Theories and truth

In his debate with Myers, Mark uses as an illustration an orbiting billiard-ball theory of an atom that he judges false. This gives me an excuse to plug my favorite contemporary philosopher, Nelson Goodman. Boy, is Goodman a smart cookie. I’ve never opened to a page he wrote that didn’t leave me smarter, engaged, and curious. In Languages of Art, he resurrected aesthetic philosophy from a century-long exile in a romantic swamp…

but I digress: Goodman suggests that we are better off asking whether theories and models are useful than if they are true. In Ways of Worldmaking, he offers the example of the Ptolemaic universe, in which everything revolves around the earth in complicated paths and cycles. Of course that isn’t “true” in the sense Mark means, but an astronomer trying to point a telescope at something uses exactly this theory to make the trigonometric calculations he needs. This is behavioral evidence, the best kind, that he credits the Ptolemaic theory with a utility for a purpose that is not operationally very different from truth. It’s not always necessary to pick one truth from a set of propositions that appear to be inconsistent, and to have what appear to be inconsistent models at hand for different purposes is not the same as post-modernist relativism or mushy contingency.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.