Einstein should stick to theoretical physics

I don’t know if the character of Robert Stadler in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was based on Albert Einstein, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find if that were the case.

“Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is,” Albert Einstein starts off in an essay on why he considers socialism to be the only “way to eliminate [the] grave evils [of capitalism].” The question he raises is right, because everyone should express their views on economic and social issues.

I consider economics, philosophy, politics etc to be “dictatorial sciences” in which there can be no “expertise.” While experts in accounting or architecture or mathematics or software engineering or physics don’t go about behaving like control freaks – trying to tell other what to do with their lives – experts in the “dictatorial sciences” do precisely that. I am probably being harsh on the subjects, transferring the characteristics of the people to the subject of their expertise, but it is a fact that these subjects cast a net that is wider than any of the technical ones. The characteristic of technical subjects (or the practical side of abstract subjects) is that they have binary outcomes – a building will either stand or it will fall, a software program will either work correctly or it won’t, a mathematical formulation will either explain a particular problem or it won’t, a balance sheet is either correct or it is incorrect, the principle behind the hydroelectric dam is either sound and electricity will be generated, or unsound and it won’t. There is no “fuzziness” surrounding the same (though accounting and science are being politicized slowly and steadily – “accounting standards” and “climate change”). Expertise in these subjects cannot be earned overnight and doesn’t transcend boundaries unless people slog to gain expertise in another field – there is every chance that an expert accountant will be a lousy mathematician, or vice versa.

But the same cannot be said about the dictatorial sciences. Since nothing has to be proved – any one who is in a position to construct a house of cards is granted expert status; whether the house stands or collapses is irrelevant. So you will have positions where people who provide logical arguments on why X won’t work a particular way being sidelined by experts who will come and say that X doesn’t need to work at all. You will have the absurd case of the “United Nations” where a Zimbabwe whose regime flogs the skin off the backs of dissenters will share a table with the United States, and you will have professors who have the gall to declare – “The trouble with you is you’re just prejudiced against dictatorships.” You will have experts singing the Keynesian anthem – “We are all Keynesians now” – without bothering to explain what in God’s name “aggregate demand” is and why is it relevant at all, or why governments should only design one trillion dollar ($1,000,000,000,000) bailouts and should not print one sextillion dollars ($ 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and arrange a helicopter drop of the same, or how paying someone to dig a pit and fill it again is great economics, or why – if wars are good for the economy, just like broken windows are – should people not set their own houses and cities on fire and rebuild them?

So we will continue to have people who continue to believe that a government should manage the economy accusing the IT industry heads (whose inconsistent philosophical positions invite such attack)-

If the IT industry owes its towering rise and existence to itself, why is the word “government” on the lips of so many of its spokespersons today? And if the suits in NASSCOM could solve all their problems on their own, why are we seeing the very earthy P.C. Gupta (minister for company affairs) on TV so often?

In itself, this is not surprising. Even in the cradle of capitalism, the economic meltdown has seen the auto majors and banks depending on the government to bail them out. But Indian IT has lived in a state of denial, and lapped around in it. It’s time they woke up and smelt the coffee.

and Stiglitz rubbing his hands in glee

First, we need to reverse the worrying trends of growing inequality. More progressive income taxation will also help stabilise the economy, through what economists call “automatic stabilisers”. It would also help if the advanced developed countries fulfilled their commitments to helping the world’s poorest by increasing their foreign-aid budgets to 0.7% of GDP.

Second, the world needs enormous investments if it is to respond to the challenges of global warming. Transportation systems and living patterns must be changed dramatically.

Third, a global reserve system is needed. It makes little sense for the world’s poorest countries to lend money to the richest at low interest rates.

Poor countries lending to rich countries? This happens only in economics. Have you ever borrowed money from a beggar? How is it that the same phenomenon reverses itself when looked at in terms of “countries”? The experts don’t need to answer that – they simply assume it happens and move ahead.

This is why ceding ground to “experts” in “sciences” like economics, philosophy, politics and even theology is dangerous – and making up one’s own mind about it is essential; reading helps. And even more dangerous is believing in theories in these subjects just because some genuine expert from another area believes that is the case. That’s why Einstein’s views on economics and politics should not carry as much weight as his views on theoretical physics do, and at the cost of sounding disrespectful, that’s the subject he should have stuck to though he had every right to express his views on any subject he chose.

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Comments

  • you12  On January 13, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Not only that people have this uncanny habit of assuming imaginary things and they assign certain traits to people without checking. But more than that I believe it has a lot to do with the Herd mentality.”All follow the leader”. I guess you can also call it branding.

    Intelligence is a funny phenomenon. Gandhi and Stiglitz as economists, Gore as Superman and they are certified and honored to spread their nonsense.

    Homer Simpson said it best:

    “If he is so smart, how come he is dead!”

    The problem is there no rational defination of Human intelligence. Am i intelligent because I can write and count in a way yes, but there are so many things I can’t do now does that make me stupid? Some uneducated man might think that becuase I can write and count l will be knowledgeable on a lot of things. As you said, people often mistake expertise and specialization for
    wisdom.

    We have this tendency to admire what we don’t understand and we blunder!

  • you12  On January 13, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Its the same with Abdul Kalam. Pseudo PHD and the brand face of Fascist Hindutva.

