Why are the social sciences backward?

by on April 1, 2008 at 5:53 am in Science | Permalink

In a study of Gordon Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry (the full Tullock symposium is here), Bruce Cadwell writes:

Tullock next turns to what he considers to be the real reasons behind the backwardness of the social sciences, which in his view is due to differences in the social organization of natural versus social science. The first difference is the relative absence of applied research: because there is no way to patent applied research in the social sciences (He asks, for example, how does one patent a new sales technique?), little of it is done. But this means that, unlike the natural sciences, there are many fewer checks from the applied side on pure social science research (p. 149). Furthermore, the second motive for research, curiosity, is in the social sciences “likely to get distracted to essentially non-scientific ends.” This is because in the social sciences:

[TC: this is now Tullock]. . . there is a strong possibility of artistic distraction. Literature of all kinds is quite frequently based on careful observation of human beings. A large number of brilliant men led by their curiosity to study their fellow men have produced great literature instead of science (p. 151).

Tullock is responding to Mises and Hayek, who both thought that the social sciences were different because matters of human affairs are more complex and because of the subjective dimension of human choice and expectation (NB: the views of Mises and Hayek are not exactly the same and Hayek himself changed his position over time, laying greater stress on complexity rather than subjectivity). 

I would note, by the way, that while economics lags behind physics, we understand the economy better than we understand the human brain or for that matter the deep ocean.  I see complexity of the topic and accessibility to information as determining the progress of a science; I am not so far from Hayek’s view, although he underestimated how much progress quantitative and experimental economics could make.

It seems there were even ancient computers, not to mention advanced philosophy.  So the point remains: the absence of a developed economics until the mid-18th century remains a startling anomaly in the history of ideas.  Why was that?

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

1 michael vassar April 1, 2008 at 7:37 am

The absence of a mathematical treatment of statistics until the 19th century is even more shocking.

2 Johan Richter April 1, 2008 at 8:20 am

I don’t think the ancient “computer” was Turing-complete, (ie programmable) and thus not a real computer.

There is plenty of natural science that doesn’t have any applications, say in modern physics, and yet where we know a lot more than in say financial economics.

3 greatzamfir April 1, 2008 at 8:32 am

I don’t think it so remarkable that economics had no serious treatment before the 18th century. Such seemingly obvious subjects as biology, medicine and even history didn’t get a rigorous treatment before those days, at least from our point of view.

The examples you give, philosophy and astronomy (‘computer’ is really misleading), are remarkable because they got relatively advanced treatment from the earliest dates we have records of. They are the exceptions, not economics.

4 JH April 1, 2008 at 9:01 am

In most classical philosophy, earning a living is treated lower than leisure activities such as philosophy. I remember Cicero’s matter-of-fact method for becoming rich in De Officiis.

Smith’s classic examples are telling. He looks at guns and butter, water and diamonds, and pin factories and the butcher. Are such base things like really worthy of study by the best and brightest? Were such things of interest to the best and brightest?

5 Larry April 1, 2008 at 9:27 am

Perhaps it’s that those who were engaged in scientific work were less/not engaged in economic activities, and so weren’t attracted to understanding grubby merchants and moneylenders.

Also, economies were much simpler then, in the sense that most people were subsistence farmers and prosperity was much more a function of the harvest than of policy variables.

6 JasonL April 1, 2008 at 10:25 am

I don’t know if it’s the cart or the horse, but the incredible persistence of the notion that wealth = stuff in the ground seems to have been so obvious for so long that no ‘solution’ was needed. Need wealth? Dig. Or, better still, take what your neigbor dug up.

This only changed when the merchant class made everyone pay attention to what they were doing. Maybe merchant wealth was a security dividend? I dunno.Interesting to think about though.

7 Anonymous April 1, 2008 at 10:48 am

A 14th century French philosopher called Nicole Oresme wrote a book on economics called “Treatise on Coins” talking about the nature of the value of money.

Thomas Aquinas commented on it too.

It is difficult to understand why it took so long though. Although in many countries farmers provided for themselves and there was little economics wherever there were Scholars there were generally more developed economies.

8 Stephen Downes April 1, 2008 at 11:36 am

> So the point remains: the absence of a developed economics until the mid-18th century remains a startling anomaly in the history of ideas.

Oh, it’s not an anomaly at all. In fact, economics has a sister-discipline that parallels it in almost every way:


9 massrepublican April 1, 2008 at 11:59 am

And even before the Catholic Church, doesn’t Aristotle’s criticism of usury and endorsement of “natural” economics also aim at preserving existing social arrangements by curbing “vices” like greed?

10 Michael Blowhard April 1, 2008 at 12:37 pm

What would economics lose if it just decided one day to stop worrying about whether it’s a science or not? Anything at all?

