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The incompetent falsity of social theory
The social sciences had a problem long before they turned woke. Now they have an even bigger problem
That universities are stuffed with nonsense and often teach nonsense is now widely known and the source of considerable disquiet. Typically, ordinary members of the public blame “wokery” for this, and they do have a point. If a woke academic told me it was raining I’d look out the window to check.
However, the problem with social science being wrong about many things is much older than the intellectual soup in which wokery evolved in the 1960s.
Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant Work Ethic was wrong. Economists of all stripes were wrong about the causes of the Great Depression. Even worse, some of the things about which social science was known to be wrong in the 19th century are still being taught as true. The labour theory of value is an important part of Marxism, for example, and is still present in our universities.
In this piece, regular guest writer Lorenzo Warby makes a suggestion as to why the social sciences are in an unholy mess of wrongness, arguing it’s to do with a failure to achieve biological consilience. Other sciences have to be consilient with the harder form of their discipline, starting with maths and physics, moving thence to chemistry and biology.
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Biology no longer teaches creation. Chemistry no longer teaches phlogiston. Medicine no longer teaches miasma.
Social science broke this chain, continuing to uphold things known to be false. And now we have a problem.
Lorenzo is @LorenzoFrom on Twitter; give him a follow.
Apart from evolutionary anthropology, and the other anthropogenic sciences, and with the partial exception of evolutionary psychology (which too often has not read enough evolutionary anthropology) none of the social sciences are sciences.
They are pretending to be sciences. (And yes, that includes economics.)
How they are not sciences? Because consilience is a fundamental element of science. Biology must be consilient with chemistry, chemistry, with physics.
None of the social sciences seriously attempt to make themselves consilient with evolutionary biology. This has consequences. To the extent they’re incompatible with what we know from the anthropogenic sciences, they are false.
Satisficing not maximising
For instance, economics is very fond of using maximising, as it makes the maths much more tractable. Economics uses maths way more than biology does: in the circumstances, not a good sign.
Biological systems, however, almost never maximise. If a biological system is maximising, and it has not successfully dealt with whatever is most salient before it, it is probably about to be dead.
What biological systems do is satisfice. They put in the effort to deal with whatever is currently salient and then use their unused capacity to shift on to the next salient thing.
They economise, they economise a great deal. But they economise to satisfice, in order to avoid “maxing out”.
Living systems tend to be anti-fragile precisely so they can avoid maximising and get away with satisficing. The point of moving capacity beyond the previous break point, making the bone stronger, making the immune response stronger, making the muscle stronger, is so they can, in the future, deal with whatever in a satisficing away and then more readily move onto the next matter.
Human physiognomy shows selection for the resilience advantage of satisficing over the vulnerability of maximising. We are structured to force our prey to “max out” without doing so ourselves.
Humans are adapted to be long-distance hunters, running prey to exhaustion. Hence our shoulders have evolved to be the biosphere’s best throwers, our pelvis and feet to sustain energy-efficient long-distance running, our fur turned to hair so we can use our entire skin to sweat and so not overheat (dogs thermoregulate and sweat through their tongues and paws).
We also evolved more fat stores to sustain prolonged effort despite our energy-hog brains. Hence, we are the primate with the highest proportion of body fat. We are structured to use the ketone energy-system to utilise our fat stores during prolonged periods without food.
All this is so we do not hunt to our exhaustion, so we do not “max out”. Instead, we hunted furry herbivores to their maxing-out exhaustion in the middle of the day when furry carnivores are not likely to be active.
So, what economists (and social scientists generally) should be doing is identifying patterns of salience. Which you do by talking to people. That is precisely what Ronald Coase did with transaction costs: he asked people in business how they made the decision whether to make something in-house or to buy it commercially. Or Elinor Ostrom did via coordinating field work to identify how folk managed common goods. Both identified patterns of salience.
Searching for resilience
What is biologically selected for is lineage resilience. That is, the ability to persist and reproduce across changing circumstances, leaving organisms to strategise using their inherited adaptations.
For living organisms, optimisation is rarely a maximisation problem. It is usually a managing-salience problem. Individual organisms are not fitness-maximisers, they are strategising adaptation-executors.
Even though firms tend toward profit maximisation, for example, they must balance efficiency (getting more output from inputs) against resilience (continuing to function in changing circumstances). It is remarkably easy to create efficient vulnerability. (Supply-chain problems, anyone?)
Selecting for lineage resilience while exploring and expanding survival-and-reproduction possibilities is almost certainly why sexual reproduction has proved such a successful and much used adaptation. The evolution of sexual reproduction saw an explosion in species variety.
For, by combining genes from each parent, the genetic “die” is thrown again and again. This enables much quicker selection for successful strategies, permitting a much wider range of niches to be discovered, developed, and occupied. Hence the explosion in sexually reproducing species created a dramatic inflection point in our biosphere’s history.
This is also why we are, reproductively, male and female and only male and female. Any more than two types of gametes would make reproduction too complicated to be sufficiently resilient. Two types of gametes mean two sexes.
