The Pretence of Knowledge .

By steven d keeler | Jan 15, 2014



The lecture by Hayek seems to be somewhat a contradiction in abstract steps, if you will.

First, the point:

In some fields, particularly where problems of a similar kind arise in the physical sciences, the difficulties can be overcome by using, instead of specific information about the individual elements, data about the relative frequency, or the probability, of the occurrence of the various distinctive properties of the elements. But this is true only where we have to deal with what has been called, “phenomena of unorganized complexity,” in contrast to those “phenomena of organized complexity”

Would Hayek argue that climate models try to ‘explain’ a non linear, complex chaotic system, that is, a system that is unorganized complexity, as valid science ? Then, it appears that he would support the climate model approach as valid ? Yet, later, the author pleads :

What I mainly wanted to bring out by the topical illustration is that certainly in my field, but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science – or to deliberate control according to scientific principles – more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects.

And, offers a glimpse of intended summary :

The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science.

While arguing for the one take away:

A theory of essentially complex phenomena must refer to a large number of particular facts; and to derive a prediction from it, or to test it, we have to ascertain all these particular facts. Once we succeeded in this there should be no particular difficulty about deriving testable predictions – with the help of modern computers it should be easy enough to insert these data into the appropriate blanks of the theoretical formulae and to derive a prediction. The real difficulty, to the solution of which science has little to contribute, and which is sometimes indeed insoluble, consists in the ascertainment of the particular facts.

Concluding with a more general summary:

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in mens fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization …

I feel that his initial apparent support for unorganized complexity to be ‘understood’ by ‘frequencies’ and/or ‘probabilities’ undercuts the value of his summary with respect to making this piece a critical argument in the ‘climate models are failing’ argument one might be tempted to bring forth.  In summary however, the more abstract conclusion is still dead on.

The article is worthy of a careful read and re-read.






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