Typically Nasty and Idiotic

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Nothing in the academic world reeks more revoltingly than the man who labels anyone who disagrees with him a shoddy scholar. Such a desperate act of intellectual dishonesty is a sure sign that the man who resorts to it possesses not a shred of intellectual integrity and is utterly incapable of honest discourse. The fact that few scholars ever stoop so low is primarily due to the fact that their peers are readily capable of recognizing the tactic for what it is: puerile name-calling masquerading as argumentation.

Nevertheless, there do exist a few simple-minded souls in the academic world who are undaunted by the crassness and fallaciousness of the ad hominem and the non sequitur. For men of this ilk, scoring cheap points against an opponent is more important than forming sound arguments or even clear thinking.

For this low breed of "scholar," Michael Emmett Brady must be something of a hero. Not only is he undaunted by the crassness of hurling unfounded insults at his opponents, he is willing to do so in a way that reveals his own barefaced hypocrisy. Few men, let alone scholars, have the chutzpa to embarrass themselves so completely.

Brady accomplished this ignoble feat in a short article (i.e., "pamphlet") that he penned for Amazon.com. His aim was to demonstrate that Murray Rothbard had — God forbid! — misinterpreted J.M. Keynes's theory of probability. Rothbard's interpretation in Keynes, The Man shows that, according to Brady,

Rothbard was either a master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool.Either case is good grounds for eliminating M Rothbard from serious consideration as an economist or philospher.M Rothbard was a pamphleteer. [All errors in original]

Think of the abject hypocrisy involved in writing such a thing! This man, who claims to have a PhD in economics just like Murray Rothbard, has the gall to denounce Rothbard as a "pamphleteer" in a self-published online pamphlet! Not only that, but his own pamphlet is so badly organized, spelled and punctuated that it makes one long to read something by Thorstein Veblen. Now that takes chutzpa — and it's just the second sentence!

Things only get worse from there. Brady then goes on to list eleven ways (there are two number nines) in which he thinks Murray Rothbard misinterpreted Keynes's theory of probability. The first four of Brady's criticisms are aimed at Rothbard's claim that Keynes "championed the classical a priori theory of probability, where probability fractions are deduced purely by logic and have nothing to do with empirical reality" (Keynes, The Man, p. 8). This characterization, according to Brady, is completely mistaken for the following reasons:

The first 4 errors occur in Rothbard’s claim that ” Keynes’s Treatise championed the classical a priori theory of probability, where probability fractions are deduced purely by logic and have nothing to do with empiricalreality.” First,Keynes’s logical theory of probabiity is based on George Boole’s 1854 The Laws of Thought.It has nothing to do with the Classical theory of Laplace,whose Principle of Non Sufficient Reason Keynes decimated in the A Treatise on Probability in chapter 4.Second ,all of Keynes’s probabilities are conditional .Third,the hypothesis,h, is always related to empirical evidence,e.Thus , a probability is always of the form P(h/e).Fourth,the claim that the ” probability fractions are deduced purely by logic and have nothing to do with empirical reality.” is simply bizarre as Keynes’s probabilitiies ,in general, are intervals and are not sharp or point probabilities(fractions)except in the limiting case where the weight of the evidence,w,= or approaches 1.The condition that w=1 or approaches 1 only occurs in the physical and biological sciences. [All errors in original, unfortunately]

When you recover from the headache this nauseatingly poor prose no doubt gave you, you should notice that Brady is attacking Rothbard for characterizing Keynes's theory in the standard way. It is standard practice to characterize Keynes's theory as one of the many "a priori" or "logical" interpretations of probability. Rothbard is certainly not alone in doing so. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, characterizes Keynes's theory in virtually the same way:

Logical theories of probability retain the classical interpretation’s idea that probabilities can be determined a priori by an examination of the space of possibilities… Early proponents of logical probability include Johnson (1921), Keynes (1921), and Jeffreys (1939).

