Monday, April 1, 2013

Wondering whether the social sciences are forever stuffed

(Warning: this post is written after a glass or two of wine and is about the things that concern me after a glass or two of wine. It is not about investment.)

Brian Cox (read one of his books if you want some light amusement) pointed me (via Twitter) to this abominable article in the The Times Higher Education Supplement. It is quoting an Belfast Professor arguing for a "values based" higher education in the social sciences. To quote:
“At the back of all this is my vision for the public responsibility of social science: we’re about educating global citizens for the 21st century, not just factory-like graduates with their 2:1s,” Professor Brewer said. “It’s about inculcating within our students a set of values, an attitude towards others, that realises the public value.”
The Professor (John Brewer) is aware of the obvious criticism... to quote the Times article...

Although he is well aware that many people would like to remove all talk of “values” from the social sciences, Professor Brewer said he sees himself instead in the tradition of 18th-century Scottish moralists such as Adam Smith and David Hume - “the cohort of people who gave us social science in the first place as it grew out of moral philosophy. They did not see any incompatibility between their practice as scientists and their argument that society was based on values.”
Professor Brewer tells us that David Hume - of all people - did not see any incompatibility with his practice as scientists and his argument that society was based on values. Well - only if you ignore the fact that he wrestled with it extensively. This is probably the single most famous paragraph ever written by David Hume:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”
Hume here is quoted as "the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relationship of objects, nor is it perceiv'd by reason".

Hume had plenty of ideas of where morality comes from but they were incompatible with the practice of a scientist no matter what John Brewer says.

John Brewer - and his attitudes - are precisely what make the social sciences useless. The social sciences can work on some entirely useful facts - and these facts can inform decision making independent of values. Try these for size for recent important arguments:

(a). Did Saddam Hussein in any way contribute to the 9/11 events.

(b). Does the Chinese political system preclude any deal including China on global warming? If so what deal?

(c). Would further regulation of semi-automatic weapons in the US actually reduce the chance of a Sandy Hook like event or are the guns irrevocably in circulation such that this regulation would not make people safer.

(d). Would a three trillion dollar expansion in the US Government debt funded entirely by expanding the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve increase inflation substantially? If so by how much?

(e). Would reducing the penalty for illegal drugs - especially cocaine - reduce violence in Mexico and ultimately would it reduce the illegal immigration pressure on the US-Mexico boarder?

All of these are questions that might concern social scientists (including economists) and in every case people who start with prior ideological commitment (an "ought statement") to one or other position disqualify themselves from the debate. If you don't start by thinking you might be wrong you are far more likely to be wrong. Being guided here by ideology (or the belief in God or John Brewer's values) will make you intellectually useless. Whether printing more money (d) increases inflation is a simple fact - and if you thought it did you might have made your bet and lost considerably...

But hey then - I should not be concerned about a(nother) generation of intellectually useless social scientists and mad classics professors coming out of the British schools. The people who think that Ernest Rutherford was not an intellectual make great trading counter-parties. The best people to trade against are people who do not devise tests for their ideas - whether the tests are as simple as chatting to a few Herbalife distributors or putting a profile up on a Cupid PLC owned dating site.

So - selfishly - I want to wish John Brewer and his ilk the best at destroying the minds of a generation. I only wish he taught at Oxbridge or Harvard (not some Belfast school) as it seems to be Oxbridge and Harvard types I trade against.



Anonymous said...

One of your weakest posts.

If you do not have any a priori "oughts", then why do you care whether violence in mexico goes up, down or stays the same? Why even bother with the problem at all, as opposed to, say, how to beat three linked pawns with a rook in chess endings?

srp said...

You should note that Brewer's view is opposed by most social scientists, especially economists (of the international research variety) and political scientists. Hume's guillotine is there taken as gospel. Many introductory econ textbooks have explicit passages on the difference between positive and normative analyses.

This positivist tendency among the higher-status members of the social sciences infuriates people like Brewer who would rather spend their days debating others' morality than developing and testing interesting positive propositions.

gv said...

I've always found it interesting how people who become very successful, skillful and respected in one area, start to believe their capabilities extend to all areas.
Moreover it strikes me how their opinions are built on generalizations.
A lifetime study to achieve excellence in finance and a couple of books on social science = equal knowledge

John Hempton said...


Its not as if after a whack of training in economics and a LOT of experimenting in finance I do not have a right to talk about experiment, falsification and the like.

If you make up your theories the market will thump you.

If however you do it in some Belfast university you might just get called Prof.


Anonymous said...

Science has a very simple definition - devising ways to invalidate an idea (to show how useful the idea is).

Anything with "ought" or "ought not" is not science by definition - it could be of course be philosophy (which due to a historical accident gets to be classed as science, but is not, in the same way as philosophy was classified as teology at one point but isn't), but that's a different thing.

dearieme said...

" Many introductory econ textbooks have explicit passages on the difference between positive and normative analyses."

What a lousy choice of epithets "positive" and "normative" were.

bjdubbs said...

Or the fastest route through Sandy Hook to kill the maximum number of children. But hey, that's just me! What John's proposing is really a social engineering, to find the best way to implement his preferred menu of values.

srp said...

"What a lousy choice of epithets 'positive' and 'normative' were."

