Pseudo-scholarship and the Libertarians

Tower in DinanIn this post I consider the definition of pseudo-scholarship as something more subtle than pseudo-science, and I examine an essay by Ayn Rand as an example. This post examines some poor aspects of libertarianism that, in my opinion, are “not even wrong.” In a future post I will return to libertarianism and explain aspects that I think are both scholarly and extremely good, and are supported by real evidence. Until then, let’s start with some of the negative items…

During a recent debate over libertarianism, I was drawn into a deeply layered argument that ranged from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and broader libertarian thinking, to Natural Rights theory and the scholarly value of meta-ethics. The discussion was also invaded by Holocaust revisionism, creating a very murky situation. Most effort in the skeptic community is directed toward pseudo-science, which is easily defined — e.g., theories that contradict observed evidence, or that make claims that are untestable or deceptive. But when it comes to the humanities and social or political sciences, the distinction is not so obvious.

1. Pseudo-scholarship vs pseudo-science

Writing on Patheos.com, expressed a typical definition of pseudo-science:

All of us have “Aha!” moments when we suddenly think of a different way of looking at things. Most of them will not fit the evidence, and scholars and scientists learn to test our ideas against the data and abandon the ideas when they do not fit. Crackpots, on the other hand, are so enamored with their own ideas, and the conviction of their own genius, that data and evidence have to take second place. [Read original post]

This intuition is not sufficient to describe the varieties of pseudo-scholarship. Consider, for example, the wide variety of pseudo-mathematics available at vixra.org, an “alternative” site created by people rejected from the physics site arxiv.org (see the brief explanation on RationalWiki). On vixra you can find numerous proofs of astonishing results; Golbach’s conjecture has been proved several times, for example. These articles are obviously pseudo-scholarship, but that has nothing to do with “evidence” or “data.” They are just bad proofs, and a bad proof of Goldbach’s conjecture is still guaranteed to fit all available “data.”

Pseudo-scholarship becomes increasingly difficult to pin-point when examining topics in philosophy, the humanities and social sciences. There are those (hopefully few) who are inclined to disregard the entirety of philosophy and “soft sciences,” or who suggest that they be replaced by something more resembling hard science (Massimo Pigliucci has said some nice words on this topic here). I’m going to presume that these subjects are allowed to exist, and that they make contributions to knowledge and society that cannot be replaced through observational science.

Pseudo-scholarship is not best characterized by its relationship to data per se, but by whether the work demonstrates rigor according standards appropriate to its subject matter. Peer review is a good indicator of rigor, but it isn’t perfect. Occasionally work is discredited after passing peer review, and sometimes material may gain peer acceptance even if published without conventional peer review. We could turn to “peer endorsement” as a more correct way of estimating the dynamic nature of scholarly value, but sometimes entire peer networks can drift into habits that resemble pseudo-scholarship (e.g. the Sokal affair). One more complication is that we can believe a theory to be wrong, and yet it can still be good scholarship. I therefore believe we have to be fuzzy about our estimation of scholarship. If a body of work or its author has strong peer endorsement, then the work is more likely to be genuine scholarship. When there is evidence of scholarship, one should exercise greater caution before dismissing the work as pseudo-scholarship.

With the above challenges in mind, there are a few clear indicators that indicate a lack of rigor, and should help to flag pseudo-scholarship in any discipline. If an article, essay or book meets two or more of these criteria, it might be pseudo-scholarship:

  1. The work contains basic factual errors, even if the facts are not critical to the case being made. Any rigorous work should sweat the details.
  2. Revolutionary or highly unexpected conclusions are expressed. Sagan famously said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is a great statement for pseudo-science, but for pseudo-scholarship in broader fields it may be more appropriate to say “extraordinary statements require extraordinary justification.”
  3. The work neglects existing scholarship on the topic. Any rigorous work should acknowledge specific current literature and respond to it directly.
  4. The author(s) fail to acknowledge limitations or unresolved objections to their ideas. Or, they fail to anticipate and respond to obvious counter-arguments. Rigor demands that a scholar should be conscious of possible objections to their statements and should offer reasonable responses to them.
  5. The publication venue (journal, conference proceedings or book publisher) has a reputation for promoting pseudo-scholarship.
  6. The author is known to have produced pseudo-scholarship in other works.

I specify “two or more” of these criteria in recognition of the fact that everyone makes mistakes. I think these criteria are equally applicable to theoretical subjects as well as highly empirical science.

