Breaking Bad isn’t About Scientism

One interesting strain in critical reactions to Breaking Bad is the argument that the show represents a critique of “scientism”–in particular, the view that scientific progress involves moral and philosophical progress. Proponents of this argument draw together several themes in the show, including the radical nature of Walt’s evil and the contrast between  the gleaming means of modern chemistry that Walt employs in the service of an ancient, tribal moral code. Breaking Bad depicts a “man of science” who nonetheless descends into evil, and thereby drives a wedge between scientism’s connection between scientific and moral progress.

This argument, which echoes long-simmering worries about the relationship between the arts and sciences and human welfare, presupposes that Walter White really is a “man of science.” This premise, however, is false–Walt isn’t a scientist but rather a cook.

While I recognize that my distinction could slide into a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, the difference between science and technique has real bite. Methamphetamine production, as Victor notes at the beginning of season 4, is simply a matter of following a recipe. Walt next proceeds to dazzle Victor with his scientific acumen, but Victor’s essential point remains–Walt’s abilities are principally technical. He simply follows the recipe better than anyone else. Walt never displays the norms of imagination and self-examination prerequisite for truly scientific inquiry.

Walt’s signature accomplishments–blowing up a room with fulminated mercury, killing Gus Fring, and eliminating the Nazi gang with a jerry-rigged machine gun–involve the deliberate application of means to ends. While his ingenuity and theatricality aren’t in doubt, these skills do not reflect on him qua scientist. Science doesn’t advance toward a foreordained conclusion through the skill of scientists, as Karl Popper notes, but rather by incrementally cleaving away false beliefs from true ones. Those who interpret Breaking Bad as a critique of scientism confuse Walt’s use of technology with his use of science, when in fact what Walt is up to is worlds apart from the scientific method.

Re-considering Milton Friedman

The New York Times’s pop-philosophy blog, The Stone, has a new post up on why conservatives should re-read Milton Friedman. There are two important themes in this post: 1) a common misconception about the relationship between markets and morality and 2) a common game of “gotcha” that critics of markets often play with market advocates.

First, Gary Gutting, the post’s author, observes that Friedman places side-constraints on how firms and individuals may act in a free-enterprise system–maximize your goals, but don’t collude with, defraud, or coerce others. But Gutting draws a curious inference from the existence of these constraints:

This qualification acknowledges a key restriction on the maximization of profit. More important, it commits Friedman to the principle that there can be restraints on the capitalist system that are not self-imposed but rather imposed by the society that employs this system for its own purposes…. It follows that, on Friedman’s own account, capitalism is not an economic system that operates independently of the political system in which it is embedded. It is a creature of that system, which has goals (of morality and social responsibility, for example) that go beyond the profitable exchange of goods

In other words, Gutting argues that side-constraints both are necessarily exogenous to market processes (“not self-imposed) and an artifact of government (“imposed by the society that employs this system for its own purposes”).

Concerning his first point, Gutting misunderstands the relation of constraints to business activity. The constitutive feature of business isn’t “maximizing profit”–criminal enterprises do that–but consensual  exchange. And if we unpack what “consensual exchange” requires, we see that it includes at least some constraints such as disclosure of relevant information and non-coercion.

It also doesn’t follow that these constraints are what Gutting calls “social” values. These constraints instead seem to reflect the interest of the individual parties to the exchange, not a social aggregation. A social entity isn’t an existential condition for the authority of these values–rather, each and every one of us intuitively has the authority to demand non-deception and non-coercion.

Second, if Gutting really thinks Friedman’s thought provides common ground for us to argue about economic policy, Gutting should be prepared to honestly reconsider his own views rather than play “gotcha!” with Friedman’s students. Gutting observes that Friedman supported a negative income tax, but Friedman also criticized the minimum wage for its unintended harms to the poor, objected to paternalistic regulation, and opposed tuition subsidies for higher education. It’s not clear to me that conservatives have more to learn from re-reading Friedman than Gutting himself does.

Moving Public Opinion on GMOs

Pacific Standard has a write up on GMOs observing that despite the overwhelming consensus that GMOs are no more dangerous than ordinary foods, a plurality of the public remains convinced that they are a public health threat. According to a linked July poll by Gallup, 48% of those surveyed believed GMOs posed a “serious health hazard”, compared to 36% who didn’t. (If the question were phrased “are GMOs a serious health hazard yes/no?”, would we expect a bias in the affirmative?)

The authors make a nice point about how the GMO critics have successfully framed the debate, and what needs to change for defenders of GMOs to push back:

The question of benefits has been buried because the GMO debate has been framed around the unhelpful distinction between GM and non-GM foods. Instead of asking if GM foods in general are less safe, the editors argue, we should be focused on the specific risks and benefits of individual products, whether they are GM or not.

Talking about GMOs in the aggregate highlights the connection between GMOs and their creators–agricultural firms. And that evokes images of shady corporations mucking about with our food without telling us. But talking about particular crops and how they improve over non-GM crops draws attention to the crop’s impact on consumers.

Defenders of GMOs should emphasize the ways particular crops make people better off, by improving tolerance to drought, disease resistance, and increased nutritional density. While critics of GMOs want to draw attention to the motives behind their creation, defenders should shift attention to the improvements GMOs will bring to the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Even a Community of Saints Would Need Markets

… for three reasons:

First, coordination. Even actors with purely virtuous motives would still need rules of property acquisition, transfer, and exchange for purposes of coordinating their activities. Property rules tell us who has the right to use which item and how we can interact with others through our property, allowing each agent to form expectations about the future and act in conjunction with others.

Second, information. A virtuous community still suffers from imperfect information about who should get what. In markets, prices communicate information about the nature and intensity of agents preferences without any single group distributing those goods on the basis of that knowledge. And on the production side, it will need the price system to determine how much and what it should produce to meet people’s desires.

Third, discovery. Markets have a discovery function whereby entrepreneurs identify unmet preferences or needs of others in the markets. Changing the motives of entrepreneurs would not affect the discovery aspect of markets. While entrepreneurial saints would perhaps not require pecuniary incentives, it would still remain the case that untapped or unmet preferences would remain unidentified without the process of market discovery.