Sunday, January 31, 2010

Underdetermination, Prove it!

Positivist scientific philosophy, ala Popper, argues that scientific theories/statements can be judged through empirical experimentation and testing. If a theory/statement passes this test, usually by repeatedly and correctly predicting the outcome of a defined procedure, then scientists say that such a theory is factual. Or if they are very responsible, they say that it is provisionally true.

However, Post-positivists, as John Zammito calls them in his engaging history of SSK (Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) and STS (Science and Technology Studies) thought, have mounted several objections to this integral component of what is normally termed the Scientific Method.

What we can term the "underdetermination argument," is that recourse to experimentation to test scientific theories is simply insufficient to establish (or determine, hence the name) the level of credibility that is normally accorded to what we regard as scientific facts. It is always possible, and historically has usually been the case, that two (or more) theories which are logically incompatible, both adequately, at least at a certain point in history, explain a given set of empirical observations. In other words there is more going on, what Thomas Kuhn calls "historical accidents," when scientists determine "facts" than just some idealized Scientific Methodology.

Zammito acknowledges this point but only what he calls its "weak" form. Taken to its extreme the underdetermination argument could, and has by some authors, been used to relativise and thereby weaken Science's claim to be able to produce uniquely credible knowledge.

I tend to agree with Zammito on a pragmatic level, though I am not entirely convinced by the arguments he employs to avoid the slippery slope into relativism provided by the underdetermination thesis.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Do economic theories describe or create economies? A history of modern finance.

Donald MacKenzie's An Engine Not a Camera: how financial models shape markets is a fascinating read on a couple of levels.

1. If you have any interest in understanding the history behind the financial instruments that were largely responsible for America's (and the world's) current financial mess, this book spends a few chapters outlining their development.

2. From an SSK (Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) or STS (Science and Technology Studies) perspective Mackenzie's application of performative theory to economics is convincing and instructive to those, like myself, who are interested in extending the explanatory power of that theory to other fields, in my case coastal management.

3. Finally Mackenzie manages to successfully engage with, and shed insightful light on, financial and economic theories without being pulled into, and taking sides in, the tired, interminable, and contentious, debate between "Friedman-inspired capitalists" and "Keynesian-inspired socialists" (pick your own labels for those two groups if mine don't suit you.)


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Beware the Myth of Grass-Fed Beef"

After having just watched two documentaries about the American food industry (see the below posting) both of which advocated against grain(corn)-fed beef and for grass-fed beef, I found this article over at which basically debunks the assertion that grass-fed beef, from an E-coli standpoint, is any safer than grain-fed.

Science changes. Therefore responsible scientists, even die-hard Popperian-positivists, need to be tempering their advice by stressing the inherently provisional nature of all their scientific findings. This may curtail their research funding, but it is the only responsible course of action.


A few pictures from Mozambique and Malawi

I've never been one to take pictures but Joy bought a camera and although even she forgot to pull it out most of the time here are a few of the pictures which she took.

Me with the trusty Atos that we drove for 3000 miles in Mozambique and Malawi.

Blantyre, Malawi

Lake Malawi. The green patch of land in the background is not the far shore of the lake but actually an island. Lake Malawi is quite large at 11,450 square miles (29,600 square kms) , which is a little bigger than Lake Erie in the United States.

A rural road-side village in Mozambique.

This is the main highway running north from Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. This particular picture shows the road neither at its worst nor at its best. Most parts of the road were decent, but others were much worse than is shown above.

This is a good example of some the colonial Portuguese architecture that is common in many Mozambican towns.

This is a outdoor market in Inhambane, Mozambique.


Monday, January 25, 2010

The American Food Industry

I watched two very good documentaries today about the American food industry. "King Corn" and "Food Inc." Both were heavily inspired by Micheal Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." They are highly informative and fairly successful at avoiding the melodrama that is characteristic of a lot of the more radical tree-hugger, conspiracy-theory laden, propaganda that is out there. I have a little bit of an academic background in agricultural economics so most of what I heard was not new to me but for those who don't know, or for those who just want an entertaining refresher course on how food is produced in America, these two documentaries are much recommended.

