Science and the “war of ideas”

Posted on February 7, 2012 by


When I first got interested in the social sciences and philosophy it was in large part because I had been repeatedly told as a high school conservative that we were engaged in a “war of ideas.”  Further, in the long run ideas would triumph.  It was important to know our case deeply if we were to triumph against the “liberals and socialists and communists.”  That was in the mid 60s.

I dutifully studied von Mises, Hayek, the Austrian school generally, and classical liberal and libertarian writers early and contemporary.  In time I developed an interest in exploring the outer edges of classical liberal thought, the issues that were currently arising, such as environmental concerns, or those where the empirical evidence seemed shaky such as the claim democracies would degenerate into totalitarian states if they acquired large social welfare systems. Initially I did so as a loyal libertarian seeking to make contributions to the “war of ideas.”

I was surprised that almost no one seemed interested. (Ludwig Lachmann sent me a letter explaining that I had his sympathies, but I did not yet know what he meant.  I learned soon enough.)  It turned out that more than a few were hostile to exploring these topics.  Later, when my Ph.D. became a book applying Hayek’s ideas to democracies, not one single classical liberal or free market organization or publication reviewed it. Not even one on which I sat on the academic advisory board. Yet this was based on a dissertation from one of the top three ranked graduate schools in my field in the country!

For years I was both perplexed and angered. Didn’t ideas matter?  If so, shouldn’t we try and get them right?  And didn’t we get them right by a process of research and criticism?

Over the past few months I have begun to shift my understanding of this issue.

The problem lies not in hypocrisy and careerist opportunism as I had long thought, but in how the issue of ideas’ importance is framed. These frames help us make sense of how of how our ideas fit into a larger context.  The “War of ideas” is a very flawed frame of what we are engaged in, at least those of us who take ideas seriously.

The War on Drugs

A good analogy to what is wrong is to consider the “War on Drugs.”    Those who accepted this frame saw themselves as “warriors” and therefore began using their positions and arguments as weapons in a struggle with the “other side” of “drug abuse.”  Ideas about drugs and their effects were important as weapons in a war in a battle for supremacy but not as tools for understanding the world. Efforts to blur distinctions between the extremes of open use and suppression were rejected as disloyal.  As a result, drug warriors do not understand the world of drugs use very well, have inadvertently caused many needless deaths, have retarded medical and psychological research, contributed to the rise of new sectors and groups of organized crime, and wasted enormous amounts of money while making America have the not very admirable record of imprisoning more citizens both in numbers and percentages  than any other major country on earth. And drugs are still easy to get.

If drugs were considered a problem to be understood instead of an enemy to be conquered, wqe would not have made such a mess of things.  When I propose X and you propose Y as alternative means of dealing with a problem, that encourages intelligent examination, not breast beating and moral posturing and lectures that one or the other of us is “weak” or “defeatist.

The terminology of the war of ideas has enabled those using it, be they classical liberals or libertarians or Marxists, or anyone else, to insulate themselves from learning from the “other side” except, perhaps, for tactics to sell their point of view. Ideas become commodities and tool of power, not of understanding. This gets it wrong.


The terminology of war is entirely inappropriate for describing how ideas shape and respond to human experience.  Yes, I think ideas are every bit as important as I was taught so many decades ago. But not as weapons of war. They are tools of inquiry and understanding.

Science, as F. A. Hayek and Michael Polanyi emphasized, is a discovery process.  We do not know what the true picture is, and the best we can do in finding it is to subject our hypotheses to being able to be critically examined and tested.  A theory that cannot be rebutted is not science. In fact, it is the antithesis of science.

Historically science has advanced in any field through a process of conjectures and refutations and then new conjectures that open up new areas until they in turn encounter results that refute them.  The result is never truth, or if it is we have no way of knowing it, but as John Ziman puts it, “reliable knowledge.”  This wonderful term reminds us that reliable does not equal certain, and that new knowledge might be even more reliable than what we currently have.

This is not the language of war, it is the language of exploration, often competitive exploration, but still exploration. It is like the market process not like war.

Those of us engaged in the study of emergent phenomena need to be particularly aware of the differences between science as a discovery process and the “war of ideas” because this error has retarded so much scholarship in the past. I hope this journal never rejects a paper due to someone’s judgment that the conclusions are wrong or “defeatist” or help “the other side.”

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