On Social Science

On Social Science:

This piece has some interesting harmonies with our discussion, below, on infinity and mysticism.

Prior to the launch of the stimulus program, the only thing that anyone could conclude with high confidence was that several Nobelists would be wrong about it.

But the situation was even worse: it was clear that we wouldn’t know which economists were right even after the fact....
The rest of the piece will not shock you, because we've talked about all these problems before. Still, it's a good brief examination of just what the problems are, especially the difficulty of conducting controlled experiments in what they are still pleased to call the "social sciences."

The article ends on a cautionary note, though, which may seem odd given its heretofore focused insistence on the importance of experimentation. "Social sciences" are in fact conducting more experiments, but the author doesn't really expect things to get any better.
The experimental revolution is like a huge wave that has lost power as it has moved through topics of increasing complexity. Physics was entirely transformed. Therapeutic biology had higher causal density, but it could often rely on the assumption of uniform biological response to generalize findings reliably from randomized trials. The even higher causal densities in social sciences make generalization from even properly randomized experiments hazardous. It would likely require the reduction of social science to biology to accomplish a true revolution in our understanding of human society—and that remains, as yet, beyond the grasp of science.
That is the great temptation of Hard Determinism to those who want to believe in it -- not just to reduce human society to biology, but indeed to then reduce biology to physics. You can understand the temptation, because after all, we do physics fairly well by comparison! Wouldn't it be nice if we could just reduce the problem from a complicated social issue to a physics problem?

Well, actually, no it wouldn't. I expect there will always be a push to try, though, for just this reason. It's much easier to look for my car keys over here.

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