Literature or science?

Here‘s an interesting post from Marginal Revolution, titled “Why are the social sciences backward?”, and concerning (bear with me) an article about a book by Gordon Tullock from 1966. What’s for us there?

First, the question is startling in itself given the scientific method in economics. Are the social sciences backward? Here’s how Bruce Cadwell characterizes Tullock’s position:

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.

This is clearly very different to the modern use of “applied” as it concerns economics, rather referring to concrete, practical methods that arise from the study of people. If that’s the barometer, then I suppose you’d have to consider modern economics at least a bit backward, since not a great deal of it is concerned with this kind of thing, the closest approximation being the “policy implications” section tacked on to every economics research paper (a frankly baffling phenomenon).

Then again, is a “policy implication” really the equivalent of a “new sales technique”? What Tullock seems to be describing is really one degree more practical than economics ever gets. Again, though, this argument applied to the social sciences seems a bit like the difference between, for example, theoretical physics and engineering (to rely on my layperson’s knowledge of both): could we really argue that the natural sciences are generating these practical advances at a greater rate than the social sciences?

[Cadwell:] 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:

[The following is directly from 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.

That’s a particularly interesting one, and gives me pause for thought because I perceive a fundamental and disappointing lack of curiosity in the study of economics. I think Tullock’s point here is badly dated by now, at least for this social science: the economics profession, I am confident in saying, will not tolerate “literature” over science at all, at least not in its peer-reviewed academic journals (book-writing occupies an orbit all its own). A little more light is shed by the Marginal Revolution commentary:

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.

In that case, Tullock could be considered one of the trailblazers of the positivist revolution that replaced big thought with neutral science. In a sense, the struggle of economics has always been to respond to that complexity and subjectivity by simplifying, abstracting, separating to the lowest common denominator of truth in the system. The ‘backwardness’ Tullock identified is certainly less evident, methodologically and in output, than it was at the time he was writing.

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