Let’s Abolish Social Science

A proposal for the new university


The mascot for New University: the science/humanities Pushmi-Pullyu

In my old age, I hope to found a new university, called rather unimaginatively the New University, with funding from one or another imprudent billionaire (a prudent billionaire would turn me down). In contemporary universities and colleges there is often a division among the natural sciences, social science and humanities. In my New University, there would be only two faculties: natural sciences and the humanities. The social sciences would be abolished.

Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century. Auguste Comte formulated a Religion of Humanity based on “the positive philosophy” or Positivism. Karl Marx went to his grave convinced that his discovery of laws of history had made him the Darwin or Newton of social science.

Positivism mercifully had little political influence, except in 19th-century Brazil, to which it contributed the national motto “Order and Progress.” In the 20th century Marxism split between a revisionist branch which became indistinguishable from welfare-state capitalism and communist totalitarianism, which survives in pure form today only in North Korea, and from the devastating effects of which Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and other countries are slowly recovering.

By the mid-20th century, the utopian fervor that had inspired earlier attempts at comprehensive sciences of society had burned out. But within post-1945 Anglo-American academic culture, more than in continental Europe, the ambition to emulate the methods of the physical sciences in the study of human beings persisted.

Economics, for example, grew ever more pseudoscientific in the course of the 20th century. Before World War II, economics — the field which had replaced the older “political economy” — was contested between neoclassical economics, which sought to model the economy with the methods of physics, and the much more sensible and empirically-oriented school of institutional economics. Another name for institutional economics was the Historical School. After 1945, the institutional economics associated in the U.S. with John Kenneth Galbraith was purged from American economics faculties, in favor of the “freshwater” (Chicago) and “saltwater” (MIT) versions of mathematical economics, which focused on trying to model the economy using equations as though it were a fluid or a gas.

While “physics envy” has been most pronounced and destructive in economics, pseudoscience has infected other disciplines that study human behavior as well. The very term “political science” betrays an ambition to create a study of politics and government and world politics that will be a genuine science like physics, chemistry or biology.

In the late 20th century, an approach called “Rational Choice” spread through American political science departments like oak blight through a forest. The method (or, to use the ugly word preferred by pseudoscientists, the “methodology”) of Rat Choice, as this school is known to its detractors, was borrowed from pseudoscientific neoclassical economics. Culture and institutions were downplayed, in favor of attempts to explain political outcomes in terms of the strategic self-interest of rational individuals.

While studies of domestic politics have been damaged by Rat Choice, the field of political science I know best, International Relations, has been warped by a different kind of pseudoscience. Much of the discipline has adopted the approach to the scientific method of the late Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian émigré who sought to provide an approach to scientific reasoning that would be an alternative to the explanations of the scientific method by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, among others. Lakatos, who died in 1974, was a mathematician and physicist, and might have been surprised and dismayed by some of the uses to which his thinking has been put. Stilted and ritualized language about “Lakatosian scientific research programs” mars the published work of many otherwise thoughtful and insightful IR scholars.

I once asked a leading American IR theorist who had become a major figure in a presidential administration if any IR theories — including those of the sub-school that he led — had ever come up in discussions within the government about foreign policy. “Not once,” he said.

You might think that the ancient humanist discipline of law would be more resistant than others to pseudoscience — and you would be right. Still, legal theorists afflicted with physics envy and economics envy have made attempts to turn law into a social science. The most important was the late 20th century “law and economics” movement.

Within the academy, a growing number of scholars are speaking out against the degeneration of social science disciplines into pseudoscience and scholasticism. In a recent essay, “Breaking Discipline and Closing Gaps? — the State of International Relations Education,” Francis J. Gavin of the MIT Political Science department laments the state of his discipline and adds: “It is important to recognize that these concerns are not limited to any one discipline: Sociology, for example, has struggled with these issues, while my own discipline, diplomatic history, has almost completely abandoned any effort to contribute to serious discussion of national and international security. Nor is it clear what constitutes success. Economics graduate training is plagued by (and arguably responsible for) many similar pathologies, yet it has, albeit controversially, much influence in the policy world.” Gavin notes the trend toward reorienting IR scholarship toward policy relevance and accessibility to policymakers, manifested by efforts such as American University’s Bridging the Gap project and interdisciplinary studies programs at many campuses.

In 2000, students in France disgusted with otherworldly equation-building rebelled and established the Post-Autistic Economics (PAE) movement. The movement spread across the Atlantic and its name was changed to the Real-World Economics movement, because comparing them to neoclassical economists was insulting to autistic people.

In economics, there is a growing reaction against what Noah Smith calls “mathiness.” New organizations, like the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and Erik Reinert’s Other Canon foundation, and new publications, like the Real-World Economics Review, are enlivening the dismal science with heterodoxy and a renewed interest in the world beyond the blackboard. Ha-Jon Chang among others has revived economic history, a discipline that declined during the decades when economics became fake physics.

