Truthiness, Mathiness, Explaininess

The comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness ”. This is a way of mocking politicians who claim to know something intuitively but fail to put forward any evidence to support their assertion. Too often in political rhetoric, truthiness presents as fact was is merely an ideological belief – not a real truth, but a truth that we want to exist. As Colbert put it “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

Over the last few weeks, academic economists have started the share the fun. The equivalent term that Paul Romer coined to mock his less-than-robust colleagues is “mathiness ”. This, he says, is an argument that looks like robust mathematics and sounds like robust mathematics, but actually isn’t. Sloppy economists create arguments that deploy terms that are mathematically defined elsewhere but which have subtly different meanings in the argument presented. In this way, an ideological position (e.g. if welfare is cut, the unemployed will all magically find jobs) can be presented as a robust economic argument. As Romer says “Academic politics, like any other type of politics, is better served by words that are evocative and ambiguous, but if an argument is transparently political, economists interested in science will simply ignore it.” Mathematical theories, like those created by academic economists, should only be trusted when each term is precisely defined and consistently used. Only then can the conclusions of such arguments be empirically demonstrated to be either true or false. The example that he gives is growth theory, where competing theories all appear to be clearly stated, yet show no emerging consensus.

Now that creating words to mock woolly thinking is in danger of becoming an epidemic. It occurs to me that the humanities need one of their own. As Stephen Colbert might say, “truthiness” and “mathiness” just don’t feel right in our context. I propose that we adopt the word “explaininess” because I think this is a problem that is pervasive throughout academic writing in philosophy and human sciences. Explaininess is a Ponzi scheme where one nebulous notion is needed to explain another nebulous notion, and the cumulative effect is presented as an explanation. For example, in connection with my principal current project, I recently spent a two miserable weeks reading all the recent academic theories explaining various forms of mental illness. In one paper summarising four theories of borderline personality disorder, I was left struggling to succinctly state the difference between Theory B and Theory C. These used terms like “maternal imprinting”, “suppressed memory”, “learned anxiety” and “secondary emotion”. At least an example was given for the last one: anger turns to shame. But I was left asking: is that normal? I certainly don’t think it happens that way with me, so if we are to talk about how that happens at all, we at least need a box and arrow diagram with meaningful things in the boxes and understandable causal relationships. Otherwise, the existence of secondary emotions is questionable and their causality is entirely unknown. Yet in the world of explaininess, this is a theory of a mental illness where competing theories don’t converge towards consensus because none of them are empirically verifiable.

In philosophy, explaininess is rampant. The most egregious example is Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. This is centrally based around two terms that Derrida coined “differance” and “presance”. These are two perfectly reasonable words intentionally misspelt by just one letter. Geddit? But he tells us that these terms can’t be defined; so how am I supposed to know that my understanding of them is the same as his? After a period of hair-tearing frustration, I eventually discovered that Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault both stated that they didn’t understand it either.

Oh, that’s OK then! If you say you don’t understand it, then you are in more elite company than if you pretend that you do.

Derrida is famous for his obscurity, but explaininess exists everywhere in philosophy. There are hundreds of books on “freewill” but few of them offer a robust hypothesis as to what it is. If you are writing a book claiming that this concept is useful, then the burden falls on you to explain to your readers what it is. Too often, writers just presume that I understand the term, but actually I don’t. If freewill is a piece of brain hardware, then that is alright because eventually a neuroscientist will find it in the hypothalamus or somewhere. And if it is a piece of mental software, then eventually some mathy person will build a model of it so that we can all understand how it works; so that is all good as well. But if it is a part of your aura or something that is beamed to you through the ether, then I suggest that some academic philosophers should be seeking alternative employment. Oh, the joys of tenure!

The problem is that if we ban explaininess in philosophy, then there isn’t much left for us to talk about. But I think this points to the real objective of philosophy. Too often, people say that philosophy’s objective is to ask questions. But it ends up with us talking ad infinitum about all the questions that can’t be answered – the things that scientists can’t be bothered with. But if philosophy’s objective was to answer questions, then we would all have given up in the 3rd century BC, by which time it was already clear that no progress would be made in concrete terms. My suggestions is that the objective of philosophy should be to take unanswerable questions and try to change them into ones that can be addressed in a scientific fashion. For example, if nobody can tell us what freewill actually is, then maybe we should change the question into “what is the cause of a human action?” Already that is starting to sound like a scientific question, rather than a philosophical one. A large part of my work is to attempt to answer that question without the nebulous notions of “freewill” appearing the dialogue at all. Pull off that trick, and true progress will have been made.