Monday, August 19, 2013

A Critique of the Social Sciences from the Inside

I had the opportunity to study political science at the University of Chicago, which is one of the birthplaces of the discipline. There my love for the social science was strengthened. While I did not share Paul Krugman's ambition to be the new Hari Seldon after reading the Foundation series, I was raised to care about politics and the interactions between human beings fascinate me.

This deep interest in the social sciences is at the core of my disappointment in general with the way these disciplines are taught, particularly economics. Having attached the word "science" has had all sort of negative consequences. That concept has been linked so heavily to the physical sciences, particularly chemistry and physics, that social scientists seem to be left ashamed at the fact that they generally can't speak with the same authority on the subject of how human interactions will work out that chemists can use when describing the interaction between two chemicals. And social scientists can't make predictions like the physical scientists can. These assumed shortcomings have led social scientists to attempt to make their disciplines as much as they can like the social sciences, including putting a heavy emphasis on mathematical models.

I am not saying here that its wrong for social scientists to make mathematical models. They can be immensely useful and powerful, but their usefulness in the social sciences, at least to this day, is limited by the reality that mathematics is the language of logic, while human actions are usually driven not by logic but emotion. The myth of Homo Economicus is a prime example. This way of conceptualizing humans does in fact have some usefulness, but only in certain limited contexts. People can behave like rational, self-interested actors, but generally only when interacting with strangers in a moment of mutual exchange. This might seem like it applies to all economic actions, but the operative word is stranger. If two individuals interacting are not strangers but in fact share some bond, then rational self-interests will not dominate the outcome of the exchange. People will bring in a host of others considerations into play, including maintaining the image they wish to project for the other participant. I consider the counterargument that such a relationship and the desires it causes can be subsumed into the subjective self-interest of the actors to be a cop-out. If 'rational' is reduced merely to what individuals can rationalize, not what in fact can be deduced logically, then it really loses all hope of having any relation to an empirical observation. People can rationalize killing another human being because of the color of the shirt they wore. It is likely possible to postulate a whole set of assumptions under which this would become a logical action, but those assumptions are clearly not universally shared. If everyone does not agree that 1=1, then trying to figure something out with mathematics becomes no different that trying to figure out something through a conversation in a spoken language.

To be scientists, social scientists must whenever possible, stick to an empirical view of their subjects, which are human beings. Human beings are large bipedal social apes that can communicate abstractions through language. That last bit allows them to manipulate the material world in ways that other apes (or animals) can't. Being social means that their place in the hierarchy is crucial to their overall success and thus relative status is a critical matter to these apes. Being large mammals means they can traverse large spaces but need lots of resources. They can consume varied diets and their tool making ability has allowed them to inhabit a large number of biomes. The job of the social scientists is to try to figure out the underlying patterns of their interactions, something that is impossible if we continue to avoid speaking about humans like what they are, instead of trying to make them into something they are not. Since the social scientists themselves are human, this tendency to elevate our species above its station is quite common, but it must be resisted, because otherwise we are ignoring the empirical evidence in front of our eyes, which is supposed to be the basis of all scientific inquiry.

If social scientists ever hope to be more like the physical scientists, then we need to stop ignoring the reality of what human beings are, instead of trying to create models based on what we already think human beings should be. Thankfully movements like behavioral economics are starting to travel that path, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

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