage, you can “tackle” the big questions and go for the “big answers” through the generation of stylized facts. Another advantage (and this is the one that summarizes my whole approach) is that historical episodes can provide neat testing grounds that give us a window to important economic issues. My favorite example of that is the work of Petra Moser at NYU-Stern. Without going into too much details (because her work was my big discovery of 2017), she used a few historical examples which she painstakingly detailed in order to analyze the effect of copyright laws. Her results have important ramifications to debates regarding “science as a public good” and “science as a contribution good” (see the debates between Paul David and Terence Kealey on this in Research Policy for this point).

But these two advantages must be weighted against an important disadvantage which Robert Margo has warned against in a recent piece in Cliometrica.  When one studies economic history, one must keep in mind that two things must be accomplished simultaneously: to explain history through theory and bring theory to life through history (this is not my phrase, but rather that of Douglass North). To do so, one must study a painstaking amount of details to ascertain the quality of the sources used and their reliability.  In considering so many details, one can easily get lost or even fall prey to his own prior (i.e. I expect to see one thing and upon seeing it I ask no question). To avoid this trap, there must be a “northern star” to act as a guide. That star, as I explained in an earlier piece, is a strong and general understanding of theory (or a strong intuition for economics). To create that star and give attention to details is an incredibly hard task and which is why I argued in the past that “great” economic historians (Douglass North, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Nathan Rosenberg, Joel Mokyr, Ronald Coase (because of the lighthouse piece), Stephen Broadberry, Gregory Clark etc.) take a longer time to mature. In other words, good economic historians are projects that have have a long “time to build problem” (sorry, bad economics joke).  However, the downside is that when this is not the case, there are risks of ending up with invalid results that are costly and hard to contest.

Just think about the debate between Daron Acemoglu and David Albouy on the colonial origins of development. It took more than five years to Albouy to get his results that threw doubts on Acemoglu’s 1999 paper. Albouy clearly expended valuable resources to get the “details” behind the variables. There was miscoding of Niger and Nigeria, and misunderstandings of what type of mortalities were used.  This was hard work and it was probably only deemed a valuable undertaking because Acemoglu’s paper was such a big deal (i.e. the net gains were pretty big if they paid off). Yet, to this day, many people are entirely unaware of the Albouy rebuttal.  This can be very well seen in the image below regarding the number of cites of the Acemoglu-Johnson-Robinson paper on an annual basis. There seems to be no effect from the massive rebuttal (disclaimer: Albouy convinced me that he was right) from the Albouy piece.

AcemogluPaperCites

And it really does come down to small details like those underlined by Albouy. Let me give you another example taken from my work. Within Canada, the French minority is significantly poorer than the rest of Canada. From my cliometric work, we now know that there were poorer than the rest of Canada and North America as far as the colonial era. This is a stylized fact underlying a crucial question today (i.e. Why are French-Canadians relatively poor).  That stylized fact requires an explanation. Obviously, institutions are a great place to look. One of the institution that is most interesting is seigneurial tenure which was basically a “lite” version of feudalism in North America that was present only in the French settled colonies. Some historians and economic historians argued that there were no effects of the institutions on variables like farm efficiency.  However, some historians noticed that in censuses the French reported different units that the English settlers within the colony of Quebec. To correct for this metrological problem, historians made county-level corrections. With those corrections, the aforementioned has no statistically significant effect on yields or output per farm. However, as I note in this piece that got a revise and resubmit from Social Science Quarterly (revised version not yet online), county-level corrections mask the fact that the French were more willing to move to predominantly English areas than the English were willing to predominantly French areas. In short, there was a skewed distribution. However, once you correct the data on an ethnic composition basis rather than on the county-level (i.e. the same correction for the whole county), you end with a statistically significant negative effect on both output per farm and yields per acre. In short, we were “measuring away” the effect of institutions. All from a very small detail about distributions. Yet, that small detail has supported a stylized fact that the institution did not matter.

This is the risk that Margo speaks about illustrated in two examples. Economists who use history merely as a tool may end up making dramatic mistakes that will lead to incorrect conclusions. I take this “juicy” quote from Margo (which Pseudoerasmus) highlighted for me:

[EH] could become subsumed entirely into other fields… the demand for specialists in economic history might dry up, to the point where obscure but critical knowledge becomes difficult to access or is even lost. In this case, it becomes harder to ‘get the history right’

Indeed, unfortunately.