Friday 25 October 2013

Excuses, Explanations and Social Ontology in E-learning and Economics

The Cambridge Realist Workshop (see has been very important to me over the years. When I realised as a fledgling educational technologist about 10 years ago, that most attempts to evaluate educational technology were ridiculous, and that 'ontology' was the thing that mattered, I signed up to the group - simply because they were the only people who appeared to be thinking similar thoughts (they had a conference on 'technology and ontology' that year - although I didn't go). Most of what they talked about in the workshop was economics and, undaunted by the  fact that I knew nothing of economics, I started reading the papers that (then) were sent to me at Bolton by post (the first one was by Amartya Sen - which was a good start!). Only within the last few years have I mustered the energy to do the 3 hour drive to Cambridge to attend - but I learnt an enormous amount anyway. It was a kind of MOOC I guess - but this one really worked because it was driven by passionate commitment on the part of all who engaged with it to get to grips with fundamentally difficult problems.

I was there on Monday for Tony Lawson's talk which was a brilliant analysis of Thorstein Veblen's coinage of the term 'neo-classical economics' - a term generally used abusively but without definition by economists, but which fundamentally according to Veblen (and to Lawson) referred to that group of economists who were progressive in their thinking, but whose methods contradicted their ontology. But after the talk, the topic of 'explanation' arose. "We all want to explain away the things we don't like," I argued. It's not the what an explanation that is interesting, but how it does its explaining.

Thinking about it, and following another discussion that occurred among friends a bit earlier in the evening, I have been thinking about the relationship between an explanation and an excuse. Much of Lawson's argument against formalism in modern economics is that it brings inappropriate tools (mathematical models) to a reality which it doesn't understand, has no ambition to critique, and yet seeks to explain it through the use of these tools. Its explanatory power is dreadful and we all live with the consequences. There is basically an intellectual laziness to engage with reality born out of reliance on tools and maintaining the professional identity of individual economists. To what extent is this laziness the result of using tools to make excuses for the status quo? To what extent is the excuse-making habitual?

An excuse is a kind of explanation: religion is an excuse for war; austerity is an excuse for maintaining inequality; national security is an excuse for surveillance. The distinction between an excuse and an explanation can be difficult to pinpoint in the statement itself: the distinction lies in the orientation of the observer. I asked my 13 year-old daughter what fear is the other week: "it's an excuse!" she said (she kicked off my thinking on this whole topic!) To call something an excuse is be oriented to do something about it: to reject the explanation and move out of the cycle where the explanation (or excuse) does its explaining. To call something an excuse summons up passion, anger and a determination to challenge: it is to wake up.

When might an explanation not be an excuse? This is difficult because it depends on one's orientation: one person's explanation is another person's excuse. What matters is the underpinning value system. Where does that come from? Most likely from life experiences - childhood attachments, etc. That's where the how of an explanation really matters more than the what. 

This is where I think we have to be careful in recognising the nature of the challenges that identifying an excuse can present. It's not enough to say "you're just making excuses!" - because we will have our own excuses for making the challenge. But the question "what are you wanting to excuse?" is more powerful. Any excuse carries within it imminent traces of the mind that wishes to hold on to it. "Why are you wanting to excuse the status quo? What is in you that wishes to believe this explanation? What is in me that wishes to challenge you?" - this is a more constructive way of moving forwards. It is where we can see the layers of excuse-making in each other. We might hope that by exposing this, there might be a deeper meeting point that is therapeutic rather than confrontational.

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