Imre Lakatos came up with the idea of a "degenerative research program." The classic example was Ptolomaic astronomy in the Renaissance (Ptolomy was the first scientist to come up with a mathematical model precise enough to be false and thus was the antithesis of later Ptolomaics just as Aristotle was the antithesis of the schoolmen).
In a degenerative research program is that there are core beliefs which are invulnerable to data (e.g. circular orbits around the earth). When a model which is part of this program is refuted by the data, new auxiliary hypotheses are added (e.g. new epicycles). These new auxiliary hypotheses serve only to protect the core belief from reality. They are not taken seriously in the sense that researchers consider the implications of the new auxiliary hypotheses.
I think that contemporary economic theory is the very model of a modern degenerative research program. It as if Lakatos had rational expectations and was therefore able to forecast the sort of articles which appeared in Economics journals decades after he wrote. I am an economist so I am relieved to have found another example -- the Rovian spin machine. I confess that I am lead to this idea by a pun, we now have spin cycles and spin epicycles (also I am doing my laundry).
Thus consider the Rovians deal with Katrina as the Ptolomaics dealt with Mars. The core belief, of course, is that George Bush can do no wrong.
Cycle 1 "No one anticipated that the levees would be breached" Problem 1 there are many many forecasts of massive failure of the levees. epicycle 1 it was anticipated that the levees would be overtopped. In fact, it was anticipated that they would be overtopped but not breacked. Problem 2 the levees which were breached are earthen berms topped by concrete walls. When they are massively overtopped the earth is eroded and the wall falls. They are not the sort of thing that can be massively overtopped without being breached. epicycle 2 no no they weren't overtopped and breached. They were breached without being overtopped due to "design flaws" -- McClellan Problem 3. There is no evidence supporting the claim that they weren't overtopped. In contrast, there are multiple reports that they were overtopped. There is also a conceptual problem. The claim is that something strange and unexpected happened. If no one anticipated this, one should not conclude it happened without evidence. How did people come to this strange hypothesis with no evidence ? That is the defining characteristic of a degenerative spin program.
Cycle 2 Blame the victims. Digby notes that this is an official talking point, since Chertoff and Brown made the same offensive idiotic absurd argument on the same day. Problem 2.1 many people couldn't evacuate because they didn't have cars and public transportation for evacuation (60 buses and 10 vans or so) was totally inadequate. Furthermore this was a finding of the Hurricane Pam exercise so Chertoff and Brown's statement display ignorance that can only be caused by criminal negligence.
Note the press was on this one instantly so we will never know if the Rovians would have tried "no one anticipated that poor people couldn't evacuate the city" and then a prolonged discussion of the exact meaning of evacuate (or city or poor).
Cycle 3 Blame Blanco. She still hasn't declared a state of emergency. Problem 3.1 she did on Saturday August 27 [update: She did so on Friday August 26] epicycle 3.1 Allow me some fantasy here. Fiction in itallics. Rove "OK so she declared a state of emergency but that doesn't mean she asked *us* to do anything." Piss Boy "actually she requested that POTUS declare a state of emergency on Sunday, and, by the way sir, he did. Rove: Damn well that doesn't mean she told us that state and local personel couldn't handle the problem. Piss Boy "actually it does. To request declaration of a national emergency she has to say just that and she did just that." Rove "Damn it help me out here. What about the Posse Comitatus law. I studied that when I was writing about the sanctity of states rights (before 2000 of course). Didn't that prevent us from doing anything." Piss Boy "Actually sir there is an exception if there is a national emergency and the governor requests that the President send active duty military personel." Rove "Ha she asked for help but she didn't specifically ask for active duty military personal. Got her. Piss Boy "But on Monday she asked Bush to send everything he had. Everything is a pretty clear word." Rove As in you owe everhything to me and if you don't want to get thrown out on your ass you better get with the team. Everything means what I want it to mean. She didn't specifically ask for active duty military personel" Piss Boy (pissing his pants by the way) Uhm well uhm you know Sir, on Wednesday she did actually specifically request 40,000 active duty military personel." Rove "Damn it boy this is impossible. All hell was breaking loose down there. How could Blanco have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's ? She must have made some slip, something anything. Did you check her emergency declaration for typos ? Piss Boy "The only thing she hasn't done is transfer control of the Louisiana National guard to the President." Rove "All right now we're cooking. Clearly the President couldn't send active duty military personal, since she didn't do that. I knew there was something. Someone from down there abouts said "there is always something" Piss Boy (faints with fear) Assistant Piss Boy Uhm Sir we have sent active duty military personel down there. Are you saying the President broke the law ? Rove: "Of course not. Everything has changed... so what has changed. You mean that bitch still hasn't rolled over ? Assistant Piss Boy "No her position is exactly the same as it was when we were claiming the law forbid the President from doing what he has since done. Rove: "Damn it lots has changed. I mean they managed to evacuate New Orleans with the Lousiana National Guard. The Posse Comitatus act clearly says that active duty military personel can do some police work just not a whole lot. I mean they can police a city with 10,000 people in it but not one with over 50,000. It says that right in the law and don't you dare look it up." Really stupid Piss Boy III "But Sir we didn't even ask Blanco for control of the national guard until this week [update: This guy is so dumb that he doesn't know they asked Friday the 2nd your apologetic correspondent was equally ignorant until he read this]. I mean how can we explain why we didn't do anything last week based on what she said this week. We didn't even ask. Rove; You idiot don't you know about rational expectations ? No one could have anticipated that the levees would be breached but any idiot could anticipate that Blanco would have said no and that means that her saying no this week paralised us last week."
At this point the spin has reached hyperurania. Reality based life forms can't even understand what the hell the Rovians are trying to assert. Thus Rove wins another one. Current score reality 0 Rove more than the epicycles of the Ptolomaic and Copernican models combined.
update: The piss boys weren't well informed. I have made some corrections to statements about when things happened based on this timeline. posted by Robert
permalink and comments6:13 PM
mind going into why economics is a degenerative research program a bit more, or pointing out someone who makes the argument in article or book form and that you like? I know the argument is made, and I wouldnt mind hearing it but id rather hear it from someone half reasonable.
I should confess that I am an economics professor. Also I am ignorant and only recently learned what Lakatos meant by a degenerative research program. I can only say that my reaction was one of shocked recognition. It was hard to believe that he wasn't describing today's economic profession (with impossible foresight).
I am amazed that he had another example for the idea that auxilliary hypotheses are introduced only to explain away aparent inconsistency between the core theory and data and that they are not taken seriously in that once that particular datum has been dodged they are not used to forecast or tested.
See http://rjwaldmann.blogspot.com/2005/04/third-meaning-of-first-order-formally.html for a glaring example. It is known that dividends matter but, since they didn't in the first neoclassical model (Modigliani Miller)they don't "to first order" can't get much more degenerate than that.
I had a whole post on Lakatos and economics but I can't find it.