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