Know your data, show your data: A rant

I am finishing up my first year of doctoral level political science studies. During that time I have read a lot of articles – approximately 550. 11 courses. 5 articles a week on average. 10 weeks. 11×5×10=550. Two things have bothered me immensely when reading these pieces: (1) it’s unclear authors know their data well, regardless of it being original or secondary data and (2) the reader is rarely showed much about the data.

I take the stance that when you use a dataset you should know it well in and out. I do not just mean that you should just have an idea if its normally distributed or has outliers. I expect you to know who collected it. I expect you to know its limitations.

For example I have read public opinion data that sampled minority populations. Given that said populations are minorities they had to oversample in areas where said groups are over represented. The problem with this is that those who live near co-ethnics are different from those who live elsewhere. This restricts the external validity of results derived from the data, but I rarely see an acknowledgement of this.

Sometimes data is flawed but it’s the best we have. That’s fine. I’m not against using flawed data. I’m willing to buy most arguments if the underlying theory is well grounded. To be honest I view statistical work to be fluff most times. If I don’t really care about the statistics, why do I care if the authors know their data well? I do because it serves as a way for authors to signal that they thought about their work. It’s similar to why artists sometimes place a “bowl of only green m&ms” requirement on their performance contracts. Artists don’t know if their contracts were read, but if their candy bowl is filled with red twizzlers they know something is wrong. I can’t monitor whether the authors took care in their manuscripts, but NOT seeing the bowl of green only m&ms gives me a heads up that something is off.

Of those 500+ articles I have read only a handful had a devoted descriptive statistics section. The logic seems to be that editors are encouraging that stuff be placed in appendices to make articles more readable. I don’t buy that argument for descriptive statistics. Moving robustness checks or replications to the appendices is fine, but descriptive stats give me a chance to actually look at the data and feel less concerned that the results are driven by outliers. In my 2nd best world all dependent variables and major independent variables would be graphed. If the data was collected in differing geographies I would want the data mapped. In my 1st best world replication files with the full dataset and dofiles would be mandatory for all papers.

I don’t think I am asking too much here. Hell, I am not even fond of empirical work. My favorite academic is Peter Leeson (GMU Econ & Law) and he rarely (ever?) does empirical work. As long as empirical work is being done in the social sciences though I expect a certain standard. Otherwise all we’re doing is engaging in math masturbation.

Tldr; I don’t trust most empirical work out there. I’ll rant about excessive literature reviews next time.

Minimum wages: The economist as a psychologist

Both Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek are known for arguing that there is no such thing as a good economist who is only an economist. For these two thinkers, a good economist-as-scientist also needs to know history, philosophy of science, ethics, and physics. Mises and Hayek are thinking of what an economist-as-scientist should be familiar with and have some minimum knowledge beyond his discipline.

I would add that the economist as public educator, that is, when the economist talks as an economist to non-economists, also needs some awareness of psychology. I may not be using the term “psychology” in the most proper way, but I mean the awareness to understand what the interlocutor feels and needs and then figure out how to communicate economic insights in a way that will not be automatically (emotionally or psychologically) rejected; how to make someone accept an economics outcome they do not want to be true. How to break the bad news with empathy? This is a challenge I try to get my students to understand as one day they, too, will be economists out of the classroom in the real world.

A few days ago I found myself unexpectedly in the “psychologist” position. Only seconds after meeting for the first time two persons dropped the question: “So, what do you think about increasing the minimum wages, should we do it?” I knew nothing about these two individuals, and the only thing they knew about me was that I’m an economics professor. The answer to such a question is an Econ 101 problem: if you increase the minimum wage (above the equilibrium price) some lucky workers will get a wage increase at the expense of other ones loosing their jobs.

The first question I asked myself was “what do these two nice ladies actually want, the analytical/scientific answer, or do they want instead the ‘professor’ to confirm their bias?” This might be a delicate discussion since they may well have a loved one in the minimum wage market.

The first thing to get out of the way is that my answer as an economist is not ideologically driven or does not respond to secret political agendas. How can that be made clear? One way is to show the economics profession’s consensus on the subject from an impersonal position. I explained to them that any economics textbook from any author from any country in the world used in any university would say the same thing: “If you put the price of labor above its equilibrium (a minimum wage), it will produce a disequilibrium (unemployment). You cannot fix the price outside equilibrium and at the same time remain in equilibrium.” Yes, as Ben Powell reminds us, even Paul Krugman agrees on this. By mentioning a worldwide consensus there is no room for ideological or political agendas. It is important to mention that economics is not always about politics. The economic analysis of minimum wages has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican; the political position of each party may differ, but those are not economic analyses, those are political strategies.

