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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

A case of expert explanatory impotence

In my attempt over the past few years to gain more of an understanding of international affairs, I have sampled and in some cases subscribed to websites and journals providing various perspectives and degrees of informed content.

Among them was an academic journal that published papers with full peer review rigour, typically focusing on a different region of the world each time to give comprehensive coverage.

Although several of the papers each time taught me things I didn’t already know – valuable in itself – from number to number I gradually started picking up the impression of a relatively narrowly drawn set of perspectives and underlying political stance.

Giving it the benefit of the doubt, I renewed for a second year of quarterly issues. However, what remaining enchantment I had was exhausted by the time I had finished reading a particular edition focused on the Near and Middle East. As usual, on the face of it the range of subjects was varied, from a medium-term retrospective on the oft-called “Arab Spring”, the rising of Turkey as a regional power, the prospects for real autonomy and territorial integrity of the Kurdish people in the light of a referendum, the balance of power between Iran and Iraq, and so on.

By that time, I had become used to the near universal underlying but readily identifiable political stance that could be loosely characterised (my terminology) as international progressivist and institutionally anti-West. But the thing that really got me was the virtual absence in the entire 200+ pages of papers was mention of religion qua religion. Whilst it is incontestably obvious that religion – particularly the various manifestations of Islam – plays an absolutely fundamental part in individual, community, state and regional life, I counted no more than five allusions to this fact throughout the entirety of the journal. There were occasional mentions of demographics and references to political groupings that mapped to different forms of Islam, but these were only ever presented in socio-cultural terms and power structures, with little or no detail on religiously inspired motivations and alignments/misalignments whether historical or current. Let alone inter-faith dynamics in that region that have echoed down the centuries.

There is clearly a lead time for the preparation of such papers which, by the time I’d gone through the whole journal, would have meant that the content had been finalised six months or more before. Most if not all the papers carried projections and forecasts, even near-term ones, so it was already possible to compare them with actual reality.

This was what finally did it for me: based on my own, albeit amateur and necessarily incomplete validation, not a single conclusion looked as if it had successfully predicted what was by then actually happening. To my mind that gave it pretty much zero explanatory value over and above a certain amount of background informational content. And I think the reason for this is because its terms of reference and underlying editorial stance – whether explicit or implicit – has rendered it brittle and inherently self-limiting. Fine perhaps for strictly abstract academic discussion (although that is debatable in itself, so to speak) but seemingly not really for real-world application. I wonder how much back testing they do, that is, checking back after the event to see whether what they predict actually comes to pass.

I entered into a brief correspondence with the editor of the journal to explain why I was ending my subscription, emphasising that I was merely an interested person-in-the-street rather than someone with skin in the game or claiming alignment with one political worldview or another. His response to my observation of zero explanatory value was that this assessment was “a little harsh”.

While writing this blog, I looked up the term explanatory value and among other references was a related term “explanatory power”. I must admit I chuckled a little at its antonym, which is “explanatory impotence”.

Actually, what came to mind was a little harsher even than that. In my UCL Economics studies I had a lecturer called Dr. Jerzy Schroeder who taught Probability and Statistics. I recall him once reaching a dramatic conclusion in his explanation of the limitations of a certain probability calculation and with a flourish writing on the board: ‘The technical term for this is “Worse Than Useless”’.

For anyone more than tangentially acquainted with me, they will know that I am a passionate believer in inclusivity of thinking aka openness to respectful attention to alternative viewpoints. Whilst I get that in the case of this academic journal it has to draw the line somewhere in terms of academic fields and areas of competence encompassed, my observation would be that the line is manifestly drawn in the wrong place at the moment and that this is exacerbated by a lack of plurality in political outlook.

A quick postscript: I would hazard that there might be a tendency in the field of international relations towards what the essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of “The Black Swan” fame) refers to as citation rings, in which there arises a narrowing of academic breadth and rigour from mutually dependent academic communities, with an absence of stabilising checks and balances. It’s something I may return to in another blog entry sometime, but in the meantime I would heartily recommend a recent book touching on exactly this subject albeit focused on the field of science, Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie.

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