For mirror polishing

Eric Rauchway has an interesting post on objective historians or objective history making (or whatever the work of historians is called). He says you can’t do it, so you shouldn’t. To me, he’s mixing method and purpose. Of course, you have purpose when you’re doing research and this purpose colors your method. If you think FDR and the New Deal was the greatest thing since sliced bread, this will tend to have you favor facts that support that conclusion.

Objectivity is a discipline, a tool, for exploring reality. Its not the end, only the means. Rauchway believes historians shouldn’t attempt to separate purpose and method, they shouldn’t attempt objectivity because perfect separation is impossible. This is like saying athletes shouldn’t practice because not everyone can be Micheal Jordan.

The completely objective person is an instrument; he doesn’t have a soul. This was Nietzsche’s point when he called the scientists of his day self-polishing mirrors. The point, as should be obvious, isn’t that one shouldn’t polish one’s mirrors. Polishing is ok; just being a mirror isn’t.

At the recent “Stimulus Smackdown” here at Davis, Rauchway got up to ask the panel a question. Before he did so, he produced the throw-away line “I’m a historian; we don’t do models.” I know he was joking, but this is completely ridiculous. Of course, they do models, they just don’t explicitly write them down. This makes the job of objectivity hard, but I guess it allows the historian to be more whimsical. As a consumer of his product, of history, I’m not sure what his whimsy buys me, though.

14 thoughts on “For mirror polishing”

  1. Is that what Rauchway says? He’s citing this work by Carl Becker and seems to be endorsing it but does not do so explicitly. I admit to being somewhat perplexed by his post. Most of the comments raise the points you’re making here and Rauchway doesn’t really give a response.

    Regarding economics, this actually reminds me of a lot of the economics imperialism stuff (Becker especially; Ed Lazear wrote a paper on this too). You’ll see economists saying stuff like, “Other social scientists make ad hoc assumptions and can’t explain behavior with a parsimonious theory, while economists work from first principles and as few assumptions as possible. Since economists also look at empirical data, this makes economics a real science, unlike the other social sciences.” I think Lazear wrote a 50-page paper on the scientific success of economics without citing a single empirical work. In short, having scientific pretensions is not equivalent to actually being a science. Of course the takeaway point is not to merely drop the pretense, but rather to actually work harder and succeed where past efforts have failed.

  2. I haven’t read Lazear’s stuff on this. Is this what you’re talking about?

    I’m not sure what label this affixes to me, but my definition of science is pragmatic one of results. If a field produces stories that are verifiable and verified by data then its a science. An objective stance is can help, and I think its a great discipline, but its not science.

    BTW, I wrote this post on Friday before leaving for the weekend… forgot to hit the submit button. Oops.

  3. Yeah, that was the Lazear paper I was thinking of. “Not a single empirical work” may have been hyperbole, but I think it’s fairly clear that Lazear thinks that physics-style equilibrium models are what really gives economics the edge over other social science disciplines (as opposed to making more successful novel predictions, or being better able to distinguish between rival hypotheses).

    I agree with your brief definition of science; I was just trying to come up with an example of how the Carl Becker work mentioned in Rauchway’s post may be relevant to something closer to home. For instance, there’s a school of thought in political science that a commitment to rational choice models is more likely to leave you tied up in knots unable to deal with basic facts (people vote!) than it is to pave the way for true scientific progress.

  4. “Of course [Historians] do models, they just don’t explicitly write them down.”

    I need a bit more here. I know economics PhDs, and history PhDs, and what they do is so radically different it makes sense only if the idea of “modeling” very vague. One way I see it is the Economics models exists outside of time/space/culture (all that first principle micro building), while historians deal with the muck of recording time/space/culture (all those primary sources and archives).

    Historians have theoretical tools that guide them to guide them, like economists have micro theory to guide them, but building models isn’t at all the end result. What am I missing?

  5. Perhaps I don’t know enough History PhDs. When I read a history of x, there’s some unifying theme in the narrative; its not just a list of facts. This theme didn’t just present itself in the primary sources, it originated in the historians head. I imagine the theme helped the historian organize facts, inspire directions to take in the search for facts, aid in the interpretation of those facts, etc.