    I am sure you might have rad this:

    http://www.antiwar.com/bidwai/?articleid=592

    All this raises a serious Q: Can media manipulate anything? What can we really claim as truth?

  • Aristotle The Geek  On January 13, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    “The problem is there no rational defination of Human intelligence”
    A definition is a word or phrase that can replace another word, phrase or concept; it just exists to make understanding simpler. So definitions don’t have properties like rationality. If you mean to say, however, that we don’t know what intelligence exactly is or does, that’s different.

    Intelligence and wisdom are separate ideas. Intelligence is the capacity to understand something – grasp – and then make use of it – reading and writing are skills, that have no correlation with intelligence. Wisdom is intelligence plus knowing the cons of actions along with the pros, and is something that can only come from experience, something intelligent brats tend to realize with age, along with the fact that cockiness only alienates people. That’s why we tend to consider older people to be wiser. This does not hold true in every case though. Old people are not necessarily wise – some of them, like Stiglitz can be incredibly stupid.

    “I am sure you might have rad this:”
    Not sure if I did before, but I have know. Bidwai is no saint however – he is a “liberal”; he praises Amartya Sen, see? About Kalam’s political naiveté, I have mentioned the fact a couple of times.

    “Can media manipulate anything? What can we really claim as truth?”
    In a completely free country, no. In other societies, the media will give people what they want, along with serving the interests of the rich and the powerful – whatever brings the cash in. Read this.

  • Naumadd  On January 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Some interesting thoughts, indeed. I have to disagree somewhat on the subject of Einstein, however, in that the foundation of every philosophy is its metaphysics, i.e, it’s fundamental statements regarding the nature of all that exists. Metaphysics serves as one’s answer to “Is reality real?” and “What is its nature?”, epistemology is one’s answer to “What is consciousness?” and “How does one form knowledge?”. These two fields of philosophy are the two pillars necessary for forming conclusions regarding ethics, politics and, finally, in aesthetics. The thing about Einstein is there seems to have been very few if any other human beings with a better grasp of the essential questions of metaphysics which puts him in a better position than most if not all of us to speak on those branches of philosophy that derive from the answers to those questions. The insightful physicists among us are our metaphysicians. Whether we do consciously or unconsciously, we all form our own individual philosophy over time based on what we ourselves experience and deduce from those experiences and what we learn and adopt as our own from others. Whether we know it or not, we absolutely depend on the minds of our physicists to tell us what is fundamentally true of everything that exists to give us a better foundation for our ideas regarding consciousness, morality, politics (economics is simply politics with another name), and our most abstract thoughts regarding “beauty” (aesthetics). Most people do not think of philosophy and certainly of physics and physicists in this way – no doubt many physicists don’t either. Nevertheless, none are more familiar and learned in the foundation for all else we think we know, all we believe, value, and practice.

    As an expert in physics and mathematics, and as a uniquely gifted mind in these areas, Einstein was also necessarily uniquely qualified to speak on ALL philosophical topics, ALL of human culture and ALL of humanity and its place in the web of life on Earth and the rest of nature.

    I understand many will disagree, however, I cannot see to conclude any other way on these issues. I take it for granted many physicists themselves may not realize the fullest implications of the work they do. Certainly most laymen or science novices do not. Nevertheless, these things I outline are true and, fortunately, there are physicists, scientists of other fields, laymen and novices who do realize the significance of the questions being asked in these matters.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On January 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    “The thing about Einstein is there seems to have been very few if any other human beings with a better grasp of the essential questions of metaphysics which puts him in a better position than most if not all of us to speak on those branches of philosophy that derive from the answers to those questions.”
    But he’s not doing that – he’s relying on a Marxist argument – an interpretation of the history of mankind. I would agree with you if he relied purely on a metaphysical and epistemological argument that began with the nature of man and his life, and came to the conclusions he does. But that is not the case here.

    “Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being,” Einstein says, but what man choses to be is still a “choice.” He continues-

    The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society–in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence–that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of many millions past and present who are all hidden behind small word “society.”

    Missing here is the fact that all this is a function of volitional exchange – man does not get these unless he’s willing to take them and offer something in return. Every argument Einstein makes is a Marxist one – he offers no proof that “unlimited competition” is bad, or why wages should be related to the value of the produce but not to the demand for labor. Everything is unsubstantiated, just like the Marxist claim. For all his intelligence and work in the field of physics, I believe he doesn’t understand the E of economics or the N of nature of man.

    “As an expert in physics and mathematics, and as a uniquely gifted mind in these areas, Einstein was also necessarily uniquely qualified to speak on ALL philosophical topics, ALL of human culture and ALL of humanity and its place in the web of life on Earth and the rest of nature.”
    As I said, I don’t accept such expertise. Aristotle, for example had a pretty good theory about metaphysics and epistemology. But his ethics and politics did not flow from those, just as Einstein’s doesn’t. Every theory of ethics, and therefore politics, of theirs, then, is just wild theories not grounded in facts.

    Popper’s advice makes eminent sense – “I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.”

    There are two kinds of liberty – a positive one and a negative one. I support the negative kind – “leave me alone.” Intellectuals like Einstein support the former. And there is no metaphysical basis for that.

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