Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lasting errors, prejudices and rediscoveries in science

It is astonishing how prejudices can perpetuate the generalized acceptance of some errors many centuries after they were identified as such. The following examples from astronomy and economics are paradigmatic.

Despite Copernicus demonstration in 1543 that the Earth was not the centre of our solar system, the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the Universe was still widespread at the time (1687) when Newton published his law of universal gravitation. More extraordinary is that today in America one in five Americans still believe that the sun moves around the earth.

Such lasting mistaken beliefs can only be explained by theological prejudices and dogmatism.

Similarly, in economics, the Marxist labour theory of value inspired in David Ricardo´s theory of value was being drafted in 1844 (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts) while Gossen (1854), Jevons (1862) and Walras (1874) separately developed the marginal theory of value based on utility. This new theory provided a better explanation about the way exchange prices are set in markets and could also incorporate labour in its approach without invoking the Marxist view of labour exploitation. Marx, in the first edition of Das Kapital published in 1867, persists in a labour theory of value based on the idea that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates”.

Still today, despite the theoretical and historical discredit of such theory, Marxists and other believers in the labour theory of value persist in such erroneous view of how prices are formed. Again, the survival of such prejudice can only be explained by ideological reasons, this time by their aversion to capitalism.

Although such forms of ideological obscurantism should be avoided by science, it would be ill-advised to discard completely their starting axioms as they may prove useful for new rediscoveries.

For instance, in astronomy, I can postulate that if the universe is infinite then every point in a three-dimensional space can be considered the centre of that universe and thus restate the geocentric view of the earth. Likewise in economics. Since consumption and work cannot be defined respectively as synonymous of utility and disutility (for instance I often derive more pleasure from work than from consumption), I can postulate that no matter how widely defined is utility it is a finite standard insufficient for unequivocal determination of exchange prices. So, a multi-dimensional approach is required to bring in cost of production, neurological and social factors that account for non-rational determinants.

In conclusion science is a continuous process of discovery–error–rediscovery that cannot be prejudiced about past beliefs.

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