The next step was to deal with the issue that if such a consensus exists, why are there mentions of studies showing no harmful effects of increases in minimum wages. This is no mystery either. A well known reason of why an increase in minimum wages does not increase unemployment is because in fact there is no such increase. The politician may say he is increasing the minimum wage, but he does not say that the minimum wage is being located just above the equilibrium level and therefore he is not doing much. Another reason is to look at the effect of a minimum wage increase in a small location where low skilled workers can get another job in the next town without the need to move and therefore they will not show up as unemployed. This is another case of an ineffective increase in minimum wages. Or maybe the minimum wage increases but a benefit goes down. The total compensation to the employee does not change, its composition does.

But can the economist show his claim? Is there more clear evidence that the effects of increasing minimum wages does do harm than the complicated cases where there are no harmful effects? Again, I went geographically large. First, I compared the U.S. with Europe, which has higher minimum wages with respect to the U.S. In Europe you find higher unemployment rates, higher unemployment in the youth population, and also higher long-term unemployment. Second, I brought the case of the U.S. Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, which fixed the minimum wage at 25 cents per hour. This law included Puerto Rico where the many workers were earning between 3 to 4 cents. Bankruptcies and unemployment skyrocketed. It was in fact unions who asked Congress to make an exception for Puerto Rico, which took two years to consider. For two years people in Puerto Rico were forced to work in the black market or fail to make a minimum income. Want more cases? See here. “See,” the psychologist says, “minimum wages are very dangerous; you can seriously harm yourself. Is that a bet you really want to make?”

Two issues remain to be explained after dealing with these three problems, (1) objection to minimum wage increases is not (necessary) an ideological or political position, (2) studies that deny the effect are doubtful for easy reasons to understand, and (3) if you look at a sample broad enough the economist’s prediction is right there.

First, when an economist objects to an increase in minimum wages it does not mean we do not want wages to go up. We are just saying that a minimum wage increase is not the right way to do it. I wish it were so easy, but the laws of demand and supply inform otherwise. I guess most economists would advocate for minimum wages if their negative effects were not real. Second, explain Milton Friedman’s lesson that a policy is valued by its results, not by its intentions. The economist objects because of the unintended effects of fixing the price of labor outside equilibrium, not because we wouldn’t like to see real wages increasing.

Military Dictatorship in Brazil: Was it worth it?

The title of this text can already cause controversy since many understand that there was no dictatorship in Brazil, but a series of military governments that could not be classified as dictatorial. But the fact is that, in 1964, Castelo Branco became president in place of João Goulart, being succeeded by Costa e Silva, Medici, Geisel and João Figueiredo. Calling this dictatorship or not, the fact is that João Goulart was deposed and Castelo Branco occupied the presidency to avoid that the country was taken by groups sympathetic to the communism, making Brazil a “Big Cuba”. And it is against this fact that I ask if it was worth it: was it worth having 21 years of military governments to prevent a socialist government from being implanted in Brazil?

A socialist government was implemented in Brazil in 2003 by popular vote. Although political propaganda in 2002 had proclaimed an inclination towards the center of the political spectrum, the fact is that the PT never completely abandoned its socialist inclinations. It could even be said that FHC is worthy of the same comment: although less inclined to the left, the PSDB does not carry “democratic socialism” in the name for nothing. In light of this, I ask if it was worth having 21 years of military governments in Brazil. In 1988, just three years after João Figueiredo left the presidency of the country, a Constitution was promulgated with a strong Progressive character. In 1994, less than 10 years after the last military president stepped down, Brazil elected a “Third Way” president. In 2002 a president with a past of explicit connections with socialism came to power, and in 2011 the country happened to be governed by a former guerrilla warrior. If the objective of placing the military in power has been to avoid the implantation of socialist governments in Brazil, it can be said that this goal was not achieved. It was only postponed for just over 21 years.

What is socialism? Why is it so bad? Even without any empirical research, I am quite sure that most of the Brazilian population would not know how to answer these questions. In a similar vein, I am quite convinced that most of the country’s “literate class” (artists, academics, and intellectuals of all kinds) is sympathetic to socialism. Many of the political parties in Brazil carry “socialism” or “communism” in the name.

