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Progress Studies: A Question in Search of a Discipline

No one knows what Progress Studies is.

You can read the launch article from Patrick and Tyler, or the writing awarded under the Progress Studies label, but none of this describes a coherent field of practice with its own grounding assumptions and methodology.

Consider this paragraph from The Atlantic article:

This is exactly what Progress Studies would investigate. It would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.

Like the genies of legend, we’ve fullifiled the literal wording of this wish without addressing its intent. Writers have taken “as broadly as possible” to mean investigations without a disciplinary base, and thus without established standards of rigour or proof.

The result? Progress Studies blogs filled with vague manifestors and bold proclamations of belief, despite lacking the disciplinary rigour to justify any of it.

That is not necessarily bad! As Byrne Hobart writes in The High Information Jerk:

being an overconfident jerk is a massive public service to the forces of truth! …Taking the outside view, it’s good for people to be embarrassed when they’re wrong. In the same way that, taking the outside view, it’s good for poor capital allocators to have less capital… And that’s the only way for humanity to collectively clear out obsolete ideas so we can advance our collective understanding of the world. [emphasis mine]

And so I find this all to be a breath of fresh air, and a welcome change of pace from my own neurotic pursuit of nuance. Arrogance is not always a sin, and humility not always a virtue.

But keep in mind, there is a real downside to working without established standards. Here was Caleb Watney’s reply to my rebuttal of his earlier post:

Part of this I take seriously… I agree we can’t declare “The Great Stagnation is over”*, we need much more rigorous empirical work (and just to wait and see what happens!) before we say that.

But when the Great Stagnation is over, the first sign will be a series of anecdotes! How could it be anything but?

That’s a great question! Of course it will be a series of anecdotes, and of course we will attempt to string those together to tell a compelling narrative.

But the problem with anecdotes isn’t that they’re merely directionally (rather than conclusively) true, the problem is that they can be used to support an arbitrary number of claims, and thus fail as a mechanism for resolving disagreements. Caleb can say that some good things are happening, I can say that various other bad things are happening, and at the end of the day, we haven’t really gotten anywhere.

That’s not to say that this writing is without merit. I have done my fair share of anecdote peddling, often with only mild dedication to historical accuracy.

So where do we go from here? I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been given it serious thought during my hiatus. Over the next few posts, I’ll work to establish the stakes, share some helpful context, and provide directions for future work for Progress Studies.