Now, Brady may disagree with characterizing Keynes's theory in this manner, but it is completely unfair to criticize Rothbard alone for doing so. Why, for example, does Brady not call the author of this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a "master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool"? Why does he not rail against other philosophers of probability, such as Roy Weatherford, who very similarly characterize Keynes's theory? He does not do so because he is trying to score cheap points against Rothbard by giving the asinine impression that Rothbard alone described Keynes's theory as an a priori theory.

Nor is it at all legitimate to respond to Rothbard's characterization by claiming that Keynes's theory derived from George Boole and not from Laplace. In the first place, Rothbard never made any claims that Keynes's theory derived from Laplace or that Keynes's probabilities are not conditional. That alone makes Brady's first two objections irrelevant and thus completely ridiculous, but they are even more so if we observe that it was virtually standard practice for frequentists (and often still is standard practice, for dogmatic statisticians today) to think of everyone before John Venn or even Richard von Mises as a "classicist." This obviously includes George Boole. Again, Brady may not like this standard classification (although it would be nice if he would explain what possible difference this could make), but it is absolutely moronic for him to insinuate that Murray Rothbard is unique in so classifying Boole. Why, for example, did he not choose to call Richard von Mises, the very man who can arguably be said to have originated this line of thinking, a "master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool"? The answer, of course, is that Brady is trying to score cheap points against Rothbard alone by implying that he has outlandish views on Keynes.

The same is obviously true with regard to Brady's fourth criticism of Rothbard. Rothbard is chided for ignoring Keynes's supposedly important "interval approach to probability":

Fourth,the claim that the ” probability fractions are deduced purely by logic and have nothing to do with empirical reality.” is simply bizarre as Keynes’s probabilitiies ,in general, are intervals and are not sharp or point probabilities(fractions)except in the limiting case where the weight of the evidence,w,= or approaches 1.The condition that w=1 or approaches 1 only occurs in the physical and biological sciences. [All errors in original]

This criticism and Brady's tenth criticism, however, do not explain to the reader how Keynes's "intervals" make his theory of probability an empirically-based theory and not logically-based theory, as Rothbard claims. That alone is a grave and inexcusable oversight, but it also gives the impression that Rothbard is unique in neglecting Keynes's supposedly important "intervals." What Brady does not note here is that he has criticized virtually everyone in science, from philosophers to economists, for neglecting Keynes's supposedly important "intervals"! Even the famed probabilist Henry E. Kyburg is criticized by Brady for having misunderstood this esoteric element of Keynes's thought. But does Brady call Kyburg a "master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool"? Of course not, because Brady is a partisan hack who only unfairly savages Austrians like Rothbard, but not everyone else that he disagrees with.

That Brady is trying to score cheap shots can be most clearly seen in Brady's sixth and seventh criticisms of Rothbard:

Sixth,it is not true that Keynes’s approach to probability was part ” … of his continuing campaign against Christian morality “.It was part of Keynes’s campaign against the hypocrisy of Victorian Morality,which was a far cry from being Christian.Seventh,Keynes never linked “… rationality to expediency. The circumstances of an action become the most important consideration in judgments of probable rightness “. Keynes argued that all of the evidence,not merely statistical frequencies, had to be considered.This would mean that unique and infrequent circumstances would have to be taken into account in making a judgment of the probable amount of goodness. [All errors in original, unfortunately]

At no point, however, does Brady note that it was Robert Skidelsky, not Murray Rothbard, who made these claims! Rothbard merely cites Skidelsky on these points. Again, Brady may disagree with Skidelsky, but how is it fair or even rational to criticize Rothbard for merely citing Keynes' famed biographer? Is Brady intellectually consistent enough and brave enough to call the famed biographer of Keynes a "master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool" for his claims? Of course not, because Brady is trying to score another cheap shot against Murray Rothbard alone. There goes one fifth of Brady's criticism of Rothbard right out the window.