    These are the exact same functions of models in economics. Models are the product (like the theme of the narrative is in history) but they’re also tools to help in analysis. I take the model-as-story metaphor very seriously.

    As an economist, I like the way we tell our stories better. Formalization, for example, makes assumptions plain and it makes logical connections more transparent. This makes disagreements easier to mediate, but it also helps the individual economist to tweeze apart ideas (which is the point of objectivity I think).

    Formalization has its downsides, though. Its especially frustrating that ideas that are hard to formalize aren’t studied.

  6. Somebody smarter than me should really account for the differences between formal models, models, theories, stories, themes, hunches, etc. Economics tend to use the tools closer to the left end of that spectrum while historians use tools on the right end. I guess my point above is that these tools sit on the same spectrum, that nobody just reports the facts.

  7. Sorry to spam myself, but some other benefits of formal modeling:
    – internal consistency
    – logical transparency
    – system building (i.e. give the reader an opportunity to take the model and use it in new ways unintended by the originator)

  8. Ah, ok. I read you as taking “arguing a hypothesis” as being interchangeable as “arguing a model.” Let’s make up some research programs:

    – My hypothesis is that the Catholic Church was well-integrated in 15th century England, and I will use letters sent from priests to the Pope to argue this.

    – My hypothesis is that poor urban female youths have children out of wedlock because they value motherhood more than alternate life courses, and I will use ethnographic research and immersion in the community to find if this is true.

    – My hypothesis is that people work less in Europe because they experience government spending as direct consumption, and I will prove this by building a optimization formula based on micro theory and plugging in data.

    Those three all argue a narrative, but do you think all three involve building a model? The same way?

    To me the strengths and weaknesses of model building are what you mention above – however the main point is generalizability. A model of econ should be like a model of physics – portable to anywhere and any place. What history does is not portable – what is true of 15th century England is not true now. Or so I see.

  9. Oh, and I phrased the three topics that way because #1 isn’t really a question that can be easily answered with economic theory, and #2 is one where you can make a model of decision making under uncertainty etc, but the methods mentioned above also seek an answer but don’t involve directly invoking a model.

    I’m only questioning this because I’ve been thinking about ethnography and economic research. I’m considering a PhD in Economics, and I think “Off The Books” by the sociologist Venkatesh, which is an ethnographic work, to be the best applied micro thing I’ve read in forever. I’m wondering how to bridge that in my mind.

  10. Another thing formalism makes easier: “out of sample predictions”

    Anyway, I don’t think “building a model” is synonymous with “building an economic model”. Peter Turchin is someone who builds formal non-economic models. I liked his Historical Dynamics and razib at gnxp liked Turchin’s War and Peace and War. There’s also the work of Richerson and Boyd (and McElreath).

    If you’re interested in doing ethnography but you’re interested in economics-like questions maybe organizational theory (like these guys) is your thing.

  11. Back to history: I don’t think its right to say historians, or their customers, don’t care about portability as you call it. I read history to get lessons from it.

  12. “Anyway, I don’t think “building a model” is synonymous with “building an economic model”.” Is definitely correct, and I in retrospect shouldn’t have implied it that way. And I/O, which is sort of like org theory, would be a definite potential research area.

    Anyway, thanks for responding!

  13. While i was at first I planned on arguing for the objective nature of historians, since it was always drilled into me when i attended collage to have a subject but no pre-conceived hypothesis when attending research. That way, you are more likely to have a stronger thesis since the facts would be the driving factor.

    The more relevant point that occurred to me five minutes ago is this, one of the largest differences between history and economics is proof of objectivity. Both have a common theme that ties the writing together, except with economics the model/ Rubric that is used to filter the information is paid out for you. The biases the paper accepts, what evidence they use, the parameters of the model, are revealed for the reader to see and make their own determinations about.

    In the end, the appeal of economics is the same appeal you get at a strip club, you know you can look and maybe grab a breast here and there, but you sure the hell are not having sex in the back room. ( unless the club is in vegas, or Tijuana).

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