26 January 2012

Gregory House Is Not a Ph.D.

Vikash erred in using pictures of Hugh
Laurie to illustrate his post. Nobody
wants to see that.
Over at the Duck of Minerva, Vikash Yadav uses House, M.D. to highlight what he sees as the misdiagnoses of rational choice theory. Phil Arena, himself a formal theorist, rejoins that Dr. House is not his role model and presents a defense of what we might call "mere rationality" in the face of reductii ad absurdum like Vikash's.

As important as the topics raised in these posts are, they don't go far enough. Considering that one of the major points of Vikash's argument is about House's choice to be addicted, Phil, surprisingly, doesn't make the obvious point about Gary Becker's theory of rational addiction. Becker often gets slammed for this as being an example of rationalist thinking taken too far, but consider what happens when you decide to get drunk. Your actions are, essentially, logically similar to those of Becker's agent, with the caveat that in the morning (or, at least, by mid-afternoon) you will again be sober.

So alcohol is clearly a way by which agents choose to alter their own preference functions credibly and (in the moment) irreversibly. This is, it turns out, not so difficult to model mathematically. And I would argue that the discounting logic that goes into the question of Optimal Drunkenness (or Optimal Sponge) is something that actually cannot be expressed as well in words as in algebraic notation. (Indeed, words are always an inferior vector for expressing logical relationships if efficiency is our only criterion, and they are almost always strictly inferior in terms of their precision.)

But note that this is not an ontological or epistemological dispute. It is very precisely a methodological one, about the best ways for social scientists (and everyone else, really) to think about how to explore and to know the social universe. And here Phil's broader point stands. Even though one class of theorist managed to colonize formal logic first in the social science, there is no requirement that all theories expressed formally be of their ilk.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Good point about Becker, and the similarity to consuming alcohol.