Noam: - Ernst Mayer. Yeah, well I was giving a kind of slightly tongue-and-cheek rendition of a discussion of his. He's maybe the "Grand Old Man" of modern American biology, a very important biologist. I read an interesting article once in which he pointed out that, in terms of biological success -- biological success essentially means how many are there around -- in terms of biological success, he said "The successful organisms are the least intelligent." Ones that mutate rapidly like bacteria, or ones that have fixed ecological niches like beetles, they all do fine. As you move up the scale of what we call intelligence, to mammals, to bigger mammals, to primates, and so on, you find less biological success. And he concluded that, looking at it as a biologist, you could argue that intelligence is a lethal characteristic. Then I added to that, that the organisms that are considered the peak of intelligence (namely, us) is now engaged in the process of destroying itself and destroying everything else along with it, which would give the final touch to the theory. And that's what we're doing. I think I was referring specifically to environmental catastrophe. We don't have to do it, but we are doing it, and it's not because we're intelligent. It's because we've developed institutional structures which kind of drive us in that direction. So, take say, market systems: I mean we don't really have market systems, but we have partially market systems. And, a market system has a built-in doomsday machine inside it. In a market system, you don't pay attention to what are called externalities, for example, effects on others. So, Like if you sell me a car, let's say: if we're paying attention we'll make a good deal for ourselves, you and I will both come out OK. But we don't bring into the calculation the effect of that sale on other people, and there is an effect. There's another car on the road, there's more pollution, there's more congestion, there's a greater chance of accidents, and so on. And magnified over a lot of people, that can be a big effect. Well, that's inherent in the nature of market systems, unless they somehow internalize externalities, in which case they're not really market systems. That's just an individual transaction. But you think about it in terms of bigger institutions, like say banks and investment firms, say, Goldman Sachs, when they make a transaction, say, a risky loan or something like that, they take into account the effects on them; will the profits overcome the risk, and so on. But they don't take into account what's called systemic risk: that is, the chance that if the loan goes bad and they're in trouble, the whole system may crash. They don't take that into account. That's not part of the calculation. Well, that's a significant part of what lies behind the regular financial crashes, increasingly severe ever since deregulation set in. Now if you go a step higher than that, and you're, say, the CEO of some Exxon Mobile or something, your job is to maximize profit and market share. You don't take into account the fact that there's an externality: the fate of the species. You don't calculate that in, and that's true for non-energy corporations too. In trying to maximize profit, you don't take into account the impact on the fate of the species, and that's no joke now. We're reaching a point in human existence where the fate of the species is indeed in danger, and one major reason for it is, just that it's not a calculation that is made within market systems - well, again, we don't really have qualified market systems - but to the extent that they function, this is a built-in doomsday machine.
Rob: Now you're talking about economics, really. Now, in your interview with Yarden Katz in the Atlantic, you talked about how, whatever the science, you need to learn the fundamental science that's going to be applicable with whatever comes along next. You talked about that with engineering needing physics, with medicine needing biology. What do you think the state of economics is, because isn't that really the science that marketing is based upon?
Noam: Well, economics is not like physics and biology. Economics is an interesting field, and economists do a lot of interesting things. But, to a significant extent economic theory is studying abstract systems that have only a limited relationship to what goes on in the world. That's one reason why, overwhelmingly, professional economists didn't notice, or didn't think it was important, that we're entering into a huge housing bubble. Through the last ten years until it crashed, until it burst, housing prices were going way beyond any basis in economic fundamentals. But, economists were so captivated by concepts like efficient market hypotheses, and so on, that they didn't think it was important ,or didn't even notice it. Well that's a dramatic - and then the whole thing crashed, and in fact a lot of foundations of economic theory crashed. But that's a reflection of the fact that, the field is -- and I'm not denigrating the field, there is a lot of important work - but nevertheless there are respects in which they are quite far from the sciences; many respects. Which is not surprising: economic systems are a lot more complex than big molecules.
Rob: And you've talked about complexity and systems. You talk about how, if you are really going to study anything, you've got to look at how systems are highly modular, and that the different parts function differently, yet you also talk, and I'll quote you, "Unification is kind of an intuitive ideal: part of the 'Scientific Mystique,' if you like. It's that you're trying to find a Unified Theory of the world. Now, maybe there isn't one. Maybe different parts work in different ways, but your assumption is, until I'm proven wrong, definitively, I'll assume that there is a unified account of the world, and it's my task to try and find it." And it seems like what you're describing in the problems with markets, where all these levels leave out these big effects on the whole system, that it is a unifying theory that needs to be addressed!
Noam: Well, let me just make a comment. The passages you're quoting are about the hard sciences. They are about basic physics and chemistry ,and maybe biology. And it's there that the problems of unification that I was discussing arise. When you move up to social systems (market systems and others), it is so complex and there are so many variables and so little is understood, that you can barely raise these questions.
Rob: But wouldn't that be a long term vision? You know, frankly, Dr. Chomsky, I see you as a big thinker as well as somebody who knows the minutiae, so I'm asking you questions that are big questions really, because it seems to me like it applies!
Noam: Well, the kinds of questions that were being discussed in the passage you quoted about unification really had to do with things like how early 20th century chemistry related to Quantum Theory. Now that's way beyond anything we can discuss in the case of social systems in human life. We might hope that someday we'll understand enough about really complex issues to be able to raise these questions, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to raise them now. I mean take even - you quoted my saying that engineers should be studying basic physics - but remember the context to that comment. I was pointing out changes that have taken place in the twentieth century, in my lifetime. In fact, even during my professional career, I was pointing out that when - MIT is the premier engineering or science school in the world, or certainly one of them - that when I got here in the 1950s, there were very excellent physics and math departments, really good ones, but they were essentially providing services to the engineers, teaching them tricks they could use. Engineers were still at that time (the 1950s), the engineering profession was very largely based on craftsmanship, an artisan's knowledge, skill, experience; the kind of thing that makes a good carpenter. So students were learning how to build things, make them and so on, using that kind of background. Now by the 1960s, ten years later, the curriculum had significantly changed. And instead of studying, you know, how you build circuits, or build a bridge, or something like that, students in every engineering department were studying basic physics and basic chemistry. And there were several reasons for that: one reason was that there were major advances in science and technology during that period; and, in fact, one effect was that if you wanted to do serious engineering, you'd better understand basic physics, because it was now becoming directly applicable. And also, technology was beginning to change very quickly, so being trained in the technology of today may not be of much help ten years from now. So it's best to understand the basic science that lies behind it, and you'll be equipped to deal with the changes. But that's a very recent change! That's a couple of decades ago. And this is in the most advanced disciplines. Pretty much the same was true of medicine.
Rob: What level do you think economics and marketing are at, compared to"
Noam: Not even in the same ball park.
Rob: Are you talking about pre-Copernican?
the second half of the interview will be uploaded on Friday evening.
1 | 2