Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Social Science, Democracy, and Being Contrary

. Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fabio Rojas:

It’s often thought that social science is a tool for progress and democracy. Overall, I agree. However, there’s a sense in which social science is anti-democratic:

- Social scientists may discover that popular behaviors have bad outcomes.
- Social scientists may discover that popular government policies have bad outcomes.
- Social scientists privilege experts over the “person in the street.”
- Social scientists may find that policies favoring certain political, social or corporate actors may be bad.

You might think of this as the Ibsen view of politics and social science. And you see this already. It’s now a ritual among some politicians to trash social scientists.

I believe my thoughts on social science are pretty idiosyncratic, but it has always been part of my thinking that social scientists should have a pretty strong streak of contrarianism in them. This can manifest itself in different ways. There's the lack of one-handed economists, eg, but what I really mean was once articulated by Christopher Hitchens like so: "Sit me down across a table with an ashtray and a bottle on it, and cue the other person to make an argument, and I am programmed by the practice of a lifetime to take a contrary position." This is not contrarianism for its own sake, but instead a constant probing and refinement of argument and evidence, as if it were a battle. Which it is. In any case it's an impulse for me, as fellow students and professors who have been unfortunate enough to have me in seminars would no doubt attest. More than anything else that impulse is what attracted me to academia in the first place.

Other social scientists seem not to share this impulse, instead enjoying the pursuit of consensus. And there's nothing wrong with that. I certainly don't want to disparage hard-won insights from social science that enjoy broad acceptance among experts. There's usually very good reasons why they are broadly accepted. But the enduring works in almost any social science field -- some of my favorites in political economy are Hume, Mill, Smith, and Marx -- are those which seek to overthrow the received wisdom rather than reinforce it. Even intellectual failures can be much more interesting than successes.

Rojas' post reminded of Joshua Tucker's post on social science and torture from awhile back:

My original thought was that good social science research that shows that torture does not extract useful intelligence information would be the final nail in the coffin in any public argument in support of torture. But what happens if one of us gets access to the relevant data, does the empirical analysis, and then discovers the opposite: that torture does lead to useful intelligence information. What do you do then? Sit on the results? Would any political science journal publish such a paper? How would that look in a tenure review? (“Right, she’s the one who said torture was valuable…”).

I couldn't imagine not publishing that paper if I'd written it. Not because I think such a finding would suggest that we should torture more, but because I think that moral and intellectual progress comes from tackling difficult questions head-on rather than shrinking from them. And because I strongly believe that all beliefs, especially core beliefs, must be carefully weighed against the best arguments in opposition to them. Without that there's no point in any intellectual enterprise. I'm very much a Mill-ian in that respect.

I agree with Rojas that social scientists often avow the merits of democracy despite the fact that much of our own research, behavior, and intuition suggests that democracy has deep flaws along many dimensions. Many of our assumptions about democracy do not actually make much sense in theory, and the empirical record is equally spotty. I think that many social scientists are too slow to ask who benefits from political institutions, and to quick to assume that in the case of democracy the answer is more or less "everyone". But we know that isn't true. I was recently reading debates from state legislatures over constitutional reforms (at the state level) in America in the 1820s, and it was amazing how up-front some statesmen were in arguing that democracy threatened their interests, while their opponents admitted that that was indeed the point. Of course the whole point of constitutions as legal documents is to restrict democratic tendencies. So why should we start from the assumption that democracy is somehow normatively "good"? Good for who?

I don't really have a takeaway point for this post, other than I'd like to see more social scientists really question core assumptions, admit (and then defend) the normative biases in their work, and give more value to interesting intellectual experiments, even interesting intellectual failures.


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filarena said...
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Social Science, Democracy, and Being Contrary
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