I’m serious, btw. Why doesn’t econ just say, “Hey, we observe, we investigate, we try to do some explaining. We use computers too, from time to time. But mainly we’re looking into certain classes and categories of human behavior, and they’re incredibly complex and gooey, and probably not reducible to equations in the end. Still: Given earnest effort, brains, and smarts, maybe we can make some interesting and helpful observations.”?

Whenever econ starts carrying on like a science, I instantly start squabbling with it. When it presents itself more modestly, I’m often quite taken by it.

11 Grant April 1, 2008 at 4:04 pm

From my point of view, its pretty obvious that social sciences don’t advance quickly because they just aren’t easily tested. Its a lot harder to arrive at consensuses in the social sciences than it is in the natural sciences or in engineering, so things advance more slowly. You practically have to wait for people to die for opinions to advance. The incentives for economists to pursue the truth instead of their own pet political biases are very weak compared to say, an aerospace engineer designing an airplane.

Re: Hayek, I think he is more correct today than ever before. Our society is orders of magnitude more complex than it was when he was practicing economics. Economists may understand some basic scenarios much better than ever before, but they are, IMO, much farther from understanding the potential of society’s dispersed knowledge (and thus able to ‘plan’ or compute equilibriums) than they’ve ever been.

12 Steve Sailer April 1, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Doctors probably killed more people (e.g., George Washington) than they saved until late in the 19th Century (Greg Cochran puts the date in the 20th Century). The way you became a famous doctor, such as Charles Darwin’s brilliant grandfather Erasmus Darwin, was by mastering prognosis. You only accepted as patients those applicants likely to get better on their own.

13 ideogenetic April 1, 2008 at 5:38 pm

[It could be that none of this talk of science, microfoundations and the like is relevant. Indeed economics, and especially macroeconomics and macro-economic policy, is just a tool of the rich used to bludgeon the poor into accepting low wages. Economics is not a science and never was, but is rather auxiliary to the broader project of class domination by the rich and powerful. The poor and powerless are the victims of policy designed to shift resources and political power to capital. Economists are implicated in this grand scheme of domination, a band of self-referential (and self-refereeing) pseudo-scientists, who as a subsumed class take a cut of the surplus for themselves. Their main task is thus ideological jawboning rather than scientific. The political creed of the orthodoxy in economics is anti-progressive, essentially libertarian on domestic issues and neoliberal internationally. The scientific method is no more central to this project than it is to, say, religion or a back-yard barbecue.] – Bill Gibson, “The Current Macroeconomic Crisis”, Pluralist Economics Review (Online), March 2008

[…each economist chooses the theory that supports the values the (s)he holds. It therefore follows that these differences of opinion among economists are only the reflections of the underlying political dispute. Our discipline, being far removed from the scientific status of the natural sciences and whose limits have been revealed, ought to be renamed “political economics”.] – Claude Mouchot, “Towards A Realistic Epistemology For Economics”, Real World Economics: A Post-Autistic Economics Reader, edited by Edward Fullbrook (Anthem Press, 2007, ISBN 1843312360)

14 jorod April 1, 2008 at 8:09 pm

One problem in the social sciences is that there is no standardized way of gathering information.

Don’t mistake efficiency for ethics.

15 Cyrus April 1, 2008 at 10:41 pm

The absence of medieval economics did not preclude the presence of rather sophisticated financial instruments, any more than the absence of medieval statics precluded the presence of rather sophisticated architecture. What was lacking was not the practical knowledge of how to do something well, but someone else with the motivation and inclination to write a treatise about it.

16 MKT April 2, 2008 at 6:08 am

“I agree with the commenters who think there’s nothing particularly special about economics here. Was there a developed psychology or sociology before the 19th century, or a developed linguistics before the 20th?”

Indeed, Kenneth Boulding argued that economics was one of the *first* of the sciences (including natural sciences as well as social sciences) to “develop”. 100 years ago, economics had many of its current fundamental tools: supply and demand, comparative advantage, the margin, monopoly theory, free market vs interventionist debates, etc. Whereas although biology had developed the theory of evolution, it didn’t have modern genetics. Physics, although it had had Newton’s laws for over 200 years, didn’t have relativity or quantum mechanics, and had only recently discovered radioactivity. Geology didn’t have plate tectonics.

I suppose one could say that macro has undergone similar paradigm shifts within the past 75 years, with the Keynesian revolution and its various counter-revolutions.

17 one_scientist April 4, 2008 at 1:44 pm

As a working scientist, I agree with several commentators here – the ability to actually test scientific ideas is the critical difference.
In my area (molecular and cellular biology), it’s usually very easy to rapidly test the central idea of a paper at low expense.
So there is rapid weeding out of incorrect studies – in fact, the recent revelations of fraud in some studies resulted from failure to replicate by other scientists in the same subarea.
Of course, I am aware that this is not true in all areas of science – but perhaps it is correlated with speed of idea development?

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