Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Social Science Fails to Meet the Intra-ocular Impact Test

Apart from a handful of now prominent personalities, most economists, finance professors, investment firms, and economic journalists missed the financial crisis.  Now there is a raging debate on what the “science” of macroeconomics can and cannot explain and predict, and how macroeconomics must be rethought and taught.  This debate will go on for years.

Ditto for political science.  Political science (government in some universities) has steadily moved away from historical and descriptive modes of research of the early twentieth century to increasingly formal (mathematical) and quantitative methods in the past four-five decades.  Yet few, if any, political scientists openly predicted the January 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan.

Doubtless some will claim that they warned of unrest in their books and articles.  But it is relatively easy to issue general undated forecasts or describe the conditions under which uprisings are likely to occur.  It is quite another to point to a specific forecast that accurately predicted the event.  Now there is likely to be a renewed debate in political science contrasting the historical, descriptive, area studies, and culture-specific studies against models and statistics.

Stay tuned.

1 comment :

Rick Martinez said...

Who among the social sciences could have, predicted the new world paradigms of “thinking locally and acting globally,” or “nations who champion cooperation versus competition,” or “survival of the wisest versus survival of the fittest?”

Is it really possible today for the social science community to “predict” the social or economic future of the world’s nations and peoples? Is social science a science in the traditional sense?

We study the social sciences to know what happens in the world, and the problems of man—as well as “man as the problem.” Economics is the exchange between man and the world in which man lives. Political science investigates the “polarity” of social contracts between man, community, places and things—and who gets what, when, why, and how. And the humanities speak to man’s ills, man’s problems, and man’s repair.

Then, there’s philosophy, which guides us through the whole of life, living, being, and doing—first as a cause, then as a plan for all things. While science seems always to advance, philosophy seems always to lose ground. Is there an explanation for this seemingly “unwanted stepchild” status? It seems to be a fact that philosophy accepts the hard and even hazardous task of dealing with the problems not yet open to the methods of science—problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death. Only after a field of inquiry yields knowledge that is susceptible to exact formulation--is it called a science.

Yet, every science begins as a philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Life is an interpretation of the uncertain (as in economics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or politics). In fact, philosophy is the front trench in the siege on truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build its imperfect, yet “wonder-filled” world. Life seems perplexing and even to stand still, and it is because philosophy leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters…the sciences. Then, she moves on, divinely discontent, to again face the uncertain and the unexplored.

Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things, nor into their total and final significance, like living, for example. Science is content to show present actuality and operation (doing vs becoming), and it narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are (working vs contributing).

The scientist is impartial:He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of genius. An interpreter-of-life, conversely, is not content to describe a fact; he wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general, and thereby to get at its meaning and worth. Philosophy combines things in interpretative synthesis… that is, to put together--better than before--that great “universe watch” which the inquisitive questioner has analytically taken apart.

Philosophy knows a fact is nothing except in relation to desire, freedom and opportunity, for example; it is not complete except in relation to purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy--facts without perspective and valuation--cannot save humanity from havoc and despair. Science can discover by accident, but nothing is revealed by accident. Both scientist and interpreter-of-life must “believe” something to be true before “knowing” it is true: A scientist believes in a hypothesis, and a believer believes in God, for example. Science gives us knowledge. But only philosophy can give us wisdom, peace, love, care, concern. What do we live for--if not to make life less difficult for each other?

Can we still “’forecast the future” by “interpreting the past?”