At about the same moment I was reading David Brooks’s third “Social Science Palooza,” which is a summary of some recent, interesting findings in the study of human behavior, I received in my inbox the following letter from FPR’s good friend, Ken Bickford of New Orleans:


I want to thank Prof. Danilo Petranovich of Yale for calling my attention to this very interesting video.  It’s entitled “Science, Knowledge and Freedom,” and it is a discussion on a recently published book by Jim Manzi and hosted by our friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard.

The first thirty-five minutes will give you the gist of Manzi’s thesis, which is something most of us already know:  There ain’t much science in the social sciences—at least not enough so that one should feel any great confidence when launching new and massive policy solutions for “the people.”  I find it interesting that the discussants (which include political scientists, anthropologists, economists and experimental physicists, to name a few) seem to miss what for me is an interesting point:

At the experimental level, every carbon atom is exactly like every other carbon atom, whereas every human is exactly unlike every other human.

Manzi doesn’t articulate his unease in this way, but he does suggest the necessity of humility in approaching policies economic and political—a humility that, I need not remind you, is fairly non-existent on either side of the political aisle.

If you last through some of the questions—starting at around thirty-five minutes—you’ll be struck by how much the anthropologists and physicists in the room seem to disregard Manzi’s point about the limitations of the scientific method in making predictions about the human person.  Some of the discussants suggest that larger sample sizes are what’s needed—then we’ll know.  Manzi’s counsel for humility does not seem to have gained much traction with some of the very smart people in the room.

Humility was, as you all know, Socrates’ claim on wisdom.  Having interviewed a man reputed to be very wise, and having found him wanting in that regard, Socrates remarked “So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows.”

We are chock-a-block awash in people who know nothing and think otherwise.  And all too many of these folks are writing policy.

Contrast Socrates’ humility-laden disposition with that of Harold Ordway Rugg, the following quote being taken from the article Abolish Social Studies by Michael Knox Beran:

Like Counts, Rugg, a Teachers College professor and cofounder of the National Council for the Social Studies, believed that the American economy was flawed because it was “utterly undesigned and uncontrolled.” In his 1933 book The Great Technology, he called for the “social reconstruction” and “scientific design” of the economy, arguing that it was “now axiomatic that the production and distribution of goods can no longer be left to the vagaries of chance—specifically to the unbridled competitions of self-aggrandizing human nature.” There “must be central control and supervision of the entire [economic] plant” by “trained and experienced technical personnel.” At the same time, he argued, the new social order must “socialize the vast proportion” of wealth and outlaw the activities of “middlemen” who didn’t contribute to the “production of true value.”

“Trained and experienced personnel” are all we need.  Problem solved.

What this country needs is a good Josef Stalin.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that we should confuse David Brooks and Josef Stalin.  What I find worrisome, however, is that amid Brooks’s bald listing of findings, stated as if they were truths of phyics and mathematics, is the passing disclaimer at the end of Brooks’s article stating “It’s always worth emphasizing that no one study is dispositive. Many, many studies do not replicate.”  Yet, when the modern human is presented with such findings, conditioned as we are to defer to scientific authority, there is the tendency to regard them precisely as dispositive and, further, to gain confidence in our ability to use such findings to order and organize human society.  The basic operating assumption of our current regime is that the behavior of human beings is as predictable as that of carbon atoms.  If they are not, then we are basing policy on sham science, and more, on the theory that humans are not free.  It is an odd conclusion in a nation devoted to the belief in the emancipation humanity through the expansion of scientific mastery.

h/t Kenneth W. Bickford, via Danillo Petranovich

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  1. This is a fascinating topic. I think there may be a middle position between social science as the guider and ruler and all and the social science is a bunch of bunk position.

    MacIntyre et al in their criticisms of social science and “expertise” are one hundred percent correct that human behavior does not admit of “law like” generalizations. On the other hand, social science can provide useful information to inform moral decision making. The social is itself not normative, but can assist the decision maker in his enterprise.

    Social Science can show us human tendencies, reinforcing what we might call “common sense.” Social science however cannot function and would over state its competence in a major way if it sought to establish itself as the all knowing guide to the human endeavor.

  2. Flat Head offers a balanced view here, especially when he/she talks about “human tendencies.” Tendencies, of course, can come in different shades and sizes, not all good. But “free beings” always find themselves in social contexts and subject to internal/external “forces” to one degree or another. Nice to know what’s going on around you so you can navigate a bit better. Helps to get clear on your own moral/spiritual values so you can sort out your responses to “social pressure” a bit more. Strange to see so many acting (unconsciously?) at odds with their own stated values. For example, many Christians are ardent about their own “personal relationship with Jesus” but live consumerist obsessed lives; or they carry around Bibles urging care and compassion for the poor and yet tend to see strugglers of all sorts (economic being just one) as “losers” who deserve contempt for not “taking care of themselves.” They sometimes only get their “eye opener” when they lose a job or get dangerously sick or have an accident and find themselves on the other side of the “loser” line.