Brady's last four criticisms of Rothbard are similarly misguided:

Eighth,the claim that “,,, Keynes’s a priori theory was demolished by Richard von Mises (1951) in his 1920s work, Probability, Statistics, and Truth.” is a bad joke .Richard von Mises incorrectly identifies Keynes as a subjectivist and committed the fatal error of overlooking Keynes’s requirement that all probabilities require that w > 0.Richard von Mises claim that Keynes specified probabilities for the case where w=0 means that he never read the book he claimed to be discussing.Nineth,Rothbard’s claim that” Mises demonstrated that the probability fraction can be meaningfully used only when it embodies an empirically derived law of entities which are homogeneous, random, and indefinitely repeatable.” had already been done by Keynes in chapters 8 and 33 of the TP.Keynes would have added the terms uniform and stable as he did in his debate with Tinbergen in 1939-40 in the Economic Journal.Nineth, the claim that ” probability theory can only be applied to events which, in human life, are confined to those like the lottery or the roulette wheel.” is only correct if one is using mathematical probability.Keynes includes interval probability as the main way in which people use probability.Tenth,”For a comparison of Keynes and Richard von Mises, see D.A. Gillies [1973: pp. 1--34]… ” makes no sense because Gillies never discusses Keynes ‘s interval estimate approach to probability. [All errors in original]

Note that the first three of these criticisms (yes, there are two number nines) are not criticisms of Rothbard per se. They are, rather, attacks against Richard von Mises, whose definition for probability necessarily implies that probabilities not derived from "collectives" of events are not numerical probabilities at all (pdf). Rothbard, like many statisticians today, was a proponent of von Mises's frequentist definition for probability, but it was Richard von Mises who came up with it, not Rothbard. Similarly, it was Richard von Mises who argued that Keynes was a subjectivist, not Rothbard. Only someone who is hopelessly confused or intentionally aiming to mislead would criticize Rothbard for the claims of Richad von Mises.

Incidentally, Richard von Mises's characterization of Keynes as a subjectivist is not without some merit. When is came to probability, Keynes's thinking was every bit as muddled and contradictory as his economic thought. On the one hand, for example, Keynes talks out of one side of his mouth about probability being subjective:

[I]t is without significance to call a proposition probable unless we specify the knowledge to which we are relating it. To this extent, therefore, probability may be called subjective. (A Treatise on Probability, p. 9)


A definition of probability is not possible, unless it contents us to define degrees of the probability-relation by reference to degrees of rational belief. (A Treatise on Probability, p. 13)

On the other hand, Keynes constantly hedges statements like these with others to the effect that probability is not strictly subjective. The point is, Richard von Mises did not fabricate the idea that Keynes was a subjectivist out of whole cloth. Keynes was simply unclear about this, as usual. (Also, Brady's suggestion that Richard von Mises did not read Keynes's treatise is especially rich, given Keynes's admission that his German was not good enough to understand Richard's brother Ludwig's Theory of Money and Credit. The irony of this is perhaps lost on a "scholar" such as Brady).

To sum up, Michael Emmett Brady, the serial pamphleteer on Amazon.com, has no case against Murray Rothbard. He has patched together a series of criticisms that should properly be directed towards other people or the entire community of statisticians and probabilists and somehow concludes that "Rothbard’s scholarship can only be characterized as pathetic." Disagreeing with Rothbard's perfectly standard take on Keynes's theory is no justification for condemning all of his work. I, for example, have criticized Richard von Mises's definition of probability (pdf) as being inconsistent and self-contradictory. I was not, however, brazen or foolish enough to call into question all of von Mises's other work in applied mathematics, simply because he misunderstood the definition of probability. Nor was I crass enough to call anyone who adopted Mises's definition of probability a "master of deceit and deception or an ignorant fool."

Only the simplest of minds could succumb to such a bald non sequitur. This would be like condemning the entire corpus of Keynes' work on the basis of his rabid anti-Semitism.

I somehow doubt, however, that even a mind as simple as Brady's would be willing to toss out that particular baby with Keynes's filthy bathwater. And that is the hallmark of a partisan hack.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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