What is your purpose for science? What is your purpose for economics?
Readers who have followed this blog for a long time may remember that I once had in mind a book project called The Tyranny of Purpose. Indeed, I had the chance to discuss it with Rex Weyler, one of the founders of Greenpeace and he professed himself jealous of the title. The reason I met Rex and the reason I was interested in the problems that purpose brings was because I was at a gathering for people committed to the work of Gregory Bateson. Gregory thought that purpose mostly blinds us to the deeper working so the system we are in.
Just think for a moment of the obvious flip side to Gregory’s insight into purpose. If purpose blinds us to how things actually work, then people working in a purposeful way are blind to things they might need to know. In particular, they are blind to what their purpose will lead to rather than what they currently think it will lead to. The blinkers are inherent in finding a way to “get things done” and, especially, to “manage” things when you have been given the responsibility to do so. There is no way to pick this tangle apart: it is how we are.
The proper subject of studies like anthropology is to gain understanding of how this plays out in practice. Whether we look large at something like neoliberalism, or small at the culture in financial institutions, we will find something that we can characterise as purpose. The decisions made all tend to produce this sort of result so we can call this the “purpose” in a descriptive and explanatory way.
But this is slightly misleading in a very interesting way. We are not observers and cannot be observers in any way that separates us from what we are looking at. We cannot produce a pure anthropological truth about neoliberalism because we are in a neoliberal world. Indeed, the thought that we can separate ourselves and produce an objective description of anything is itself neoliberal and imbued with an idea about what purpose is.
The economy of science
I am grappling with a difficult book by Philip Mirowski: The Effortless Economy of Science. His concern as best I can paraphrase it is that in academia where these things belong, there is not space or appetite to understand, for instance, how science is organised economically. That is, if you stand in economics as practiced and as a value system, what does science look like? Equally of course if you stand in science with the values implied by that then how does economics look? Don’t giggle.
Allow me a very broad-brush stroke. Neoliberalism is a set of beliefs and practices that result in wealth transfer from poor to rich and from future generations to the current one. In our terms here, that is the purpose of neoliberalism. Given that it is a sleight-of-hand that persuades people that their structural disadvantage is a natural one built into the natural order of things, then it is important not to ask what the purpose of things is in any incisive way.
We can characterise our concerns here in this way. Is it true, can it possibly be true, that there is a method or a set of procedures that discovers information or a principle that is largely independent of the context, of the actors, or the beliefs of the actors/experimenters, or indeed their purposes?
A concrete example: I watched a staged debate between Naomi Teicholz and David Katz. Naomi is the author of The Big Fat Surprise, the result of ten years’ journalistic investigation into where our food standards come from. David Katz is if you like the establishment figure who makes his money leading a lab doing studies for the food industry and national bodies in the US. He produced a lovely example of how to defend the indefensible robustly and to good effect — his clients get good value from the money they pay him. But what he said was that he runs the trials and the results are the results. He claims you can look at the method and find everything you need to know about the truth and meaning of the results. And that is the neoliberal stance.
In this example the deceit is plain, because Katz’ interpretation of key trials in the literature is at odds with what they actually show. He wants to claim that his greater access to research skills in the lab allows him to interpret these studies “correctly”, but either the meaning is open to interpretation or it is not. We cannot just accept the authoritative statement of experts if we want to get any incisive grip on what is happening: that would be to give in before we started.
The cynical view is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. The companies that employ him and his lab need certain results: results typically that confound or distract from health problems associated with their products. Of course, Katz’ market value collapses if he is seen merely to be producing excuses. The role of science in defending his reputation and the reputation of his clients is absolutely central and key. From this perspective his extreme rudeness over the years to Naomi Teicholz is somewhat diagnostic.
Given this notion of purpose we can understand Smith’s third law: every great cure needs an illness to work on. Katz can effectively defend crap science. He has great and noble institutions like Yale and Harvard to back him up. That is the miracle cure, then it goes looking for problems to solve and illnesses to heal. Sure enough, a market gets created in people who will pay good money ($10bn p.a. marketing food in the US alone) to make sure no-one notices how harmful their products are. The illness, of people starting to doubt whether pizza is what they should be eating, can be cured by as much disinformation as you care to purchase.
When we look at the purposes, so far as we can discern them, of transatlantic dark money corrupting UK politics and we see this same (il)logical structure. The answer, the miracle cure, is Brexit and “free” trade — now what problems does that solve? Unfortunately for everyone, we seem to be working through the list of suggested illnesses and problems without finding any candidates for the miracle to work on. From the perspective of the snake oil miracle peddlers, that is always a reason to step up the search for problems, not to admit to the less than miraculous properties of the snake oil. Always and forever.
