Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's Wrong with the Social Sciences?

Where Was Our Demosthenes?

Since the 19th century, democracies have put increasing faith in the social sciences to help formulate public policy. Leaders and administrators draw from diverse academic fields -- economics, political science, international relations, sociology, anthropology, social history, geography, psychology, legal studies, business administration -- whose methods explain and predict patterns of behavior in human populations.

There is much to commend the social sciences. I value my training in the social sciences. As a historian and commentator, I honor Adolphe Quetelet's stunning discovery that much human behavior can be described by the bell curve. Yet during the last century, when democracies have been bullish on the social sciences, its practitioners have failed to see some of the most dramatic storms on the horizon. Consider how the status quo was suddenly upset by the following events, not one of which was forecast by an appreciable number of social scientists:

  1. The outbreak of the First World War after a century of relative peace in Europe.
  2. The Stock Market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
  3. Nazi rearmament and the outbreak of World War II in the 1930s.
  4. The achievements of the Civil Rights movement and President Johnson's Great Society were to end the most dire effects of poverty and give hope to citizens in our inner cities. Yet between 1965-68 America's inner cities exploded with rage.
  5. There was the first OPEC embargo in 1973, which sent the West into a panic.
  6. Also in the 1970s, modernization theory told us we lived in an increasingly secular age in which religion would become attenuated as a social force. Yet in 1976 a new voice arose in American politics, that of evangelical Christianity, whose civic engagement helped elect Jimmy Carter in '76 and Ronald Reagan in '80 and '84. (Remember the Moral Majority?) Even as late as 2004, George W. Bush's surge in the last week of the campaign was attributed to evangelicals. Few social scientists saw any of this coming.
  7. The developing world was also supposed to be modernizing and secularizing after World War II. But then in 1979 the Iranian Revolution erupted, and all of a sudden Islam re-emerged as a world-historic force with which to reckon. Few social scientists saw it coming.
  8. It was not just the reassertion of religion in geopolitics that went missing on radar screens. Back during the Reagan years the U.S.S.R. was supposedly here to stay. Our nation was spending $30 billion annually in universities, government intelligence agencies, think tanks, and exchange programs to understand Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yet the rapidity with which the Berlin Wall fell on 11/9 surprised everyone, social scientists included. Prior to the autumn of 1989, hardly anyone predicted that the U.S.S.R. would end up on the ash heap of history (President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn excepted). Why didn't the experts have a clue?
  9. Before December 2007, where were economists to warn us about toxic mortgages and bundling? Why didn't more experts see the Great Recession coming and how severe it would be?
  10. Prior to January 2011, no one seemed aware that Egypt -- our "cornerstone of stability and security in the Middle East," according to Secretary of State Clinton -- was on the verge of exploding. Yet explode it did. Few experts saw it coming.
Besides posing the obvious question -- Where was our Demosthenes when we needed him? -- these ten examples raise a host of philosophical issues. To what degree is scientific knowledge of society possible? In what ways are the social sciences predictive? When it comes to public policy, should the social sciences ever supplant the humanities or ignore the historical record?

Such questions were almost unthinkable when I was an undergrad. Back in the 1970s, I was taught that the social sciences had more cache than narrative histories because they were predictive; human behavior could be plotted on a bell curve. In grad school in the 1980s, most of my profs marched to the same drumbeat, arguing that history was better when informed by the methods of the social sciences than by those of the humanities; cliometrics uncovered patterns that had greater analytical and descriptive power than, say, biography or Thucydides.

I do not doubt the efficacy of bell curves, cliometrics, and compelling social scientific methods that have been developed over the last two centuries. Great analytical and predictive powers can be claimed on their behalf. And yet, very few smart people in the social sciences predicted some of the most defining events of our recent past.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on 11/9/89, social scientists began seriously debating the limits of social science. Clearly social science did not turn out to be the "social physics" that Auguste Comte hoped. Nor was it the "religion of prediction," as one headline put it. Immanuel Wallerstein aired his personal revaluation in a provocatively titled book, Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms, which is now in its second edition and regarded as the classic treatment of these questions. The classicist W. R. Connor also ruminates wisely on the limits of social science in his article, "Why Were We Surprised?" (American Scholar, 2001).