With civilians I usually use "descriptive" and "prescriptive."

The thing is, you can make scientific prescriptive statements, but you have to respect Hume's argument. These are hypothetical rather than categorical imperatives, e.g. "If you want to minimize inventory costs, the optimal ordering rule is x" does no violence to logic. On the other hand, "Inventory costs ought to be minimized" would indeed do violence to logic unless a bunch of implicit "If you want to" clauses were assumed.

Kien said...

I wouldn't have thought it is the role of a social scientist to inculcate values. But I do see a role in uncovering implicit values and subjecting them to public scrutiny (as Amartya Sen would say). If u agree that values. An be subject to public scrutiny, then there must be an objective basis for that scrutiny. In physical science, the objective basis is the physical world. In social science, the objective basis is Adam Smith's "impartial spectator", or John Rawls' "veil of ignorance", or even the Hebrew prophets' notion of a transcendent Creator. In each case, the objectivity lies with some benchmark that is external to the community whose values are being scrutinised. Amartya Sen has written comprehensively about this in "The Idea of Justice".

A practical example is the debate among economists about what discount rate should be used to weight the well being of future generations in the context of climate change policy. A lot of economists assume that the observed cost of capital in debt and equity markets is the relevant discount rate. This assumption has been subject to public scrutiny by other economists.

Anonymous said...

The question of values and the questions of social sciences are skew. They don't intersect. Social science may tell us how things are. Values tell us how we'd like them to be. We need both: values to know our goals, and science to supply an understanding and tools.

No, I wouldn't want a social scientist to get hung up on values in the sense of, say, the Communists, who had certain ideas of how the world ought to be, and consequently hamstrung a lot of scientific research when it was pointing in the wrong direction. When a social science says that, to use your example, expanding the debt increases inflation, then the correct response is not, "no it doesn't because I don't like that," but it needs to be, "what is the benefit gained by the increase in inflation, and does the benefit outweigh the disadvantages." That question has to be answered in terms of values, since most of the benefits and disadvantages we're talking about are not commensurable in dollars and cents.

Anonymous said...

John, i hate to have to remind you that a belief in the utility rationality, scientific testing, logical positivism (and the like) is itself a form of value judgement, a value judgement that has become so dominant in Western societies since the Enlightenment that it took the likes of Foucault and Derrida to deconstruct that which we take for granted.

John Hempton said...

OH BS. It took Foucault and Derrida to prove that the French could be idiots.

And it took Andy Sokal to make me laugh.


Anonymous said...

Wow, pretty disappointing. I seriously doubt that you ever actually read constructivist lit. Either way, you example questions also demonstrate that you may not actually understand what social scientists do either (if you can't test your idea, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be interested in the topic). As mentioned already, you also make several value judgements of your own (what is intellectually worthwhile, that social scientists are guided by ideology, etc.).

If you want to actually understand epistemology, economics is probably the worst place to start as their views are pretty much a throwback to the 1960s. There are obviously lots of books on epistemology but international relations tends to be the area with the most sophisticated application of the ideas.

You have proved your ability to construct strawmen arguments though. I would say that very few people either hold your view or the view you attribute to other people.

deepsquareleg said...

John, maaate,

I have to agree with previous comments - a really weak and disappointing post.

The "BS" comment - you are digging an even bigger hole for yourself. You really don't seem to 'get' this at all.

Shorewalker said...

"... A belief in the utility rationality, scientific testing, logical positivism (and the like) is itself a form of value judgement, a value judgement that has become so dominant in Western societies since the Enlightenment that it took the likes of Foucault and Derrida to deconstruct that which we take for granted."

Many people who are sceptical of post-modern social science accept the idea that beliefs such as the usefulness of scientific testing contain embedded value-judgments and value-implications. I do now sometimes chuckle at the sight of people reading post-modern philosophy and deciding that these guys uncovered what everyone else had misssed: that there are value-judgments embedded in everything we do. Transforming that idea into the central principle of philosophy makes many postmodern thinkers slightly laughable, as Alan Sokal so eloquently pointed out.

I say this after some years spent clumsily trying to extract the valuable insights from the works of people like Foucault.

srp said...

Larry Laudan is a breath of fresh air on the somewhat tired debate about positivism, in that he points out the common (and unjustified) assumptions of both positivists and anti-positivists. But Brewer doesn't even rise to the level of the lowest form of pomo, relativist anti-positivism. He wants academics to be preachers and scolds, not scholars and scientists.

Peter Rickwood said...

Anonymous said...
John, i hate to have to remind you that a belief in the utility rationality, scientific testing, logical positivism (and the like) is itself a form of value judgement

This is beside the point. Yes, we all have values and beliefs. These beliefs may be in rationality, fairies, or moons made of cheese. The crucial question is how you test your beliefs.

Science is not value free, but scientific theories make statements/predictions about the real world and tests those theories empirically.

Social scientists do not generally do this.

Economics should do this, but imho has lost the plot precisely because it has become normative. The current crisis in economics has highlighted how detached from empiricism economics has become. This is the inevitable consequence of prizing complicated theoretical work over empirical work.

In general, agree with John on this one.

Anonymous said...

You need to read Binmore - Natural Justice!
Keep up the good work John

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