Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why Are The Social Sciences Backwards?

Tyler Cowen on Gordon Tullock on the social sciences:

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.

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