Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Social Scientism

"Our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound," says Jim Manzi — What Social Science Does—and Doesn’t—Know. The author observes, "Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including the impact of proposed government programs."

[link via Steve Sailer's iSteve Blog]

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5 Comments:

Blogger kushibo said...

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12:22 AM  
Blogger kushibo said...

Kind of a silly article. He's wrong in that social science does not use controlled experimentation — massive amounts of data hitherto not available, such as the American Community Survey, make counter proposals easier to check.

He also appears to overstate the successes of harder sciences like biology when they, too, are applied directly to the human condition, as they are with medicine.

As with so many other fields, the more macro you go, the easier it is to accurately predict a macro trend, like cells in a petri dish responding to a medicine, molecules combining to turn into some new molecule and a byproduct, etc., etc. But the more micro you go, when you start to deal with small numbers of individuals, then you start to see much less success and even the cropping up of question marks. What event(s) caused this community to fall into socioeconomic chaos while the one down the road succeeded? Why did this medicine that worked on others not work on this guy?, etc., etc.

If chemists, for example, were forced to go to the individual molecule level and predict which reagents would form the new substance and which would revert back, they would have far less success than with their uber-macro (moles and moles of things) predictions.

A single mole is 6.02x10^23 things. That almost 100,000,000,000,000 times the number of people on Earth! Predicting gets quite easy at such an uber-macro level.

12:22 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Not at all silly. Mathematician John Allen Paulos has noted that the study of humans is beyond the "complexity hoizon." A vindication, if anything, of the Humanities, which have, since the era of positivism, surrendered to the Natural Sciences. Let us not forget that the Liberal Arts, with Theology as their Queen, once reigned supreme over mere Natural Philosophy, i.e. Science.

12:51 AM  
Blogger kushibo said...

The Paulos comment just furthers my point. Manzi lumped biology with the supposed success of the so-called hard sciences, when its human manifestation is very clearly part of the study of human complexity and thus fraught with failure.

Were Manzi to take the same harsh light and objectively apply it to biochemistry, biology, medicine, etc., he'd find he overestimated the efficacy of the hard sciences.

1:02 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I'd agree about Medicine*, but having some advanced exposure to Biology, Biochemistry, Bioinformatics, et al., I have to disagree about these hard sciences. But then again, the more intelligent scientists I've known among them acknowledge that the more we know, the less we know.

* I believe it was the head of the Columbia School of Medicine who wisely noted to incoming students that half of what they would learn was false; the problem was which half was still unknown.

1:12 AM  

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