Column on Brooks Gets Giddy

Brooks Gets Giddy

Tibor R. Machan

So David Brooks attended a neuroscience conference in lower Manhattan and got giddy from all the youth taking part in works in this relatively recent field. We learn this from his Tuesday, October 13, 2009, column in The New York Times.

Most of his report is fluff but he does say at one point something provocative and basically misleading. He writes, that “Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the emotions.”

In fact economists and the rest simply posit the generalization–mainly for purposes of thought experimentation–that people act rationally and by this they mean nothing much more fancy apart from the fact that people normally think about how to achieve their goals, whatever those goals may be. That is the extent of the rationality these folks assume and so the idea that they “treat humans as ultrarational creatures” is bunk. (Why, by the way, “ultra”?)

From such folks as the leading Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman, economists tend to work with the conception of human action as instrumentally rational, yes. All this means is that we tend to consider the most effective means by which to achieve our ends. Hey, even lower animals do this much “thinking”. There is nothing ultra rational about it.

Milton Friedman made it clear, in his seminal paper on economic methodology, that the assumptions with which most economists work are not strictly realistic but more along lines of the assumptions we make in applied geometry about straight lines, circles and such. None of those in real life are perfect but when we analyze the world with the aid of such geometrical objects, we assume them to be perfect. Not much harm in this if we mind our ways. Economists and such are indeed advised not to take their theoretical assumptions too literally but they do the work of making the world more understandable, just as the assumption would that David Brooks probably pays attention to what he writes when he writes his columns (even though in fact he may get up for a cup of coffee or even to answer the phone in the middle of it all).

But Brooks seems to be gaga about findings the show that the theoretical model with which the social scientists work does not perfectly match the actual world. (He must not have read his Plato very carefully who taught that point many moons ago!) Moreover, Brooks should listen more closely to the people conducting the neuroscientific research who themselves attribute far less significance to their discoveries. Mostly what they have found confirms what those awful economists, political scientists and policy makers have believed by way of a close inspection of the brain with the aid of cat scans and MRIs.

Nor did most of those older folks ever contend that people are always, uniformly rational–i. e., ultrarational–even instrumentally, although because they mostly left it open what people’s goals must be, they did suggest that even the craziest among us calculate well enough how to get where they wish to go. Why not?

Surely there are other important questions left once this is decided but this much is not negligible. We can figure, with this assumption, that when David Brooks wants to write a column about something, he will most likely find a way to do it that doesn’t waste a lot of his resources but instead economizes with them. Not a brilliant but certainly useful assumption about people, most people, not everyone!

But I guess there is no fund in reporting that neuroscientists are confirming common sense. They mostly are, actually, even the most radical of them. They have even given some measure of credibility to free will, what with the introduction, by Benjamin Libet, of the notion of the brain’s veto power when people undertake their various activities. They can, at the last nanosecond, opt out if they deem their plans to be unwise. What a finding that is!

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