August 26, 2022

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Complexity, Scientism, and Contemporary Politics

Relatively late in his long career, the famed economist F. A. Hayek developed a distinction that can help us understand the state of our politics and many of the problems we confront as a society. At least some of these problems – think of the economic, sociological, and psychological problems we now confront thanks to our policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic – derive to some extent from an attitude of unwarranted confidence in various scientific disciplines, an attitude that Hayek dubbed “scientism,” and the consequent failure to appreciate the limits of these disciplines. Contemporary politics is rife with the scientistic attitude across the political spectrum. It manifests every time a simple, single-factor, explanation or solution is offered for a problem that could only result in reality from a constellation of many interrelated causes. 

There were sciences, Hayek argued, that studied relatively simple phenomena. These sciences appeared successful because the phenomena they investigated could be explained in terms of models consisting of a few well-known variables. The phenomena of Newtonian physics were paradigmatically simple, according to Hayek. One could use Newtonian theory to accurately predict the trajectory of a baseball struck by a bat (or a rocket launched from the ground) given a few pieces of easily-discovered information about the initial velocities and trajectories of the ball and bat at the moment of contact. We could use (and obviously have used) the principles of Newtonian physics to build bridges, construct dams, and put people on the moon.

However, there were other sciences, according to Hayek, that studied more complex phenomena. Compared to Newtonian physics, these sciences appeared less successful, not because their methods were backward or their practitioners less capable, but because the phenomena they studied required models consisting of many, often not easily discovered, variables. One could not use the principles of, say, Darwinian biology or macroeconomic theory, to predict the appearance or the nature of new organisms, or the timing and severity of swings in the business cycle. There were too many causal factors, often connected to each other in complicated and intractable ways, at play to predict biological or social phenomena with anything like the accuracy we justifiably expect in Newtonian physics. 

Simple phenomena are those that fall entirely within the compass of our limited rational faculties, but complex phenomena eclipse these limits. We can put our scientific understanding of simple phenomena to work in various ways and to an extent not possible when confronted with more complex phenomena.

Scientism, according to Hayek’s later ideas, ignores this difference and treats all phenomena, regardless of their actual complexity, as simple and amenable to the methods of Newtonian physics. Scientism pretends that phenomena that emerge from the interrelations between many causal factors operating in an open and dynamic environment can be treated in the same way as phenomena that result from one or two causes working in a closed and static context. The scientistic attitude mistakes complexity for simplicity. 

Scientism is implicit in the notion that some social problem, be it political polarization, rising crime rates, opioid abuse, teen depression, or Hunter Biden, is due to a particular event, ideological movement, or social institution (Twitter, progressive prosecutors, teachers’ unions, university administrators, gender ideology, mainstream media) rather than to the complicated interrelations among these and other unnamed, perhaps unknown, factors. It is implicit in all conspiracy theories, which necessarily reduce some complex phenomena to the machinations of an allegedly omnipotent and all-powerful cabal of evildoers. Scientism is part and parcel of the widely-held belief that racism alone (rather than, say, racism in combination with many other interrelated factors) explains various social ills. It is at work in the view that there is a direct correlation unmediated by other causes between carbon use and climate change. The scientistic attitude was on display throughout the pandemic. All we had to do was (take your pick) wash our hands for twenty seconds, stay at home, keep six feet apart, wear facemasks, or take a vaccine. 

The scientistic attitude provides comfort to policymakers and their expert advisors. It encourages them in the false belief that our problems always have simple policy solutions. In this it lends credence to the demonization of political opponents, who are never treated as merely unconvinced by simplistic policy proposals, but always as too blind or evil, or both, to see the simple solution right in front of their eyes. The scientistic attitude encourages policymakers to adopt what Hayek called a “pretense of knowledge,” an overconfident, if not plainly false, belief in their own knowledge and powers of social control. Unfortunately, adopting simple solutions to mitigate complex problems has an unfortunate tendency to lead to new, often yet more complex, problems. 

Of course, to avoid the scientistic fallacy, one should avoid claiming that the scientistic attitude is sufficient by itself to explain these matters. It is but one part – an important part, I would think – of an explanation of some very complex phenomena.