2. A quick examination of Ayn Rand’s pseudo-scholarship

In this section I will focus narrowly on one of Ayn Rand’s essays to show that it meets four of my criteria for pseudo-scholarship (indicated in bold face). I will conclude that Rand expresses revolutionary views — a desire to reinvent the world — but she evidently did not think it was important to first study and understand the world before telling us how to reinvent it.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy has managed to creep into circles of legitimate scholarship. According to the Wikipedia entry on Objectivism:

Academic philosophers have generally dismissed Objectivism since Rand first presented it.Objectivism has been called “fiercely anti-academic” because of Rand’s criticism of contemporary intellectuals. David Sidorsky, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Columbia University, says Rand’s work is “outside the mainstream” and is more of an ideological movement than a well-grounded philosophy.

…In recent decades Rand’s works are more likely to be encountered in the classroom. The Ayn Rand Society, dedicated to fostering the scholarly study of Objectivism, is affiliated with the American Philosophical Association‘s Eastern Division. Aristotle scholar and Objectivist Allan Gotthelf, chairman of the Society, and his colleagues have argued for more academic study of Objectivism, viewing the philosophy as a unique and intellectually interesting defense of classical liberalism that is worth debating. Since 1999 a refereed Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began. In 2006 the University of Pittsburgh held a conference focusing on Objectivism. In addition, there is a growing list of Objectivist philosophers, including Tara Smith and James G. Lennox, who hold tenured positions at leading American philosophy departments. Programs and fellowships for the study of Objectivism have been supported at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Since Rand’s views are beginning to be represented in academia, it is more difficult to dismiss them without a careful analysis. I think it is easy to show that Rand’s work was pseudo-scholarship. Her current sympathizers may be trying to build some scholarly scaffolds around her work, trying to improve the scholarly acceptability of Rand’s ideas. If that’s the case, then it isn’t obvious that Rand-inspired work is pseudo-scholarship in the same way as Rand’s own writings, and it requires a separate treatment (which I won’t do here).

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is an example of “good” pseudo-scholarship, in the sense that it’s so problematic that it’s very challenging to refute. When there are so many problems, it is easy to fall victim to the “overkill backfire effect” described in the Debunking Handbook. I’ll therefore focus my critique of Objectivism to a single essay, one whose subject matter lies closest to my own scholarly expertise, and I’ll identify just a few points to show that this is pseudo-scholarship, and should cast suspicion on her other work.

As my exemplar, I’ve chosen an essay by Rand, “The Property Status of Airwaves” (1964), stating her views on radio spectrum allocation. I chose this particular essay because it is included in one of her most heavily-promoted books, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, and it falls very close to my own expertise in wireless telecommunication systems. I also enjoy the opportunity to write about the history of radio technology and regulatory policy, which is a fascinating and complex subject (I want to direct any interested readers to Thomas White’s excellent site on United States Early Radio History. It contains a great deal of historical documentation that Rand could have studied before writing this essay.) Lastly, I should note that Randian “scholars” are still citing this essay as a basis for policy recommendations, as in this 2007 editorial by Alex Epstein (which is really just a  repetition of Rand’s ideas with no intellectual adaptation to modern context).

Rand’s essay begins as follows:

Any material element or resource which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the application of human knowledge and effort, should be private property – by the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort. This is particularly true of broadcasting frequencies or waves, because they are produced by human action and do not exist without it. What exists in nature is only the potential and the medium through which those waves must travel. (That medium is not air; in legal discussions it is often referred to by the mythical term of “ether” – to indicate some element in space, at present unidentified.) Without the broadcasting station which generates the waves, that “ether” – on our present level of knowledge — is of no practical use or value to anyone.

This first paragraph is already seriously flawed; this description of electromagnetic waves is completely bizarre. The “ether” is the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, which includes visible light. It is full of waves induced by natural and artificial sources. It is odd to say it is “of no practical use” since it is part of the fabric of the universe — she might as well say that “space and matter were of no practical use until someone invented railroads.” Rand claims the medium is “at present unidentified”, but it was extremely well understood by scientists, engineers and regulators in 1964. These basic factual errors already demonstrate a lack of rigor — Rand doesn’t seem to think its worthwhile or necessary to understand the basic characteristics of electromagnetic waves, and that is already a significant indicator of pseudo-scholarship.