What did the military governments offer in exchange for socialism? Although they had varied characteristics, most of the governments between 1964 and 1985 tended to be a modernized version of Positivism. Positivism states that all knowledge (tradition, common sense, religion) will be superseded by positive scientific knowledge. Another way of defining it is to say that only what is empirically proven is true. Positivism, however, presents some problems. First, it is self-defeating, that is, it does not stand up to its own validation criteria: “Only what is empirically proven is true.” Is this empirically proven? Is it empirically proven that “only that which is empirically proven is true”? No. And it could not even be. Another difficulty is to carry out the empirical tests. It is possible, even with constraints, to conduct empirical tests in a controlled environment (in laboratories) to test theories and hypotheses. But it is not possible to declare the universality of the results, even if the tests are performed a very large number of times.

This “problem of induction” (to draw universal conclusions from particular, albeit many, observations) was famously answered by Karl Popper: in Popper’s definition, the aim of science is not to prove universal truths, but to affirm with confidence a set of information. In other words, nothing is “scientifically proven,” but many things are scientifically falsified by the lack of favorable evidence. Ludwig von Mises answered the problem of induction in another way: not everything has to be empirically tested to be considered true. There are truths that are self-evident, even without any empirical test. Despite the differences, both Popper and Mises offered possibilities of non-positivistic sciences (in the sense of systematic knowledge), especially valid for the study of human beings living in society.

Positivism and Marxism are sister doctrines. Both emerged in the 19th century in response to liberalism. The origin of liberalism lies in Christianity, if not in the affirmation of the existence of the Christian God in all the details presented by the Bible, at least in elements such as Natural Law and an anthropology similar to that of Christian teaching. Positivism and Marxism have moved away from Christianity by adopting a materialist view of reality (it only exists, or at least it only matters what we can experience empirically) and by denying the natural limitations of the human being.

Following von Mises, the Austrian School rejects the positivist methodology, and therefore is classified as heterodox. Although we should avoid anachronisms, the tendency of classical economists was the same: from introspection and axioms, rather than from empirical tests. It is not a matter of despising the scientific method altogether, quite the opposite! The scientific method is excellent for taking the man to the moon and discovering the cure of diseases. It just is not fit for a human “science.” To believe so is to fall into a “fatal conceit”. The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 can be accused of this fatal conceit. They generally believed that they could rule the country as if it were a barracks.

In conclusion: was it worth it? Certainly avoiding Socialism is a great and necessary goal. But combating it with Positivism is not the right path. Two mistakes do not make a hit. Was there the possibility of combating socialism with liberalism? I think not. Brazil didn’t have the liberal tradition necessary to confront socialism and other forms of authoritarianism or totalitarianism (and maybe it still hasn’t). Looking back, we can only regret that the options were so bad. Looking forward, we can try to improve our options by building a true liberalism in Brazil.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Turkey and the Case of the Magical Vanishing Coup
  2. Is the overthrow of a democratically elected government ever justified?
  3. John and Abigail Adams educated their son, John Quincy, to become the worthy successor of the Founding generation of the new regime
  4. An American economist’s observations from Europe
  5. The Influence of Culture on Science, and the Culture of Science
  6. Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor

PS: Did anyone else notice that the Brexit vote was 51%-49%? I mean, there’s a lot to think about there, especially for libertarians who claim that democracy sucks but Brexit/Nexit/Grexit is totally and completely justified if the people demand it…

Economics in the ancient world?

Part of my research is located between philosophy and specific disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. I’m currently working on a project on several facets of economic life in the ancient Near East. I’m very serious about it, and even did some study in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hebrew to understand some of the debates on the interpretation of primary sources.

Some crucial questions that anybody in my situation have to ask relate to theory: Was there any such thing as an economy, to begin with? Okay, the answer is straightforward: people were indeed allocating scarce resources, trading them, producing them, and so on. I don’t know of anyone who doubts that, and in case anyone tries, I’d point them to the enormous amount of ancient Mesopotamian contracts, receipts and court cases dealing with the issue, not to mention the famous “law codes” of Hammurabi and other kings.

The answer to next question, though, is less obvious: Can we apply contemporary economic theory to interpret, understand, explain, model, etc. economic behaviour in the ancient world? So far, I’ve identified three schools of thought on this matter in the field of Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

First, there are those who focus on particulars on the “micro” level. Their research is predominantly concerned with the publication, translation, and commentary on hundreds and hundreds of inscribed clay tablets containing valuable information about everyday life in the ancient world. These scholars won’t have much to say in terms of generalisation, because the questions they address are a degree further removed from the questions we tend to ask, say, in economics or sociology.