What's wrong with social science? Nothing -- so long as the experts acknowledge, and the public knows, its limits.

Perhaps the humanities, without gloating, can reinforce the sense of humility. Not that the humanities have been any better than the social sciences at predicting the big surprises of the last 100 years. But the humanities do have a way of making us humble before the mystery of existence.

I'd offer that the humanities should have a place at democracy's table, alongside the social sciences, when leaders and the public are weighing big decisions. Narrative history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, and myth -- they are as relevant as ever. For the humanities shove us out of our comfort zone into the mystery, variety, and unpredictability of the human condition -- the exact opposite of what social science tries to do in tracing the patterns, consistency, and predictability of human behavior.

Also consider the study of the classics, or the history of distant peoples, or any modern foreign language. These disciplines require students to master much different viewpoints from what is ordinary and familiar. Mastery of a "foreign" viewpoint with a different grammar and different cultural rules is invaluable training for citizen-leaders who must work in a global economy and empire.

Narrative history also offers valuable training. It does not presume to be predictive in the way the social sciences are. It recognizes, as Philip Tetlock has quipped, that "there are no control groups in history." But deep reading in the past helps us appreciate the wild card that can suddenly appear in the course of human events. History conditions us to anticipate storms gathering on the horizon if not predict the hour of their arrival. History's emotionally powerful stories describe the human personality in its mystery, the human will in its inscrutability, and human action in its unfathomable possibilities. Indeed, good history reveals how unpredictable life can be. It makes readers alive to the power of emotion, loyalty, and love (all four kinds) in human affairs. It shows how unforeseen crises develop when historical processes are unexpectedly interrupted or accelerated. History teaches us that crisis arises out of the raw material of human nature, and no bell curve can quite catch it. Herodotus and Thucydides, Plutarch and St. Augustine -- they give us a different way of looking at our world, one that is every bit as compelling as that of the social scientists. Can we recognize ourselves in the mirror and the lamp they raise before us?

If there is any "soft pattern" in the human condition, then the humanities help us recognize at least two of its sources. One "soft pattern" arises from the relative constancy of human nature: People who face similar conditions tend to act in similar ways. It's why historians search out analogies linking different events. The other "soft pattern," ironically, is that there are few soft patterns in history. Big Surprises come when people least expect them. The wild card appears with enough regularity to keep us humble. The social sciences alone are not the answer. Nor are the humanities alone the answer. The best education for leaders and the public is the "both-and," not the "either-or," approach to the study of human beings. Both the social sciences and the humanities help us get a better grasp on our world.

Leaders are probably more effective when they know the social sciences and statistics. For example, baseball team owners and managers who make room for perceptive and creative sabermetricians -- the guys who crunch baseball statistics -- tend to do better than owners and managers who do not. The Tampa Bay Rays swear by sabermetrics, and the results show.

No question: Leaders are hopefully more ethical when they understand the complexity of the human condition, are practiced at comprehending different viewpoints, and have experience finding solutions to problems for which there are no formulas.

By way of concluding, consider the findings of Philip Tetlock who engaged in
"a long-term research project now 18 years old to examine in detail the outcomes of expert political forecasts about international affairs. He studied the aggregate accuracy of 284 experts making 28,000 forecasts, looking for pattern in their comparative success rates. Most of the findings were negative— conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists. Only one pattern emerged consistently.

“How you think matters more than what you think.

"It’s a matter of judgment style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: 'The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.' The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events....

"Bottom line: The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong."

1 comment:

  1. I broadly agree with the intent of this post but with my own however:

    "Bottom line: The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right *[more often]* about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong."