Friday, May 16, 2008

Our Understanding Of Ourselves Advancing Or Retreating

Two adherents of the dismal science took a look at the other social sciences and their progress in recent times.

Tyler Cowen on 4/1/08 discussed Gordon Tullock's The Organization of Inquiry and provided the full Tullock symposium here), in a Marginal Revolution Why are the social sciences backward?

This post is a summation of the original Marginal Revolution post which was itself an entry point to further reading or study. The topic is far too complex to fit into a few computer screen's worth of text . Unfortunately, the source materials are not available without cost. What this post can provide is some additional links and consider how this fits with what has been learned before.

Tullock next turns to what he considers to be the real reasons behind the backwardness of the social sciences:

  • Differences in the social organization of natural versus social science.
  • The relative absence of applied research:
    • One example given is that there is no way to patent new sales technique?
  • Many fewer checks from the applied side on pure social science research unlike the natural sciences
  • The second motive for research, curiosity, is in the social sciences "likely to get distracted to essentially non-scientific ends."

According to Tullock, this is because in the social sciences: 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).

Professor Cowen also brings into the discussion Mises and Hayek, to whom in Tullock is responding , who 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.

More can be found at the original post with an interesting link at complexity by Bruce Edmonds of the Centre for Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School,

Professor Cowen goes on to argue that "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?

An Addendum
to the original Marginal Revolution post provides EconLog's Arnold Kling's perspective.
Stephen J. Dubner via Freakonomics back on 4/8/08 questioned, "How Much Progress Have Psychology and Psychiatry Really Made?" in a Freakonomics Quorum

The debate about the effectiveness and safety of psychiatric drugs rambles on while new (if not conclusive) psychological studies come out with the frequency of fad diets. We invited some people who think a lot about such issues -- David B. Baker, John Medina, Dan Ariely, Satoshi Kanazawa, Peter D. Kramer, and Laurie Schwartz

Again, as with the Tyler Cowen post above, this is far too complicated a topic to do the original post justice without simply repeating the entire article, so this is not a substitute. It does bring up though the same argument emphasizing the differences between social and natural sciences, but this time within the same arena. There isn't a lack of progress but an ever increasing complexity within the fields as different disciplines cross over one and other.

for John Medina:

My personal hero in the exodus away from mental superstition is a large bolus of ego named Emil Kraepelin (1856 to 1926). He had the audacity to assume everything that was psychological was simultaneously biological.

Dan Ariely, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, principal investigator of the MIT Media Lab’s eRationality group, and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions takes the view"

“This, in my mind, is another important lesson that psychologists have learned — that our intuitions about what drives our behavior are not always correct.”

It seems to me that Professor Cowen's claim that our knowledge of economics is less than that of physics but far greater than the human brain pays too little attention to point that economics is able to smooth out the variables it studies to arrive at general principals, while modern neurosciences such as neurochemistry cannot. Economics is also arguably the consequence of the decision process by biological creatures. While we can make generalized predictions with economics, do we really understand the process if we don't understand the organisms that make those decisions?

This post has dealt with complexity, irrationality and mentioned the concept of artistic distraction, all in the course of studying economics, definitely food for further thought.

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