The gametes must meet to mate. So, one gamete must be the “sending” gamete, so self-moving (motile) and hence small. One gamete must be the “receiving” gamete, so not moving (sessile) and large.
Thus, generally, the male takes less risks in reproduction, so can be more profligate. Conversely, the female is usually taking more risks in reproduction; so has to be more “coy”, more discerning, more choosy.
Hence also roughly equal numbers of males and females (leaving aside eusocial neuters like worker ants that evolved to help their queen reproduce). For if one sex is much scarcer than the other, then it has a reproductive premium. So, expression of genes by sex will tend towards a 50:50 male-female equilibrium.
The evolutionary lens is enlightening. It gets to the why of things.
Half-thought abstractions and bad history
The classic problem with so much social Theory is that it is a series of half thought-out abstractions based on bad history.
Realist international relations theory is a currently salient example of this. Folk say things such as “Russia cares more about Ukraine than the United States does” as if that is smart, when all one has expressed is Great Power arrogance. For something else is now clear: Ukraine cares a lot more about Ukraine than Russia does.
Contrary to the blathering of Realists, the expansion of NATO was subject to the veto of every existing member of NATO. It did not happen because the United States forced it to happen. It happened because Eastern European states asked to join and no NATO state, including the US, vetoed their joining.
Russia’s neighbours care about what Russian autocracy is like, what risks it poses, and they care more than do Anglosphere folk insulated by large, even enormous, bodies of water from said risks. The abstractions of half-baked Theory have much less appeal to those for whom the problems of living with Russia are up close and personal.
Talking as if NATO expansion is just about the US, or the US and Russia, is not only Great Power arrogance. It’s also a denial of human agency, something that sits behind a great deal of Theory, which turn social dynamics into mechanistic analysis of Big Categories that deny human agency.
One of the more ridiculous contemporary sights has been folk explicitly or implicitly cheering on Russia attacking a neighbour with a much smaller population and armed forces, then whining as if it is somehow unfair that other countries provide weapons and material to the smaller neighbour. Proceeding to then refuse, implicitly or explicitly, to take seriously the Ukrainian will to resist is simply contemptible.
As historian Timothy Snyder stresses in his lectures on Ukrainian and related history, if you take the contingency out of history, you take the human agency out of history. Which is what Big Category analysis does; reduce the flow of human events to mechanistic interactions.
This includes all forms of analysis that claims history has a knowable, and inherent, direction. Or contains primordial categories (such as nations) that exist across time in a rightful form with bright lines around them. Or is a history of Big Category Struggle: the struggle of class, race, sex.
No, we are dealing with biological beings. With strategising agents engaged in discovery processes.
Despite being, allegedly, the study of choice under scarcity, economic theory — via its multipliers and growth equations — also engages in the mechanistic thinking to which Theory is so prone.
The Theorist does not sit above it all. He is in the flow of events, and of information and discovery incentives, like everyone else.
Thus, where there has been a major divergence between the dominant public view of economists and what the full range of asset prices have been implying, via their embedded expectations, said economists’ dominant public view has almost always been wrong.
Often not merely wrong in scale, but wrong in direction.
Economist Sir Ralph Hawtrey’s (1879-1975) comment about the dire deflation of the 1930s depression is a case in point:
Fantastic fears of inflation were expressed. That was to cry Fire, Fire in Noah’s Flood.
Hawtrey, A Century of the Bank Rate, p.145, quoted in Sumner, The Money Illusion.
Unfortunately there have been far too many similar instances since.
One can attempt to create some giant econometric model, so a grand manifestation of Theory, with hundreds or thousands of equations. Or one can use information generated in markets as indicators based on relatively simple models.
The efficient market hypothesis (that asset markets tend to use all available information) suggests the latter. Why build very elaborate models when asset markets are already doing the work for you?
Especially as the expectations revealed by asset prices are generated by people with lots of “skin in the game”. The views of economists come from people who can be completely wrong and still get paid. Economists also seek approval by other economists, so are prone to herd behaviour based on internal hierarchies and status competition — a common problem in the academy and think-tanks. In a discipline that fails to accept the obligation to be consilient with evolutionary biology.
Go with the expectations generated by people with lots of skin in the game.
Economics is about the actions of strategising agents engaged in discovery processes. So is all biology. So is all social science that deserves the name, including international relations.
The actions of strategising agents that social science claims to study is imbedded in, and a product of, the evolution of strategising agents that biology does study. And studies systematically.
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” And nothing in social science can be true unless it is consilient with biology. For it is all the study of the strategising of evolved beings.
The way the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has exposed the gimcrack abstractions of Realist International Relations Theory is just the tip of a titanic iceberg of falsity. For so-called social sciences have not accepted their fundamental obligation to be consilient with, to be compatible with, evolutionary biology. To be science.
Herbert Gintis, Carel van Schaik, and Christopher Boehm, ‘Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Origins of Human Political Systems’, Current Anthropology, Volume 56, Number 3, June 2015, 327-353.
Scott Sumner, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession, and the Future of Monetary Policy, University of Chicago Press, 2021.
John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, ‘The Psychological Foundations of Culture,’ in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby (eds), Oxford University Press, 1992, 19-136.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
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