Question-begging dyslogistic epithets: John Ralston Saul vents against econometrics

The same clean-out which brought Baudrillard for Beginners back to the surface of my juvenile bedroom also brought out a copy of Canadian writer John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, which I had borrowed from Sydney City Library at around the same time that I had bought the Baudrillard book (the slip inside the front cover asks me to have it returned to the library by ’15 OCT 1997’).

At the time, JRS was seeking to make a name for himself as a gadfly – as you might guess from the title of the book. The mid-to-late 1990s were something of a golden age for western societies, especially compared to the years following 2001: the Cold War had ended in complete victory, economic growth and employment were strong, developments in computer and information technology promised tremendous and widespread benefits. So social critics really were struggling to come up with things to criticize. To be a gadfly, you had to say something ridiculous – for example, ‘our civilisation is unconscious!’ – shout it from the rooftops, and hope that nobody examined your claims too closely.

As part of his rooftop shouting, in late 1997 JRS had come out to Australia to promote his book. I remember him appearing on Lateline, possibly with another guest, and explaining his thesis. At this distance, I can’t remember anything of what he said.

Anyway, being young and enthusiastic and intellectually curious, I was interested to read his ideas and see if he had anything interesting to say. And so I borrowed the book. And for whatever reason it remained in my bedroom all these years.

As with the Baudrillard book and the Lateline interview, at this distance I really can’t remember much of substance from his writing. So, last night, I opened it up to refresh my memory. And, lo and behold, at the top of the fourth page, JRS has a dig at economics and econometrics.

I’m going to come back to all of that later, but let me make one general point before moving on. Economics as a prescriptive science is actually a minor area of speculative investigation. Econometrics, the statistical, narrow, unthinking, lower form of economics, is passive tinkering, less reliable and less useful than car mechanics. The only part of this domain which has some reliable utility is economic history, and it is being downgraded in most universities, even eliminated because, tied as it is to events, it is an unfortunate reminder of reality.[1]

JRS then rubbishes economics a bit more before carrying on with his monologue.

This passage immediately stood out to me. Would you believe, the majors in my honours degree are economics and econometrics, and I used (rather rudimentary but useful) econometric techniques in my day-to-day work as an economist. So I know something about econometrics and feel qualified to raise a hand of protest at this description of it.

The word ‘econometrics’ is a hybrid of two words from classical Greek, and is translated as economic measurement. And that’s all it is: the application of statistical techniques – counting, graphical representation, mathematical description and estimation – to economic phenomena. It is in no way a ‘lower form of economics’, it is complementary to economics. It is necessarily statistical and narrow – you wouldn’t use it to scratch your back, vacuum your car, clean your pool, etc, and nor would you want to do so.

And it is not in the least bit unthinking. On the contrary, I remember classmates who experienced the rigours of Econometrics IIIA emerging from the course saying that it was the most challenging and fascinating topic that they had studied in their time at university. For me, I’ll never forget the intellectual rush I gained from Murray Smith’s third-year course in Statistical Modeling (for which I received the class’ only high distinction) or Alan Woodland’s honours-year course in Static and Dynamic Optimization (in which my efforts earned me a solid distinction). And every honours student paid the greatest respect to the kids who braved Murray Smith’s compulsory honours-year course in Statistical Foundations of Econometrics, with its six-hour exams.

From this, it’s clear that JRS has no idea what he is talking about. But he has an agenda – the agenda of the thesis behind The Unconscious Civilization. And an intellectual, useful, historically-informed discipline of economics, with its findings supported by a rigorous application of statistical methods, doesn’t fit his agenda. Therefore he prejudges the discipline and belittles it, creating repulsive, ridiculous straw men that he hopes the reader will mistake for economics and econometrics, and therefore despise and mock. And to do so, he uses pejorative adjectives – ‘narrow’, ‘unthinking’, ‘lower form’ and (ugh!) ‘statistical’ – just in case you didn’t get where he was coming from.

In Thinking to Some Purpose, Stebbing has something to say about this:

The danger in using emotionally toned language lies in its tendency to dispel our critical powers. Mr A. P. Herbert has put this point well:

Those who say ‘Deeds – not Words’ should note how, in politics, one cunningly chosen word may have more power than a thousand irreproachable deeds. Give your political dog a cleverly bad name and it may do him more harm than many sound arguments.

This is true. Many politicians are possessed of this cunning. They cast, as it were, a spell upon their hearers, appealing to their emotions in such a way as to destroy their judgment. Mr Herbert calls such ‘cunningly chosen words’ witch-words. But not all ‘witch-words’ are cunningly chosen; they may be used honestly although stupidly. Certain words have been used so frequently with a strong emotional significance that we are likely to use them in this way without realizing that our thinking is dominated by the emotional meaning that has been associated with these words. Similarly, we react to them emotionally when used by other people …

A word is said to beg the question if its meaning conveys the assumption that some point at issue has been already settled. To use such words is to use bad language, since the language implies a conclusion that has not been in any way confirmed. We shall meet these ‘question beggars’, as Mr A. P. Herbert calls them, later on in connexion with the mistake of arguing in a circle. Here it is enough to point out that emotionally toned words may conceal from ourselves as well as from our hearers the fact that the question has been begged.[2]

Welton, in his magnificent Groundwork of Logic, labels these adjectives ‘Question-begging Epithets’, and quotes Jeremy Bentham’s Book of Fallacies at length on the subject:

In speaking of the conduct, the behaviour, the intention, the motive, the disposition, of this or that man, if he be one who is indifferent to you, of whom you care not whether he be well or ill thought of, you employ the neutral term :- if a man whom, on the occasion and for the purpose in question, it is your object to recommend to favour, especially a man of your own party, you employ the eulogistic term :- if he be a man whom it is your object to consign to aversion or contempt, you employ the dyslogistic term.
To the proposition of which it is the leading term, every such eulogistic or dyslogistic appellative, secretly as it were, and in general insensibly, slips in another proposition of which that same leading term is the subject, and an assertion of approbation or disapprobation the predicate. The person, act, or thing in question is or deserves to be, or is and deserves to be, an object of general approbation ; or the person, act, or think in question is or deserves to be, or is and deserves to be, an object of disapprobation.
The proposition thus asserted is commonly a proposition that requires to be proved.[3]

I think these paragraphs perfectly describe JRS’ choice of adjectives in describing econometrics, and the reason for his having done so.

The concern for me is that his readers might have fallen into his trap, and, not having had the benefit of majoring in econometrics at university, prejudged the subject as ‘low, narrow, unthinking and statistical’, and dismissed it for these reasons. Fortunately, if his thesis is correct, these readers were unconscious anyway, and so it is likely that little damage has been done.

The lesson for readers is to beware of question-begging epithets – especially the dyslogistic, or vituperative, ones – and witch words. Don’t let your thinking be hijacked by someone else’s prejudices and agenda.

I’ll only skim the rest of JRS’ book. He’d lost me by page four, I suspect others in the audience he intended to reach – university educated, self-directed autonomous thinkers – would soon have seen through him too. No wonder we don’t hear so much from him these days.

And yes I promise I’ll return the book to the library.

[1] John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, pp.3-4.

[2] L. Susan Stebbing, Thinking to Some Purpose, pp.63-64.

[3] J. Welton, Groundwork of Logic, pp.117-118.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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