But the essay continues:

Just as two trains cannot travel on the same section of track at the same time, so two broadcasts cannot use the same frequency at the same time in the same area without “jamming” each other. There is no difference in principle between the ownership of land and the ownership of airways. The only issue is the task of defining the application of property rights to this particular sphere. It is on this task that the American government has failed dismally, with incalculably disastrous consequences.

This is factually wrong. Spectral sharing was already known in 1964. In fact, actress Hedy Lamarr invented frequency hopping spread spectrum in 1942, and Tesla purportedly described similar ideas as early as 1903. The broadcast model of the time was a driven by the capabilities of manufacturing electrical and electronic systems, not by the nature of the EM spectrum itself. Again, Rand could have found this information in her day, and she should have studied the history of real regulatory policy. Instead, the essay completely neglects the existing scholarship on the topic.

She has also failed to clearly articulate the “incalculably disastrous consequences” of government policy on “airwaves.” It is even stranger to claim that “airwaves” are like land. If I can own “airwaves” — which are just abstract distinctions based on available radio technology — what else can I own? Can I own air? Can I own specific molecules? If I can own, say, the frequency band from 698-746 MHz, could I also own all groupings of 698-746 objects? What is unique about “airwaves” that makes them ownable?

Even if we forgive Rand for the factual misunderstandings, there are additional problems with the essay’s logic and conclusions:

A notable example of the proper method of establishing private ownership from scratch, in a previously ownerless area, is the Homestead Act of 1862, by which the government opened the Western frontier for settlement and turned “public land” over to private owners. The government offered a 160-acres farm to any adult citizen who would settle on it and cultivate it for five years, after which it would become his property. …

This should have been the principle and pattern of the allocation of broadcasting frequencies.

As soon as it became apparent that radio broadcasting had opened a new realm of material resources which, in the absence of legal definitions, would become a wilderness of clashing individual claims, the government should have promulgated the equivalent of a Homestead Act of the airways – an act defining private property rights in the new realm, establishing the rule that the user of a radio frequency would own it after he had operated a station for a certain number of years, and allocating all frequencies by the rule of priority, i.e., “first come, first served.”

There are many things wrong with this idea, but to keep it simple I’ll limit my criticism to two points: (1) that the concept of spectral homesteading cannot be applied at all for the majority of radio applications, and (2) that spectral homesteading is totally inconsistent with Objectivism’s supposed principles. These points are fairly obvious rebuttals to Rand’s recommendation. The essay did not anticipate these basic rebuttals or offer any meaningful responses; instead it sticks to revolutionary pronouncements.

My first point on spectral homesteading: broadcasting is not the first application of radio, nor is it the most significant. Rand’s idea may seem sensible for broadcast stations operating at fixed locations and on fixed channels, but if we tried to apply her logic at a time before broadcasting was invented, we would get ridiculous results. Beginning in the late 19th century, wireless telegraphy emerged as a key technology for mobile communication between ships and land-based stations. These included ships in the ocean, on lakes and also airships. During most of this period, wireless telegraph equipment was not frequency selective; there was almost no concept of a spectrum with channels at different frequencies. There was only one channel. In its historical context, this situation represented a “new realm of material resources” and it did give rise to a “wilderness of clashing individual claims” — in fact, the Marconi company, a dominant operator of wireless telegraph services, refused to receive telegraph transmissions if they originated from rival equipment.

According to Rand, this world met the conditions for radio homesteading. But what should a “radio homestead act” have looked like in 1900? Should the government had sold radio rights by territory (state-wide? county-wide?)? What if a territorial radio baron simply refused to provide services, and instead used his ownership claim as a means to repress radio experimentation? What if a regional operator declined to relay emergency messages from ships in distress, or urgent military communications? If the radio rights were sold off as irrevocable private property, could the owners be compelled to provide mandatory services, or to forfeit their rights if they fail to operate? (In that case, how does it differ from a lease?) Perhaps most importantly, what should happen when the technology improves, and broadcasting becomes possible? Now suddenly we want to homestead by frequency instead of territory (or both?)? Once the spectrum becomes property, we don’t get a do-over[The real historical background of early wireless regulations is well described by Howeth, “History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy,” 1963]

The problem of dead spectrum is also a very current one: the 700MHz band that included UHF television channels. When Alex Epstein wrote about this band for the Rand Institute, he was apparently unconcerned with the fact that UHF stations are virtually dead, and their spectrum full of deadbeat static. The FCC’s decision to re-formulate this band is based on recognition that UHF analog broadcasting is effectively obsolete, and that segment of spectrum needs to be re-purposed. If it had been sold off decades ago in frequency increments, those increments would have been specific for the UHF analog transmission technology of that era, making it really awkward to re-purpose the band for new capabilities that don’t fit into old UHF slices.

