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Deirdre McCloskey hangs out with the "wrong" crowd. She is immersed in the work of a varied group of thinkers, the likes of Paul Feyerabend, Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty - collectively often referred to as Postmodernists, although Deidre McCloskey refers to the "movement" as "Anti-Modernism" (p. 183). The common thread that unites all these thinkers is opposition to rationality - or is it to science? Or maybe just a skepticism about naïve-modernism?
Because McCloskey is an economist (and a brilliant and eccentric writer), she's not prone to adopt the radicalism of Postmodernism - her take on those ideas is opposition to naïve Modernism, but without repudiating either science, rationalism or empiricism.
Basically, McCloskey attacks Modernism, or Positivism, a simplistic view of the world according to which science is a unique channel to truth, one in which things are "proven" rather then argued, in which, if you can't count it you don't know it, where mathematics is god and a mere argument - one not backed by "the facts" - is worthless, "mere" rhetoric. McCloskey offers "Ten Commandments of Modernism" in science (pp. 143-144), including such dictates as "Prediction and control is the point of science" (the first commandment), and "Only the observable implications (or predictions) of a theory matter to its truth" (the second commandment).
My problem is, I doubt anyone has ever been a "naïve Modernist" in McCloskey's sense. I only believe in two of McCloskey's commandments, and even those with misgivings. The strongest opponents of the Postmodernists, scientists like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, historians like Richard Evans, philosophers like Daniel Dennett - certainly are no naïve Modernists. Even according to McCloskey herself, Milton Friedman's essay "The Methodology of Positive Economics", despite being "the central document of modernism in economics" (McCloskey's phrase), is "more postmodernist than you might suppose", and even Karl Popper is a "transitional figure"(pp. 144-145). So what's all the fuss about? Who is McCloskey after? When it comes to an example, McCloskey parades a research paper (by economists Richard Roll and Stephen Ross), stating:
"One should not reject the conclusions derived from firm profit maximization on the basis of sample surveys in which managers claim that they trade off profits for social good" (quoted on p. 146)
Is that so unreasonable?
Compare McCloskey's three chapters against methodology and for rhetoric with chapter four of 'Intellectual Impostures' by the bete noir of Postmodernists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Their prose and argument is more lucid; the ideas are very similar. And as a critic of Modernist prose and scientism (and McCloskey's charge about those point is substantial), it is strange that she marshals with apparent approval the writing of someone like Stanley Fish, who writes: 'All utterances are... produced and understood within the assumption of some socially conceived and understood dimension of assessment... all facts are discourse specific... and therefore no one can claim for any language a special relationship to the facts as they "simple are".' (Quoted on p.108).
If the central argument of McCloskey's book is not all that surprising, the book is nonetheless worth reading for McCloskey's almost incidental insights. Her attack on the insignificance of statistical significance (chapter 8), is more developed here than in her "Secret Sins of Economics", and it is rather disturbing that so many economists have fallen into the trap of thinking that an arbitrary statistical test necessarily has real life meanings (chapter 8). Her discussion of the justifications for the existence of a downward sloping demand curve must make anyone interested in economics think twice: "Some economists have tried to subject the law to a few experimental tests" she writes "After a good deal of throat-clearing they have found it to be true for clearheaded rats and false for confused humans" (p. 25).
McCloskey's insight into and analysis of actual rhetoric is also fun, for example, on a classic paper by Ronald Coase:
"When claiming the ethos of the Scientist the young Coase was especially fond of "tend to", the phrase becoming virtual anaphora on p. 46 (Coase 1937), repeated in all six of the complete sentences on the page and once in the footnotes. (p. 89)
McCloskey also does some popularization of economics, almost in the matter of course. She makes the ideas of economists comprehensible for neophytes like me; Her summery of Robert Fogel's thesis about American railroad is masterly, and she actually translates the main points of a breakthrough article by John Muth from economistic into English (pp. 54-58).
McCloskey does all these things as after thoughts - but it's there that her genius really comes through.