Coming of age into scientific thinking and intellectual humility

As a social scientist, I often label myself a positivist. I still believe that there are multiple paths and ways of acquiring knowledge about the world that surrounds us, including history, narrative, art and forms of spiritual awareness. But in my scientific research and scholarly work I believe that the world is composed of objective facts that can be statistically measured and quantified; that social, economic and political phenomena can be broken down into manageable fragments; and that testing of hypotheses is possible in order to know the why. I have to say, however, that a positivist label does not quite capture the way I think about scientific knowledge and discovery. I am actually a Popperian.

I was recently reminded of the way I learned to think about scientific endeavors when discussing research with our MA students. I was providing them with the image, that I remember reading in Karl Popper, on how scientific knowledge proceeds as a clearing of an open field, in the midst of the forest of ignorance. The most important feature of this metaphor illustrating the way we learn about the world is that the larger a field cleared, the more contact we have with a perimetry of unknown trees. Learning about the world should only make us more aware of the limitations of our knowledge. It is only when we know very little about something (when we live in a thick and dense forest with only a small clearing) that we may be led to believe that we know everything there is to know.

Scenes of Hills and valleys in Pennsylvania and other stuff. A tree blocking a good view of a clearing. Source: Yinan Chen from Wikipedia Commons

Upon telling the students about this image, I came to remember that, in fact, Popper never accepted the label of being called a positivist, since his approach to truth, or rather his view of science, was based on the challenge of falsifiability: the requirement that we approach knowledge with the humility of taking whatever we learn as only provisional. So long as we fail to show that our hypotheses are wrong, we may believe them to be true. The way we truly learn is from mistakes, from finding our errors, not from being always right. Upon further reflection this view of knowledge is rarely practiced. It is quite different from how positivist social sciences, such as economics and political science — at least in the professional milieu of US academia — , usually work in practice. Publishing and academic careers often hinge on the arrogance of believing that our hypotheses are invulnerable to error. Perhaps this is a cynical view, but I often feel that the more accomplished, cited or famous a scholar in my field is, the less likely they will recognize to sometimes being wrong.

Since I can remember having become a scholar, I have approached my learning and the quest for scientific knowledge from a Popperian perspective. I believe this is what has enabled me to be relatively tolerant to many points of view. Although Popper was forceful in his philosophical disagreements with others (particularly clear in his debates with Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt school) and the targets of his criticism may not have viewed him as particularly tolerant, he firmly believed, if I paraphrase him correctly, that the ethos of knowledge has to be based on an idea that “I may be wrong, and you may be right, but together, if we dialogue, we might get closer to the truth”.

The reason why Popper rejected Marxism and other Western intellectual traditions, starting from Plato, was due to their lack of intellectual humility, their unwillingness to recognize their own limits to knowledge. Having lived through the fascist excesses in Europe, it is not surprising that Popper rejected authoritarianism. It is also worth remembering, in this era of populists like Trump or Bolsonaro, his formulation of the paradox of intolerance and his plea for society having the right to not accept hate speech, racism and other forms of intolerance. We should not tolerate leaders that instead of rational debate and arguments, incite their followers to use their fists or their pistols:

We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1. p.265 n.4).

I hence became transformed in my intellectual outlook through reading Karl Popper, when I was just 17. I narrowly missed an opportunity to see him deliver a lecture at the Miramare International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (which is now named after its founding Director, Pakistani Nobel prize winner Abdus Salam). I learned about Popper from other students who shared their enthusiasm, telling me about this philosopher talking to a group of physicists. I have actually found out that the Trieste lecture is kept in the Hoover Archives, and am getting a microfilm version to finally read it.

That year, while still in high school, I devoured The Open Society and Its Enemies, and The Poverty of Historicism. It completely shaped the way I understood history and social sciences. I was already a precocious reader of Marxist materials available to a young leftist growing up in Mexico City (I wrote about these experiences in this Medium blog last year). I was highly influenced by teachers from the South American diaspora in exile, who, first and foremost, opened my mind to the Latin American boom in literature. But who also had me read Martha Harnecker and other introductory Marxist texts. Whenever I could get hold of the cheap Cuban editions in the bookstores of Mexico City I must confess that I much better preferred to spend money on A. Oparin or Alejo Carpentier than on Lenin or Marti.

But when I read Popper’s critique of Plato, Hegel, Marx and historicism, it was one of these Aha! moments. No matter how much I admired a romanticized vision of the Cuban Revolution or the ideas of social justice embedded in Marxism, I just could not accept the authoritarian imprint in both. My intellectual journey would allow me, several years later, to reconcile some aspects of Marxism that were compatible with a defense of tolerance and free thought. But I became convinced that critical rationalism really resonated with my way of understanding the world.

During my university years I studied the work of Popper in a somewhat unconventional manner, through the mentorship of a dear friend and teacher, Abraham Nosnik. It would actually be my first connection to Stanford. Abe had written a Dissertation at Stanford in 1986 called Communications and Refutations: The Rational Reconstruction of Mass Communications Research (one can immediately recognize the Popperian ring to the title).

Stanford University, Hoover Tower. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The story of how we met is unusual. My mother had met his girlfriend, and future wife, and somehow in their conversations they talked about the fact that both Abe and I had Karl Popper as our intellectual hero. I have no idea how my mother knew this. I must give credit to her intellectual prowess, a woman who was not allowed to go to college, but listened attentively to her son talking about an obscure Austrian philosopher.