From the perspective of Mirowski, we would look at the demand for miracle cures and elicit some sense of the economics of science and the science of economics. And it would be completely contingent on a global epidemic of ill-health that will in the next ten or twenty years sweep away everything we think we know about the world. The only thing worth knowing about economics at a national scale is how this destruction will play out. The only thing worth knowing about science is that it has a pivotal role in the destruction of human health and wellbeing. The way we find our way into those questions is to enquire about miracle cures looking for things to solve.
If we simply look at science, we will see its self-description of searching after certain sorts of truth, and we will be drawn into arguments about whether it can or cannot achieve what it says it can. If we simply look at economics, we will see a flakier structure, but we will still be drawn into debating questions about neoclassical economics versus modern monetary theory. The incisiveness comes from using one “discipline” to see another, and Mirowski’s point is that it is precisely this that is culturally outlawed in today’s universities. Since this lack of debate plays into the hands of precisely the neoliberals who want to pretend that there is a method and a natural state of affairs which explains why my money ends up in their hands, we have to ask why.
Remember always the neoliberal creed is that it is down to you. If the whole population gets obese it is because they all ate too much and got lazy. Together, simultaneously. You have to be able to hear both the extreme craziness of this position AND how convincing it is to most people. The whole nature of science is complicit in this narrow sense of cause and effect that we swallow whole.
The tyranny of purpose lies just here. You must be able to state your purpose, otherwise you are not serious. Once you have stated your purpose, I will be able to tell you why you will not achieve it in ways that blame only you. You don’t try hard enough. You are not educated enough. You don’t believe. You think negative thoughts. You don’t cultivate your network. You alienate people. Ad infinitum, without giving any hint that I am preventing you achieving your purpose.
Remember the boss of Coca-Cola stating that there was no scientific evidence that sugar-laden drinks were bad for you. What he meant was that he would use the vast power of his corporation and its financial clout to make sure there never was any cogent evidence. Once I state my purpose to improve people’s health by getting them to drink less soda, Coca-Cola can very easily make sure it looks as though I didn’t try hard enough. Neoliberals put purpose on a pedestal to worship it precisely because it allows them to destroy their opponents, people who see through the crassness of what they do and say.
Nora Bateson’s book is called Small Arcs of Larger Circles, a quote from her dad Gregory. His point was that what we see as cause and effect, what we “prove” with our science to be cause and effect, is always a small arc of a larger circle. We see the arc and not the circle and it is largely our attachment to purpose that blinds us to the existence of the rest of the circle.
I am applying this thought to my dream of how a smallholding can be and what it can become. Many of the books I read ask what I am trying to achieve, typically in terms of outputs: this much meat, so many eggs and this sort of fruit and vegetables. Many of these books are seriously practical and helpful. But they have this trap built in by our culture. They want to establish the tyranny of purpose over the joy that I can find. They want me to optimise and be on a hamster wheel of effort.
I want instead to go to Christopher Alexander, who asks: what is the process of life? can I develop my sense of what to add and where to add it so that the whole scheme becomes richer and more potent? The very opposite of a trade-off! Alexander, as an architect, wants to lead his students to design an addition to the built environment that makes everything around it look better, work better, feel better, bring people more alive. That is a purpose, but one that inherently respects the larger circles not the small arcs. He says you can only find out by creatively playing with the possibilities to find which are truly alive.
Economics is so far from being able to do Christopher Alexander that it is painful. I think it is not really a discipline that can live. And science has been ruthlessly wrenched away from that spirit of the possible and the lively. It can still do better but no-one knows how to anymore. We have been told we must have a purpose until we believed it — and then we died.
 A.k.a. ‘blinders’, in much of the world. Interestingly, we both attended a workshop by an Australian who made good use of the ‘blinkers’ metaphor yet was, um, blindsided by Philip calling them ‘blinders’…
 POSIWID, in other words — the purpose of a system is what it does, not what you think it ought to do, or what it was designed or intended to do, but the real effects.
 I saw a credible claim the other day that the UK is now the most corrupt country in the world…
 Fans of Battlestar Galactica will immediately think of Gaius Baltar and his ceaseless tweaks to his Cylon-detection protocol
 It’s no accident that some of the most vibrant practitioner communities arise at the boundaries, the intersection of disciplines. Our annual intersectionconf.com is one example, the leading conference on strategic enterprise design. Deliberately not cross-disciplinary, but nonetheless a community that exists that the crossroads.
 In a similar way, some tech giants put ‘open source’ software on a pedestal for the same reason. IBM’s early lead in the micro-computer business was in part because of their strategic use of free and non-free software. Compaq spent $1MM ($2.7MM in 2019 dollars) breaking through that gambit. The trend continues in the building of more modern empires, while talking the talk of universal openness.
 The red queen would love this race.
 Must mention Bruce Sterling’s notion of “acting dead” and Venkat Rao’s blog post that brings it back to purpose: “While spartan frugality is a virtue, when it becomes the entire purpose of your life, there’s a problem. For a portion of the dying American middle class, frugality has turned into a life purpose.”