My second point on spectral homesteading: Spectral ownership is un-libertarian. History didn’t require the system of television and radio broadcasting; there were plenty of other uses for radio. Why should all the other uses be overruled by the specific interests of broadcasters (or of contemporary cellular carriers)? We can think of EM waves by their analogy to sound waves, and broadcasting is (loosely) analogous to an extremely high-powered loudspeaker. The homestead proposal would grant exclusive rights to one party to operate the loudspeaker, and would enforce a law of silence on all other parties in the loudspeaker’s territory — quite a coercive scenario. It’s pretty easy to see that, in this analogy, it isn’t necessary for the loudspeaker to be protected, or for the loudspeaker to even exist at all.

Unrestricted interpersonal communication seems to be the more libertarian option. Returning to the EM domain, it is possible to imagine an alternate world dominated by amateur radio. As an outsider herself, Rand ought to appreciate the role that outsiders can play in innovation. Many amateurs contributed to the development of radio technology, and continue making contributions to network communication in the 21st century. The system of mass communication through radio and television broadcasting didn’t have to exist; it was created by government regulations that favored government and military interests in centrally controlled mass communication. With today’s emergence of peer-to-peer models in network communication, we may reasonably conjecture that the world would have been different, but not necessarily unjust, if broadcasting never existed. It seems to me that this “anarchy of the airwaves” is a world more consistent with Objectivism’s libertarian principles, and that there is no reason to invent “property rights” out of the very fabric of our universe — we’re not talking about objects, we’re talking about space itself! An unregulated spectrum would have maximized the liberty of individuals to experiment, to innovate, to invent, and to control their own medium of communication — no coercion required. Isn’t that what Objectivism ought to prefer?

Returning now to Alex Epstein’s essay about the 700MHz auction, it seems that Epstein is really concerned about the FCC’s acceptance of “Open Spectrum,” promoted by Google among others. According to Wikipedia, the 700MHz auction stipulated the following requirements:

  • Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

These requirements sound (to me) like a basic affirmation of libertarian principles: individuals have the right to access the EM space around them, using equipment and service providers of their choice, and the service providers have to inter-operate. This is the modern equivalent of the oldest international radio agreement: a 1906 convention requiring operators like Marconi to inter-operate with competitors’ equipment. In particular, the agreement stipulated these important points:

  • “The coastal stations and the stations on shipboard shall be bound to exchange wireless telegrams without distinction of the wireless telegraph system adopted by such stations.”
  • “The working of the wireless telegraph stations shall be organized as far as possible in such manner as not to disturb the service of other wireless stations.”
  • “Wireless telegraph stations are bound to give absolute priority to calls of distress from ships, to similarly answer such calls and to take such action with regard thereto as may be required.”

This agreement preserved maximum liberty for new innovators and companies to operate in the wireless industry. It preserved market competition and resisted monopolization. And it guaranteed the right of customers to get what they paid for: delivery of messages. Of course the protection of radio customers wasn’t yet made perfect; this article from IEEE Spectrum describes the role played by wireless communication in the Titanic disaster, and how that disaster influenced future improvements in emergency communication. This article from Discovery News also describes how the Titanic radio operators received a warning of ice, but disregarded it because they were not under obligation to prioritize emergency warnings over paid telegram service. In retrospect, it seems that the rights and properties of the Marconi company were of the absolute least moral significance compared to the lives lost on the Titanic (and, I guess, the lost property too).

Conclusions

I could keep going with these criticisms, but I’ve already overdone it. Rand’s writings on radio spectrum allocation were factually flawed and logically inconsistent. Rand was willing to make revolutionary pronouncements about the subject, but she didn’t do the basic homework needed to understand the issue. That’s enough to prove that this essay is pseudo-scholarship. Although this is just one example of Rand’s writing, the sheer laziness of it should cast suspicion on her other writings as well. Read with caution, young Objectivists.

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One thought on “Pseudo-scholarship and the Libertarians

  1. Pingback: The big tent of libertarianism | Fair Coin Toss

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