Monday, 14 June 2010

Hard Problems

From time to time I return to this website, and leave on some of the videos while I do something else, and then give varying amounts of attention to whatever might be said.

The best video is the questions one at the end, with varying qualities of questions and replies.

I like the representation of a hard but old problem and well solved now. A little girl builds a house with Lego watched by her daddy. The house is then broken up and the pieces go back into the box. The little girl asks, "Where has the house gone?" and her daddy says, "It is in the box." This is now a well solved issue in the sciences, but its equivalent is only recently being challenged in the social sciences.

Yes I do know the answer and it is within physics. If you don't, listen or find out. It is also why many theologians make errors in their logic, and one good reason why (to go to a theological extreme) creationism is drivel.

For example, in economics, the liberal approach has been to work down to individual utility, and indeed there is all that about indifference curves (I remember the switch made from one to the other when I was doing Economics as an undergraduate). But none of this really answers where taste and therefore utility or indifference comes from. It used to imply individual psychology, an aggregate of individual demands directly based on those one by one utilities. No one believes this now, and also no one believes in the rational behaviour that underlies such Economics.

After a service I attended a baby naming party this last weekend, and wondered why do these people all look like this? Why do women in particular, younger especially, dress all in a very similar way? Where does the demand for these sorts of displays come from? And fashion is only one fashion. Go back and look at them in the early 1980s, for example. Or compare my time in sixth form to my time as a sixth form teacher, where your eyesight is instantly trained to imagine looking at people as windows while engaging as carefully as possible in what they were saying.

I didn't just do Economics but Politics and Sociology at the same time, and we were compartmentalised into each. I remember Sociology coming up with views about surplus value that had no place in Economics, and so I'd attack the basis of the Sociology and some sort of kinked supply curve. (From memory - it was in the late 70s to early 1980s this, my brain is telling me Baron and Sweezy and that is pure memory as well. Oh, I now live in the Internet age: let me enter their names... Ah it is Baran and it was all about Monopoly Capital: "Ah yes, I remember it well," as the song goes.) So I was a little undergraduate trying to undermine Marxian Sociology as I did those days with my essays all using economic liberalism. The Economics department and Politics department each too had no time for Sociology, especially the Marxist ideology driving half of the department, and it was odd that I ended up in Sociology but did so to pursue my interest in people and religion (I did have a crap three months at the University of Essex where I abandoned an American Politics MA).

It is interesting to hear that the emphasis on uniqueness in your work (say at Ph.D - I made a justification that my work was original) mitigates against different people all attacking one problem and coming up with solutions. But then there is something artificial about the uniqueness claim, and was only ever a uniqueness at the margin.

Another interesting point is that the system of rewards for academics works against anyone sitting down and spending a lifetime on one problem. They end up doing small work with the easy potential for research results that gets boxes ticked. Big unsolvables are 'pre-paradigmatic' and thus have no easy way of even formulating the problem never mind coming up with a solution. (Think about Darwin, who categorised and listed in order to come up with a method of a problem to generate his tentative and still problem-existing solutions, and how since so many findings that Darwin could not have known have made the general Darwinian scheme more robust.)

Something not mentioned in that symposium is why one leading academic usually has only one good idea, fairly young in life, that forms a partial solution, and that's the one idea that gets regurgitated forever more until the end of that life.

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