Epistemology, Economics, and Conspiracies
By Pierre Lemieux
Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) is important because it underlies the problem of truth in economics and in all other area of rational research and discourse. Epistemology is also relevant to conspiracies theories. As philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, in the social sciences, invisible-hand explanations are always preferable because otherwise the conclusion is planted in the premises–a vindication of Adam Smith and classical-liberal economics!
The Ptolemaic system of astronomy also faced an epistemological trap in explaining the movement of planets and stars with the help of epicycles (cycles moving on other circles). When an empirical observation contradicted the system’s predictions, the astronomer only needed to add an epicycle to make the theory fit the fact. Similarly, adding one new conspirator or a new conspiratorial component can always explain away, ad infinitum, any objection to a given conspiracy. Only much later, with the work of mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier in the 18th century, did we start understanding that any smooth curve or movement in space can be approximated with a sufficient number of epicycles.
Ptolemy’s theory was more complicated than needed to understand, and to better understand, the movement of planets and stars. Just like Ptolemaic astronomy, conspiracy theories (at least complex ones) violate Occam’s razor, that is, the principle that “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” or “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” In other words, of two explanatory theories, the simplest one should be preferred ceteris paribus. Granted that it is not always clear what “the simplest” means.
Conspiracies are not impossible, but the more complex and the less incentive-compatible they are, the lower their probability. (See my post “Why a Vast Election Fraud is Highly Implausible” and its complement, “Implausible Conspiracy and Unfair Election.)
The shaky epistemological status of conspiracy theories can be illustrated by a recent Facebook post of mine and the comment of Professor Sinclair Davidson, an economist at RMIT University in Australia. I posted:
Here is another [I should have written: “the correct”] conspiracy theory: The Deep State approached Trump around 2015 and asked him to run for president, assuring him of their support. “We know how to run elections,” they told him. The Deep State needed some puppet or clown who would make individual liberty (including the 1st and 2nd Amendments) look totally cranky, thereby preparing the terrain for a future dictator. They told Trump that only he, with his genius, his legendary honesty, and his golf game, could play this important role. Alas, Trump fell in love with the job (as he did with the North Korean dictator), the tweets, the honors, the constant attention, and broke with his Deep State handlers. We saw the consequence on November 3.
Sinclair Davidson brillantly commented:
I have a different theory: Deep state approached Trump exactly like you said but lost control of the 2016 election. He was the patsy meant to lose. Now we see 2020.
Conspiracies can explain any event (even in the physical world if the gods, like Greek gods, engage in conspiracies), and a large number of different conspiracies can explain the same event. Hence conspiracy theories are generally useless, at best.