In my New University economics, political science and law will be part of the humanities, studied by humanist methods, supplemented, when it is appropriate, by statistics and other useful mathematical tools.

The difference between the natural sciences and the humanities is the difference between motion and motive. Laws of motion can explain the trajectories of asteroids and atoms. The trajectories of human beings, like those of any animals with some degree of sentience, are explained by motives. Asteroids and atoms go where they have to go. Human beings go where they want to go.

Asteroids and atoms go where they have to go. Human beings go where they want to go.

If you want to stimulate the economy, you can cut taxes and hope that individuals will spend the money on consumption. But they may hoard it instead. Such uncertainty does not exist in the case of inanimate nature. If you drop a rock from a tall building, there is no chance that the rock will change its mind and go sideways, or retreat back to the top, instead of hitting the sidewalk.

All human studies are fundamentally branches of psychology. That is why the great German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey distinguished the Geisteswissenschaften — the spiritual or psychological sciences — from the Naturwissenschaften — the natural sciences.

Dilthey argued that the essential method in the human sciences or studies is Verstehen, “understanding” in the sense of insight based on imaginative identification with another person. If you want to understand why Napoleon invaded Russia, you have to put yourself in Napoleon’s place. You have to imagine that you are Napoleon and look at the world from his perspective at the moment of his decision. The skills that this exercise requires of the historian or political scientist are more akin to those of the novelist or dramatist than those of the mathematician or physicist. Hermeneutics — the interpretation of the words and deeds of human beings by other human beings on the basis of a shared human psychology — is the method of all human studies, not the scientific method, which is relevant only for the natural sciences.

“Macro effects” can also be explained without the need to posit pseudoscientific things like “social forces” comparable to physical forces like gravity or electricity. Unintended consequences — like depressions that are prolonged when everybody hoards money at the same time, or elections in which the division of the vote among many candidates ends up electing a politician whom most voters don’t want — are still the result of individual decisions, albeit individual decisions that interact in an unforeseen and counterproductive way. In most of these cases, the unintended results must be explained in terms of institutions — economic or electoral — that interact with individual motives in a way that cannot be explained if the institutions are ignored.

In my New University, the worthwhile scholarship found in modern-day economics, political science, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology and other contemporary social sciences will be separated from pseudoscience and incorporated into the new humanist disciplines. The faux-physics will be tossed out.

The distinction between the reorganized humanities and the traditional natural sciences will be strictly enforced. Any professor who explains anything in domestic politics or international affairs as the result of a Social Force will be summarily dismissed. The same fate will await any natural scientist who attributes motives to inanimate objects — for example, a geologist who explains that a volcano erupted because its long-simmering resentment finally boiled over into public anger.

Architectural styles and dress codes will be enlisted to further accentuate the distinction between the humanities and natural sciences. All human studies are historical sciences. To acknowledge this, the buildings of the Humanities departments on the campus of the New University will be constructed in an eclectic and somewhat repulsive mixture of historical styles — Greco-Roman classicism, traditional Chinese, Muslim, Gothic and Tiki Bar. The buildings that house the natural sciences will be ultra-modern glass and steel boxes. Humanists will be required to wear togas, scientists white lab coats.

As on a traditional campus, at the New University a spacious quad will divide the buildings of the humanists on one side from those of the natural scientists on the other. But the buildings in each row will turn their backs to the buildings of the faculty on the other side. To enter either row of faculty buildings, you will have to go around to the outward-facing facades. To symbolize the absence of methodological contamination, the interior quad will take the form of a moat, with a spiked palisade on each side. A few crocodiles might add some scenic interest.

I haven’t settled on a mascot for the New University yet. Obviously it would need to have two heads. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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44 Comments on "Let’s Abolish Social Science"

5 months 21 days ago

I’m totally on board with the eradication of social science dressed as discovery of universal laws, I find the separation of human and nature sciences a similar embarrassment. Both are products of divisive scientific thinking, which aims to categorize everything. What I find most interesting, and most insightful, are the bridges constructed by some brilliant interdisciplinary minds. People participate in nature, just as nature is influenced by people (and other sentient beings within it). To use climate change as a prominent example these days, how great would it be in this new university if there was a department called “Human-Climate Relations,” which drew together geological and social thought.

One more point I have to add: although touched on obliquely by way of Dilthey, Michael’s disregard of the robust critical and interpretive schools within social science is…awkward. The fact that many of these traditions include both models of “understanding” and “explanation” into their discourse (i.e., demonstrate effects on human-symbolic and natural-material worlds) seems to be lost on the premises of his argument. Then, of course, there are the eco- and cosmo-centric Indigenous traditions of knowledge that ground human understanding upon experience and collaboration with all life. Instead of founding a new university on the old love of compartmentalizing knowledge, maybe it could benefit from actually reimagining the relations between disciplines.