Abe had just returned to Mexico from his Ph.D. at Stanford. He was teaching a class, I believe on organizational communication, at ITAM, the university I was attending. At that time I was not really sure what I wanted to do in terms of my field of study. I believed then that I wanted to become a Biologist at UNAM, but had missed the university entrance exams, so I was biding my time at ITAM. I never took a class with Abe. But he became my Socratic tutor and mentor.

We would meet regularly, and he would tell me about Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend and of course Popper. And I would read all of them. That was when I read The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations, in my sophomore college year. I was doing something unusual for Mexico, but in terms of US academia, I was taking a reading course with a professor. He hired me, for my first academic job, to translate into Spanish the Stanford Dissertation of Javier Elguea, a reconstruction, from the perspective of Philosophy of Science of the debates between modernization and dependency theory. I also helped him with a book he was editing on organization and communications theory. In those college years, with my dear friend César Hernández, who also shared an enthusiasm for Popper, we wrote together a long research paper applying Popper’s “situational logic” to the evolution of legal theory in Mexico. We published this research in a now forgotten university magazine, one of several we collaborated with. I do not know if the piece is any good, but I believe it should count as my first scholarly publication.

I started studying at ITAM somewhat by accident, because my dear friend, Aurora Gómez, had told me it was a good idea to learn Economics. At the time I was taking intensive classes in the mornings at the Goethe Institute learning German, and occupied my afternoons in a literature workshop and going to the movies, but was waiting for a gap year to apply to UNAM. In hindsight I ended up staying at ITAM for three main reasons: I actually ended up liking Economics, as I started learning about Game Theory, Political Economy, Douglass North and the New Institutional Economics. I learned from some of the brightest economists in Mexico, including Arturo Fernández, Francisco Gil Díaz, and my thesis advisor, Allen Sanginés. The second reason was that after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, ITAM actually became a truly engaging and interesting space for student activists like myself who were engaged in issues ranging from the Guatemalan refugees and the Civil Wars in Central America to the environmental movement. Our group was unofficially called “Los Lagunos”. The name came from our organizing of rallies and demonstrations to try to shut down the Laguna Verde nuclear power plant in the Gulf Coast of Mexico. But the third reason I stayed at ITAM was an intellectual journey accompanied by Popper.

I hence became a recovering Marxist, via Popper, probably better equipped to understanding distributive problems as the most crucial question for political economy. The critique to capitalism contained in Marxist thought was correct, in its concern over labor value, wages and inequality. But I was quite uninterested in the Hegelian legacies of Marxism, that so much enamored many other university students in Mexico at the time. Reading Popper did not turn me into a Liberal (in the classic European sense) though. I was probably a social democrat in those years (and I guess I remain so). I did read avidly, however, authors in the Austrian School of Economics associated with Popper (I was most impressed by Hayek and Böhm-Bawerk, and I quite disliked von Mises). I now realize that in fact I was immersing myself in another extreme position of the ideological spectrum, quite the opposite of Marxist thought.

I was studying microeconomic theory, monetarism, and macro theory in a University that did not shy away from its open admiration to Milton Friedman and Augusto Pinochet. And I was reading a mix of some of the most conservative and libertarian thinking available, together with moderate social democratic and liberal thought. In those year I read every issue of the monthly Vuelta, the magazine directed by Octavio Paz (once the baton was passed to Krauze and particularly when it became Letras Libres, I must confess I lost interest). Vuelta kept me attuned to the criticisms to real existing socialism emerging from Easter European intellectuals, including of course Vaclav Havel. But in what was probably a highly contradictory mix, I would also read The New Left Review. And my everyday news came from the leftist newspaper UnoMasUno and later La Jornada. While studying Chicago School neoclassical economics at ITAM.

Towards the end of my university years, however, I took classes at ITAM on the History of Economic Thought, taught by a Kaleckian professor who made us read directly — not through their critics or defenders —, David Ricardo, Adam Smith, and yes, the three volumes of Das Kapital. I studied Economic Growth Theory, being introduced not just to the neoclassical synthesis of Solow, but to socialist planning and to the distributive models of Kaldor and Pasinetti. Another professor opened my eyes to thinking about the problems of income distribution as an empirical challenge in measurement, and to realize the contestable and value laden character of any summary index, such as a Gini coefficient. And a philosopher introduced me to the perspectives of Analytic Marxism, including Jon Elster (Beatriz and I took that class together, we loved to debate each other). I also learned about macro stabilization from a neo-Keynesian, and Pigovian taxes and externalities from an environmental economist. It might be hard to imagine that such classes were being offered in the shrine of Chicago Boys in Mexico, ITAM, during the 1980s.

I arrived to the US to study a Ph.D. in political science, building on the foundations of my contradictory mix of Magic Realism, Analytic Marxism, Austrian Economics, Institutionalism, Microeconomics, Game Theory, a concern for income distribution, a rejection of historicism, and a deeply seated belief in democracy. Of course I learned an enormous amount during my doctorate. But in contrast to many young students I see today, just starting their graduate studies, I think I already had the foundations for an academic career combining critical thinking with intellectual humility. That mix was only possible because I had read Karl Popper. I want to think that the intellectual tolerance I acquired in those youth years has been with me throughout my whole academic career.

Karl Popper in the 1980s. Source: LSE library through Wikipedia Commons.



Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University

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Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University