I do have a few quibbles however.

1. The diversity of products available to the average American consumer is massive and real, not merely apparent, as both documentaries claim, despite the consolidation of the food industry. Walk into almost any supermarket in America and you can buy products from all over the globe. The fact that most Americans still stick to their Coke, potato chips, and Rice-a-roni is not due to a lack of choices but to American's failure to take them.

2. Healthy home-cooked meals are NOT more expensive than fast food or "TV dinners" at the supermarket as "Food Inc." claims. I personally cook cheap and healthy meals for a fraction of what those ready-made meals cost and it is neither difficult nor even very time consuming.

3. Even if you haven't watched these documentaries you should know that the following statements are sheer stupidity and those who make them do not deserve anyone's pity.

From "King Corn" a guy who was obese and is now diabetic lamenting about the evils of high fructose corn syrup, said "I used to drink 2 liters of grape soda a day, sometimes more."

And from "Food Inc." the mother of a family of four whose husband is diabetic said "We never used to think about healthy eating because we thought that everything was healthy."

4. I generally dislike it when anyone positions "the masses" as helpless victims of some large, usually evil and irresistible, force. Such narratives are usually overly simplistic and misleading. People, even the poor (at least in the United States), almost always have choices about the food they buy and consume and it is not difficult, if one has the will, to know, at least generally, how and from where one's food originates. It is everyone's individual responsibility to feed themselves in a healthy manner, and frankly this is not a difficult task in America. Although we certainly have the right and the need to complain and demand higher standards, on the whole Americans should be thankful they are fortunate enough to live in a country where such easy access to a healthy diet is possible. In many parts of the world, some of which I visited just last week, this is not the case.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Malawi, Mozambique, and Cape Town

Well three and a half weeks goes pretty fast. As usual, Africa was a good time. Joy and I learned a lot about Mozambique and Malawi and enjoyed our time back in Cape Town visiting friends and seeing how that country is shaping up for the World Cup that will be happening in just a few months from now. Highlights of the trip included the Art Deco and Portuguese colonial architecture in Maputo and other towns in Mozambique and in Malawi lounging on the golden shores of, and swimming in, the remarkably clear waters of Lake Malawi. Blantyre is a pleasant city with a wonderful art gallery and many decent international restaurants, although the National Museum is a national disgrace. The new parliament being built by the Chinese in Lilongwe is totally uninspiring although the roads throughout the country (which I suspect the Chinese also had a hand in) are much nicer than I expected.
One of the most interesting and unexpected events of our trip was when we accidentally witnessed the trial of two gay men who had recently been arrested in Malawi on charges of gross public indecency because, in the words of the Malawian police spokesperson "homosexuality in Malawi is illegal." The atmosphere in the packed courtroom felt very similar to what one might expect at a circus freak show. When the two very pitiful looking men were escorted into the courtroom the entire audience in unison stood and oogled them with disgust, amusement, and utter fascination.
Our trip to Mozambique confirmed what we had heard while living in South Africa. The place is booming with outside investment from South Africa and abroad. There are still two bad strips along the main N1 highway going north from Maputo but in general the roads are good. The most surprising thing was the number of local tourists that were frequenting the beaches at which we stayed. Apparently Mozambique has a healthy (though of course still proportionally very small) middle-class that enjoys partying. Tofo, a legendary beach resort area, was packed with more local tourists than foreign ones on New Years Eve, many of whom sported heavily modified cars capable of blaring Beyonce out of their boots at annoyingly high decibels. As anyone who has traveled in Africa knows, local tourists are a rarity, so I was happy to see them in Mozambique despite their penchant for listening to booty music until the sun comes up (I like my booty music in smaller doses preferably between the hours of 10pm and 2am).