Wed Sep 10th, 2008 at 02:33:53 AM EST
I just read George Soros' latest book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What it Means. My original interest was in reading about his theory of Reflexivity and his associated model for financial bubbles. Then I thought I would quote what he has to say about Market Fundamentalism and how the current Crisis might spell the end of it. But I think today I'll just quote him on what he calls "the Postmodern Idiom" and how it makes Popper's "Open Society" vulnerable.
Yet, in spite of my preoccupation with the concept of reflexivity, I failed to recognize a flaw in Popper's concept of open society: that political discourse is not necessarily directed at the pursuit of truth. I believe Popper and I made these mistakes because of our preoccupation with the pursuit of truth. Fortunately, these errors are not fatal because the case for critical thinking remains unimpaired and the mistakes can be corrected: we can recognize a difference between the natural and social sciences, and we can introduce the pursuit of truth as a requirement for an open society.
In the last sentence he's referring to Karl Popper's Unity of Method. Popper emphasised the concept of Falsifiability as the requirement for a theory to be scientific, and furthermore required that the same scientific method be applied both to natural and social science. Soros argues that social sciences, including economics, should be considered historical and so that the scientific method doesn't apply in the same way.
Reflexivity refers to the way that not only people react to their perceptions of the outside world, but also how their actions influence the very world they're responding to, introducing a feedback loop into social phenomena with unavoidable elements of error and uncertainty (since perceptions are necessarily imperfect) that sets them apart from natural phenomena. Soros argues that economics, in particular financial economics, fails to take this into account. I would say that social phenomena share with ecology an evolutionary character, but the reflexivity Soros talks about is present only in social events and so while ecology might be subject to the standard scientific method, sociology is not (and neither is economics). Soros claims that Sociology and Anthropology don't even try (and that is a good thing!) to be "scientific".
The postmodern attitude towards reality is much more dangerous. While it has stolen a march on the Enlightenment by discovering that reality can be manipulated, it does not recognize the pursuit of truth as a requirement. Consequently, it allows the manipulation of reality to go unhindered. Why is that so dangerous? Because in the absence of proper understanding the results of the manipulation are liable to be radically different from the expectations of the manipulators. One of the most successful instances of manipulation was when President George W Bush declared a War on Terror and used it to invade Iraq on false pretenses. The outcome was the exact opposite of what he intended: He wanted to demonstrate American supremacy and garner political support in the process, but he caused a precipitous decline in American power and influence and lost political support in the process.
The extent of the vulnerability of an "open society" to manipulation and propaganda seems to have been realised by Soros only very recently. In the book he says he came to wonder how it was possible for Orwellian propaganda techniques to be successful in a relatively open society without the need for the totalitarian repressive apparatus that Orwell imagined in 1984
. The reality-based community
episode is quoted in full to illustrate the nature of the problem:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Soros has no qualms about identifying this "aide" as "presumably Karl Rove" and referring to Rove in the sequel every time he needs to personify a "postmodern" manipulation of reality with disregard for the "truth". This is the "Postmodern Idiom" that Soros says has supplanted the "Enlightenment Fallacy".
To guard against the dangers of manipulation, the concept of open society originally formulated by Karl Popper needs to be modified in an important respect. What Popper took for granted needs to be introduced as a an explicit requirement. Popper assumed that the purpose of critical thinking is to gain a better understanding of reality. That is true in science but not in politics. The primary purpose of political discourse is to gain power and to stay in power. Those who fail to understand this are unlikely to be in power. The only way in which politicians can be persuaded to pay more respect to reality is by the electorate insisting on it, rewarding those whom it considers truthful and insightful, and punishing those who engage in deliberate deception. In other words, the electorate needs to be more committed to the pursuit of truth than it is at present. Without such commitment, democratic politics will not produce the desired results. An open society can be only as virtuous as the people living in it.
Truisms, maybe, but it is important to realise that the Enlightenment and its political system (liberal democracy) have fallen victims to propaganda, maybe as a result of their own success.