Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Geopolitics and Economics: Cloaking evil in a mantle of scientific respectability

I have written before about Economics and how it differs from the hard sciences.

The hard sciences are predominantly inductive, premised on the repeated testing of hypotheses, which are discarded if they are disproven. The social sciences, especially Economics and Geopolitics are largely axiomatic--based on logical development of premises.

It doesn't have to be this way. It's just the way it is practiced.

The political geographers argue that there is a fundamental difference between, say, geopolitics and chemistry. Geopolitics, they argue, is not reducible to a test tube. You cannot rerun human history from the beginning while changing events (having the Axis win WWII, for instance) to see how things turn out. It is argued that as geopolitical theory has failed to advance our understanding of international relations, and even to generate testable hypotheses, it should be relegated to the periphery of political thought. Nevertheless, people like George Friedman continue to hype geopolitical theory as a guide for US foreign policy.

The notion of testable hypotheses is so fundamental to science that it is impossible to argue you are practicing science if you aren't using them.

Is it that testable hypotheses don't work for these type of sciences? Or are testable hypotheses difficult to formulate, and frustratingly enough, rarely have anything to do with any of the problems that need solving?

It's science. Move along.

Can testable hypotheses exist in the geopolitics?

I would argue that they can, and do. There are hard sciences which are essentially historical as well--fields like paleoclimatology, and evolutionary biology, which are predominantly much like the social sciences--you can't rewind history and run it again with some controlled changes. These sciences have been built upon a foundation of numerous testable hypotheses, admittedly some are a little limited and there is no question that there is a great deal of scientific frustration at our limited understanding of the Earth systems--however, progress does occur. It is true that grand hypotheses concerning the fundamental operation of the Earth's climate system are lacking--but there are plenty of testable hypotheses. Even so, we are constantly beset by unpredictable disasters.

In Economics, I would argue a similar situation exists. There are numerous testable hypotheses concerning the connections between variables in the economic system, but grand hypotheses about the overall workings of the economy are hard to formulate. This is no justification, however, for geologists have the same problem--nevertheless they proceed in a scientific fashion.

Is there no way to generate testable hypotheses in historical sciences?

I agree that generating testable hypotheses in a complex system is challenging.

Two of the prominent social sciences which purport to understand the way the world works are Geopolitics and Economics. These are of import due to their role in setting (or at least appearing to set) both the economic policies and the foreign policies of major governments.

Geopolitical theory is an attempt to explain the impact of physical geography on political systems.It is tied to the notion of economic and military strength being controlled by size of land mass, available natural resources, and means of approaching and traversing the territory. Economic theory is currently dominated by Keynesian policies, which are pitched by governments around the world as the only approach to operating a modern economy.

The "science" of Geopolitics, according to G. Friedman in his book, "The Next Hundred Years" stipulates that one of the world's great powers must arise in Eurasia because of the size of the landmass and its resources. This is purported to be the reasoning behind the "Great Game" and much of the history of meddling in Afghanistan. The internal logic of geopolitics has driven such acts as the invasion of Afghanistan by the British, Russians, and Americans; the invasion and destruction of Iraq; possible invasion or destruction of Iran; and carving up the Ottoman Empire into divided, squabbling countries. The old Soviet Union was driven to search for suitable locations for launching nuclear attacks against its enemies in North America; just as the United States has done for its enemies in China.

Fettweis (2006) writes:
Social scientists look skeptically upon research programs that use conjecture as the primary support for their conclusions. Evidence from neither present nor past state behavior could help demonstrate the validity of the future-oriented theories of geopolitics . . . [G]eopolitical scholarship has often been merely thinly disguised expressions of parochial national interests or strategic recommendations for individual states masquerading as science.
If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the idea that geopolitics is a purely explicative science, the explanations of which cannot be judged on moral grounds any more than could be the boiling point of water; then we do not allow ourselves to perceive that these actions are wholly evil, predicated as they are on the necessity of destroying lives and capital.

Similarly, the conclusions drawn by economic "science" are that we should keep the current economic system as is, regardless of the damage done to the real economy (involved with the making of real things). Keynesian policies have resulted in the creation of enormous amounts of credit, all to fund government programs which for political reasons could not be funded through taxation. Keynesian theory prescribes some desirable (non-zero) rate of inflation combined with a zero-interest-rate policy. The end result is the theft of purchasing power from the savers of society. In the absence of the economic "science", we would recognize this for a grand act of immorality--a crime committed against savers. But under the cover of economic "science", it becomes a necessary act, as free from moral judgement as the boiling temperature of water.

The immoral acts of government are presented as being scientifically necessary. Science, after all, is not governed by morality. However, there is a difference between economic or foreign policy and chemistry--economic policies are policies of choice. We can choose to raise interest rates. We can choose not to attack Iran. We can't choose the boiling temperature of water. Do not become confused over what is and is not a science, or you will awake to find Genghis Khan your Minister of Peace, and Kwame Sikani the governor of your central bank.


Fettweis, C. J., 2006. Examining the Chessboard: A Disappointing Century of International Political Geography. US Naval War College December 2006, 43 pp.

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