Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Yesterday, I put up a brief study of a little sloppy thinking on the right. Today, more of the same.

In Forbes, George Gilder pleads to be understood:

Why do I trust Gary Winnick and Jeffrey Skilling--nefarious former chief executives of notoriously bankrupt companies--more than I trust Senator John McCain of vaunted valor in prison camps or David Broder of Pulitzer fame or Senator Joseph Lieberman of famously flinty integrity? Why do I trust Kenneth Lay of Enron and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom more than I trust Justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, the stalwart intellectual leaders of a nominally conservative Supreme Court, or even George W. Bush, that most trusted of Presidents?

Is it because Bush and Rehnquist haven't always been inclined themselves to let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Why do I trust General Electric chief emeritus Jack Welch or AT&T Chief Michael Armstrong more than I trust the entire scientific and environmental coverage in the New York Times and all the venerable editors of the increasingly political Scientific American? Why do I trust Martha Stewart and ImClone's Sam Waksal far more than I trust the crusading journalist James B. Stewart or New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, trustbuster deluxe, as they righteously seek to banish moneylenders, marketmakers and conflicts of interest from the temples of Wall Street?

Is it because you've been a suckup to fraudulent businessmen for years, and you just can't stop?


The reason I trust disgraced executives more than politicians, judges and journalists is the same reason that I trust physicists more than I trust sociologists. The answer comes from the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper: falsifiability. In science, falsifiability means that a hypothesis is presented with sufficient rigor to be proven wrong, that is, falsified. It is the condition of trust. By contrast, the sociologist deals in broad propositions--such as "ethnic diversity improves educational outcomes" or "patriarchy causes war"--that, by sinking into a mush of definitions, defy disproof.

Except when conducting trials of identifiable crimes such as murder or assault, judges are no more truthful than politicians or journalists. They all adhere to the "ring-true" standard of sociology rather than the falsifiable standard of physics. Most of the time, as physicist Wolfgang Pauli put it in another context, they are not even wrong. Their statements lack the rigor to rate as lies and swim in the ontological soup of the verb "to be." From such a soup, no enduring truths can evolve.

But the test of falsifiability only works if you apply it. The hypothesis that particularly Winnick, Skilling, Ebbers, and Waksal are trustworthy individuals has been utterly refuted by events. (That's why Gilder's "disgraced former executives" are, in fact, disgraced). The proper Popperian would discard the hypothesis and move on. And the application of this "Popperian" criterion is doubly ironic when applied to Waksal, who went into business after getting bounced out of hard science for lying to his colleagues and fraudulent work.

Gilder explicates further:

Like a physical experiment, every entrepreneurial venture embodies and tests a hypothesis about products or markets. Intel is currently preparing to test the hypothesis that computer companies will choose a microprocessor that runs at 3 gigahertz, or 3 billion cycles a second, and will buy it in sufficient volumes that Intel can profitably manufacture it in a plant that costs $2 billion to build and equip. Samsung is testing whether people will buy a cell phone that takes digital photographs. Ebay (nasdaq: EBAY - news - people ) is testing whether it can move beyond Web auctions of used wine openers to Web auctions of $20,000 antique cars, and to TV programs.

Which has absolutely nothing to do with the worthiness of the executives involved in any of these endeavors.

Besides, it's not as if hypotheses about politicians can't be tested against the evidence. If you want to test the hypothesis that, say, Democrats can be expected to spend more than Republicans, all that's required is to look at the records and do the math. It's false.


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