8 months 11 days ago

“I haven’t settled on a mascot for the New University yet. Obviously it would need to have two heads.”

Two headed hydra?

Or perhaps Janus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus

Yes, I think Janus would be perfect.

Grace Williams
8 months 12 days ago

This is a bit funny for me to read, as my studies of the environment are heavily dependent on both the scientific and humanities (as you would describe them) fields. Consider your case of the volcano – sure, it didn’t erupt because it got angry, but if you are looking at impacted populations (ie a consequence of the eruption analysed using scientific methods) your perspective is considerably narrowed if you are not at least roughly aware of social scientific principles of marginalization and unequal power. In many ways, because a disaster must impact humans to be classified that way, all disasters are political acts and can be studied within the “humanities”, but to try and study them without geology and atmospherics physics and oceanography is pretty absurd.

In short, while I agree that trying to insert the scientific method where it doesn’t belong is a bad idea, I think total division between the fields is a terrible one. And, I think also that the sciences could benefit from an insertion of humanities based critical thinking about their method, and a serious re-examination of the myth of objectivity. These two problems suggest to me that the real issue is the prioritizing of one kind of understanding (scientific) over another (that embraced by the humanities), which has led to a type of intellectual pollution of the non-scientific fields. While I agree this should be reduced, I think instead of artificially dividing them, we should be changing the power dynamic by prioritizing research in all fields including humanities methodologies and embracing intersections that arise.

8 months 18 days ago

People are made of matter, and so differ from asteroids in degree, not kind. It’s true that human systems are hard to predict, but so are climate systems and biological systems and lots of other stuff. All sciences should be evaluated based on their ability to understand, and more specifically, predict, and quantitative social sciences and the ‘laws’ they derive can be evaluated in this manner. If the laws offer no predictive capacity, toss them out and look for new laws.

Social sciences seem particularly hard since predicting individual behaviour is almost impossible. But then, predicting heart attacks is hard too. Most research in the medical sciences employs the same imperfect methodology that social scientists use. But both fields have _some_ predictive power that is sometimes useful. I can’t know for certain that your smoking will cause you lung cancer, but I am pretty certain that you are at greater risk than if you didn’t smoke. I can’t know for certain that living in a poor downtown neighbourhood will cause you to smoke, but I am pretty sure that people living in that neighbourhood are more likely to smoke than people living in well-to-do suburbs.

All science also needs to be scrutinized for utility, irrespective of predictive ability. And in this regard, I happen to think social science has similar value to natural science. Does humanity really benefit from sending a manned mission to Mars? Maybe, maybe not. We need to ask these questions of all sciences, not just social sciences. Maybe there is too much social science. Maybe there is too much zoology. But the social sciences are not fatally flawed, as Lind presumes, they are just really difficult.

8 months 18 days ago

Who would have guessed that the remedy for bad science was no science?

It’s hard to imagine there is much to be gained by the Social Sciences and Economics emulating Chemistry and Physics. The appropriate role models are Ecology and Evolution. Both are probabilistic approaches to explaining and predicting noisy, complex systems. Among other triumphs, their applications to medical science and epidemiology are why many of you are alive and reading this comment.

I make no quibble with the importance of history for the Social Sciences and Economics. Ecology and Evolution have been invigorated in the past two decades by incorporating historical contingency and phylogenetic inertia into their methods. I also share Mr. Lind’s scorn for meaningless explanations such as “social forces”, especially when tarted up with pseudoscientific gobbledygook and statistical tests.

Where Lind loses me in his leap to the conclusion that Social Sciences and Economics are inherently unscientific so let’s just forget about theory, modeling, verification and prediction. How about the opposite conclusion, that revelations of sloppy science are a call to arms? Why not strengthen teaching of the scientific method? Tighten standards of publication? Reviewers can and should ensure that the scientific method is used where appropriate (to evaluate a testable hypothesis) and not used when it is not (to provide a pseudoscientific sheen to untestable assertions). And when used, used right. Inappropriate scope of inference? Reject. Hypothesis not testable? Reject.

Lind’s list of reasons for throwing in the towel on Economics are particularly puzzling. Complexity and uncertainty? These are the meat and potatoes of Ecology and Evolution; why should they be poison to Economics? Unintended consequences? The failure of tax cuts to stimulate consumption during a recession is not an unintended consequence but rather a century-and-a-half-old prediction (thoeretical!) of John Maynard Keynes, one that has been tested and upheld multiple times, most notably during the Great Depression, but also during the post-2008 recovery (or not) in the US and Europe. Tax cuts as a recession-fighting tool is a delusion that exists only in the minds of politicians, their supporters, and a shrinking minority of supply-side economists who haven’t quite mastered the concept of evidence.

This is a bad time to be chucking the scientific method, just when some economists are finally discovering controlled randomized trials (“Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”, 2011, Banerjee & Duflo). Better late than never.