A common type of research in this line (and, frankly, a type of research I wouldn’t mind executing someday) looks at the complete set of cuneiform tablets found in a specific place and tries to elucidate some patterns within that set of texts. I’ve heard, for example, of someone who did his PhD on the archives of a certain family in Babylon which was involved in trade. That scholar didn’t stop at telling the story of that family, but also synthesised a considerable amount of information about economic transactions and the everyday struggles for that town in that particular period. He also pointed out some interesting linguistic features present in the contracts, letters, and receipts that he transcribed, translated and published as part of his thesis.

In this kind of research, the emphasis is on detailed observation and description, and on a modest type of generalisation to a mid-range view of the local situation. It doesn’t really deal with the economy in general and, arguably, doesn’t make much room for any of today’s economic theories to be used.

The second school of thought borrows from economic sociologists and anthropologists the idea that any economy is intrinsically linked to the way a specific society operates in a given period of history. The works of Karl Marx, Max Weber and, more recently, Karl Polanyi and Immanuel Wallerstein are examples of broad statements of this thesis. Polanyi, in particular, has applied some of this thinking to ancient economies, arguing that, in the ancient Near East, there was no such thing as a “market” in the modern sense. If that’s indeed the case, then the task is to develop a new economics (or at least a new economic theory) to account for phenomena which are particular to that historical context.

In this second kind of research, a key procedure is to ask what the ancients thought they were doing when they were engaged in economic activity. This is analogous to the anthropologist’s “thick description” of a culture in its own terms. Hermeneutics and interpretation should play a major role. We’d need to read those primary sources in search for clues about the ancient view of the economy. Did they imagine the economy as we imagine it today? Or was it something different in their view? What were the words and notions they used to describe economic activity? And so on.

However, how would we know what to look for in the first place? Wouldn’t the very notion of an “economy” be alien to the ancient mind, at least until much later with the Greeks and Romans? Because of this tricky implication, people in this line of research may choose to ignore any subjective or discursive features and may opt instead for a reduction of ideas to material factors, perhaps driven by a Marxist philosophy.

Then, thirdly, there’s the view that presupposes the applicability of contemporary economics to ancient economies. So far, I’ve come across two lines of research, both of which seem underexplored because of the lack of interest of economists in the ancient world, or lack of ability to tackle primary sources. The first line of research looks at the relationship between institutions and the general operation of the economy. I’d place this within the broader approach of neo-institutional economics, or also the so-called law and economics tradition of economic thought.

One interesting question that has been asked in this line of research has to do with the impact of government regulations in the everyday functioning of the economy. For example, how clear were property rights? If we look at the “law codes” of ancient Mesopotamia, we see a large number of definitions of what was allowed and what was forbidden, but were those rules enforced? Were they simply a suggestion? Sometimes, there’s a contrast between what the law code says and what local judges decided in a concrete court case. This way of researching ancient economies, in my view, is more productively executed as teamwork, with an economist and a specialist in ancient texts, languages, and archaeology joining forces.

A second way of applying contemporary economic science to ancient economies resembles the mainstream way of doing research. A model is constructed on the basis of some initial hypothesis, and then the hypothesis is tested against “data”. An important problem with this is that there’s a dearth of concrete and unambiguous information amenable to this sort of treatment. However, this is not the case for all periods. As a matter of fact, we do happen to have access to sizeable sets of information about prices and wages for Babylonia in the Hellenistic period. The crucial source is a set of records that people made correlating the position of the stars and planets with all sorts of information, including economic information. Some preliminary analysis of those series has suggested that prices, for example, behaved more or less like a mainstream economist would expect them to behave.

This issue of the dearth of data leads me to the following thought. I believe that even a mainstream economist should be open to the possibility of another style of economics in the study of ancient economies. I don’t think economists should give up studying them altogether. Some cross-theoretical dialogue with those engaged in other ways of thinking about ancient economies may be in order. However, I understand that many on both sides of the attempted dialogue will feel uncomfortable. After all, a mainstream economist and a Marxist don’t just disagree on method. They also disagree on politics, ethics, the meaning of life, and a number of other issues.

As a possible avenue of research, then, I’d like to suggest a more deductive approach in theory construction and a more discursive approach in the study of historical patterns. From the deductive system we’d know how an economy works in general, even if there are historically-specific possibilities to tackle. From the discursive approach we’d be able to make the most of the “data” that we do have in abundance – thousands of clay tablets with textual information – and with that illustrate the general points.

In my view, this would look like a combination of Austrian political economy with rigorous philological use of primary sources. It would be the sort of research programme to be tackled with a team of people, good libraries, near a museum and in constant dialogue, learning, and interaction. Both fields could potentially benefit from the original interdisciplinary research programme that would emerge.

“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.


Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”