  3. Dostoevsky is instructive here, esp. Notes From Underground and Demons. Any movement towards building a society based on “rational egoism” will end ultimately in tyranny.

    As Patrick Henry Reardon says, “If physics is the only area of cognitive meaning, then all meaning is physical, including the very proposition that all meaning is physical. All thought is simply a physical exercise, which means that thought itself must follow physical laws. And since physical laws are determining laws, all knowledge is necessarily determined; therefore, there can be no certainty about the truth value of any proposition whatever, even the proposition that makes this assertion.”

    Apply this to human behavior/morality, and human freedom, including any constitutional freedom, becomes a charade.

  4. Professor Deneen, excellent article (and video).
    The way I explain this to my students is, “Imagine what chemistry would be like if hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms interacted chaotically. Sometimes they make water. But on other occasions, they combine to form iron. Sometimes they don’t interact at all. Imagine chemistry under such conditions.” This is what “social scientists” face. Sometimes France and Germany interact by going to war against each other. On other occasions, they interact by forming the beginnings of the EU. Go figure. Humility is the order of the day.

  5. This is the thing about Mr. Brooks, because he is affable and phrases cogent points, the average reader never discerns that he flummoxes the summary point with near 100% success. But then, he is not alone. The entire punditocracy is lost on a high financed Snipe Hunt with those who finance them chuckling like idiots in the background. Needless to say, the same malevolent sorts who fund the pundits fund our elections and so, its all essentially an elaborate joke.

    Unfortunately, we must live within this life.

  6. Here’s a fuller quote of what our pal, Dave Brooks, says by way of summing up: “It’s always worth emphasizing that no one study is dispositive. Many, many studies do not replicate. Still, these sorts of studies do remind us that we are influenced by a thousand breezes permeating the unconscious layers of our minds.” Bland as these words are, they don’t exactly suggest that the list of “facts” represents “the truths of physics and mathematics.” Yep, lots of little forces pushing at us on all sides, sort of like the school-yard bullies and “mean girls” we had to deal with in elementary school. But a “thousand breezes” don’t exactly add up to iron-clad, predictable, controllable scientific laws. Some serious overstatement going on here. Mr. Sabin wins the award for cramming an amazing number of words like “never,” “all,” and “entire,” into a brief paragraph. Probably should cut him some slack though, since he manages to get in words like “near” and “essentially” to temper things a little bit. Or perhaps we should read this as merely a little after-dinner blowing off steam, in which case I need to lighten up and enjoy the show.

  7. Charles,
    Yes, quite right – and, lest there be any confusion, I wasn’t really directing my concerns toward David Brooks, as using his piece as a point of departure. My concern lies equally with my “fellow” social scientists, who believe that they are in the business of discerning human behavior to the point where it can be reliably predicted, and those in the political realm who treat social scientific data as if it were holy writ, or more accurately, settled science.

  8. Patrick, nicely put. Would like to think “social science” has matured a bit beyond the euphoria of a Harold Rugg and other pioneers in that field. But maybe not. The policy implications bother me far more than whatever social scientists say and write in their “learned” journals. Thanks for probing comments and questions.

  9. E.W. Dijkstra, professor of Computer Science from Austin Texas, was noted as having been critical of the euphoria surrounding his own field. His argument was that this was also true of currently respectable sciences in the past: that medicine was obsessed with the quackery of pursuing the elixir of life, chemistry with the alchemical obsession of transmuting base metals to gold, and astronomy and physics with the nonsense that the movement of the stars could tell the future in human affairs.
    Eventually learned people were able to distinguish between the real science and wishful thinking, but it took some time for the distinction to be widely accepted. Both the social and computing sciences are relatively young, so it is expected that they will encounter similar growing pains. With my own discipline (computing) one key instance of wishful thinking was the artificial replication of human consciousness (and hence the removal of any need for natural human judgment). In the case of the social sciences, the wishful thinking appears to be the notion that we can engineer human society.
    I think that those of us who work in these young sciences (I work in the computing sciences) are actually very fortunate to be living in at such a time as this, when (minority) voices from within the community are calling for professional humility and a refocusing of the professional vision. I see the new vision for computer sciences as being one of enhancing human judgment in particular scenarios, rather than replacing it wholesale. I am curious as to what the social scientists among us would articulate their new vision for their discipline would be.

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