27 April 2007

The Expert's Dilemma

A common problem faced by experts on a particular subject is hostility for ideological reasons. I've paid a lot of attention to this problem, and I think it's especially severe in economics. Economics, after all, professes to explain the whole of the social sciences using ideas that are basically pure deduction. The only other field of study I can think of that does this is theology. Economics requires a set of basic premises that are assumed to be immutably true, and while these premises are few in number, a vast body of assumptions is derived from them. These include the proposition that for-profit, privately-owned enterprises tend to allocate resources correctly, that consumers tend to make rational and free choices about how many hours they work per year, or how much they will spend on their home, or if they will take public transit to work, or any other consumption decision.

Economics, because of the deductive foundation of its judgment, is of all the branches of study the most ideological. Computer science is another field of study that tends to be very ideologically bound, since critiques of its decisions suffer the same problems as in economics: the web of human motives and abilities is so complex that it relies mainly on deduction from basic principles. A common defense is, "In technology, something either works or it doesn't"; because of this, IT is supposed to be liberated from dependence on induction. In my experience, there is almost no non-trivial technical decision that is so bad that it cannot be made to "work" to some decision-maker's satisfaction.

Of course I do not want to imply that this proves economics or computer science are bad disciplines, or that their practitioners are lying quacks. I am just pointing out a difficulty that confronts both fields. I think it is important for practitioners to acknowledge this (which is why when I was writing about Unix I was so impressed by Eric Raymond's books and essays.) In fact, ideology is a common tool that allows people to form orderly and structured judgments. It is very frequently used as a substitute for thinking, but it is so useful to public thinking and problem-solving that it is useful nonetheless. Therefore, I cannot bemoan the presence of ideology, either. Even if I thought it was an unmitigated bad, I should still have to concede that it is a part of life and shall remain so.

At the same time, however, we often see occasions when an expert discovers facts that challenge the foundational beliefs of an ideology. The expert is a loyal supporter of the ideology, but he cannot deny the evidence. The example that comes to mind is Eric Raymond's essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (CatB; discussed here). I read the essay, then several responses that Mr. Raymond had graciously linked to at his essay page. One response to CatB provoked this aggravated rebuttal from Raymond:
Nikolai Bezroukov's article in First Monday [critiquing CatB], unfortunately, adds almost nothing useful to the debate. Instead, Mr. Bezroukov has constructed a straw man he calls vulgar Raymondism which bears so little resemblance to the actual content of my writings and talks that I have to question whether he has actually studied the work he is attacking. If vulgar Raymondism existed, I would be its harshest critic.

I wanted to like this paper. I wanted to learn from it. But I began to realize this was unlikely when, three paragraphs in, I tripped over the following: he promoted an overoptimistic and simplistic view of open source, as a variant of socialist (or, to be more exact, vulgar Marxist) interpretation of software development.

There are many sins of which I can reasonably be accused, but the imputation of vulgar Marxism won't stand up to even a casual reading of my papers. In CatB, I analogize open-source development to a free market in Adam Smith's sense and use the terminology of classical (capitalist) economics to describe it. In HtN I advance an argument for the biological groundedness of property rights and cite Ayn Rand approvingly on the dangers of altruism.
The first point I want to make here is that I would think long and hard before I made a facial challenge of anything Mr. Raymond said about computer software development. He has qualifications that are hard to match, let alone exceed. His knowledge of computer science is huge, he's devoted a lot of time to pondering the organizational or cultural implications of it, and he has a fair understanding of many other fields besides that one. Also, as it happens, he's right—even a casual reading of his work doesn't allow anyone to imagine that he's a socialist.

So I would say he's an expert, and also that he's ideologically compatible with the prevailing economic system and its ideological proclivities. If a capitalist party membership book existed, his would be in good order. And yet, his observations might be carelessly construed to negate the ideal intellectual property regime:
Nikolai Bezroukov: In a really Marxist fashion, Eric Raymond wrote in Homesteading the Noosphere "ultimately, the industrial-capitalist mode of software production was doomed to be out competed from the moment capitalism began to create enough of a wealth surplus for many programmers to live in a post-scarcity gift culture." I used to live in one society that claimed to "outcompete" capitalism long enough to be skeptical.
I have familiarity with the practice of Marxist party congress criticisms, having read much of E.H. Carr's history of the Bolshevik Revolution; and I have to say that Bezroukov's article really does sound like he imagines he's criticizing Raymond for taking the "line" of (say) "undisciplined Preobrazhenskyism" or something. The fact that Raymond actually has a huge volume of objective, reliable experience with the matter he's writing about, means nothing to Bezroukov: Raymond's somehow gone pink.

Bezroukov is not a dummy, and he has his own considerable credentials. My own suspicion was that he needed to "prove" his own ideological reliability by attacking someone who had been insufficiently guarded in his corporation-unfriendly observations. As a minor functionary in the actual institutional apparatus of the capitalist state-corporation nexus, he had to attack an attacker of Microsoft—and make him menacing. (Raymond never wrote anything like "Microsoft must be destroyed.") That attended to, he could discuss open source software as a sociological phenomenon. But by attacking Raymond as an ideologically unsafe line wobble, he illustrated that absolutely no one is safe. One must toe the official line, regardless of what one has seen, or face the consequences.

This is the Expert's Dilemma.

UPDATE (17 September 2011): Oddly enough, I stumbled across Dr. Bezroukov's reviews on Amazon and of course had no recollection of this critical post I had written five years ago. I feel I own him an apology. It turns out we have very similar attitudes about market fundamentalism, and I had completely misunderstood him. His approach was to criticize Raymond from the position of Raymond's own obsessive anti-Communism, an approach I usually attempt to imitate and ought to have recognized.

It's been five years and I suspect absolutely no one has ever read this webpage. I liked so many of Dr. Bezroukov's book reviews (e.g., this one and this one) I paid his website a visit, where I noticed a lot of material critical of Eric Raymond. Something in the murky depths of my memory stirred and then I remembered this essay.

Nevertheless, the point still stands, despite an imperfect example.

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