Friday 30 March 2012

Magpie's Law.

I'm sure you have already come across "Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies". Mike Godwin, who named the law, first made reference to it in an article in Wired in 1994.

This is how Godwin defined it: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one". (See here)

Under a logical perspective, these gratuitous comparisons are considered fallacies and are called humorously "reductio ad Hitlerum", inspired in the reductio ad absurdum: "Reductio ad Hitlerum is no more than guilt by association, a form of association fallacy. The fallacy claims that a policy leads to-or is the same as-one advocated or implemented by Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich, and so 'proves' that the original policy is undesirable".

With this, Godwin's Law is re-stated thus: as an online discussion grows longer, someone is bound to fall in the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy.

I ain't no Mike Godwin, but I think I have identified a similar phenomenon in economics. It goes like this: the probability of using the mysticism/metaphysics charge increases as a discussant is challenged by views he/she dislikes but doesn't understand. And I call it: Magpie's Law!

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Steve Keen. [A]
Here are two excellent examples: Paul Krugman replies to Steve Keen (Keen's first post, and reply to Krugman).

Paul Krugman states that, as a working economist, the reason he reads "old books is for insight, not authority". Here Krugman is professing to be a logical thinker (therefore, immune to appeals to authority) and a pragmatist. Fair enough.

If something in those old books "helps crystallize an idea in your mind (...) that’s really good". He goes on to say: "but if where you take the idea is very different from what the great man said somewhere else in his book, so what?"

Krugman goes further: "my basic reaction to discussions about what Minsky really meant (...) is, I don't care".

So, if there are two different views, what to do then? Just pick the one you like?

Paul Krugman. [B]
Let's think about it. What if the two views aren't very different at all, only you didn't understand them in the first place and that's why you think they are different? What if they are indeed very different and you picked the wrong one? What if you picked the right one, and those opposing you picked the wrong one. Couldn't you use that to strengthen your case?

What kind of insight can one get from an old book, if one is not sure one actually understands what the great man who wrote it really meant?

That's not Talmudic scholarship or banking mysticism, Prof. Krugman. It's plain common sense.

And by the looks of it, Krugman didn't understand what the great man said:
"In particular, he [Steve Keen] asserts that putting banks in the story is essential. Now, I'm all for including the banking sector in stories where it's relevant; but why is it so crucial to a story about debt and leverage?"
A story about debt and leverage... without banks (!?). I rest my case.


For another great way to cover one's ass when one is losing an argument, see Circular Reasoning!

Image Credits:
[A] Steve Keen. Wikipedia.
[B] Paul Krugman. Wikipedia.

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