Have the Social Sciences Degenerated to Pseudoscience?

In this 2014 Podcast with Social Science Bites, Roberto Mangabeira Unger makes a bold claim: the social sciences have degenerated into pseudoscience.

To summarize his views on economics as an example (perhaps to interpret them loosely as well), the discipline makes imperfect assumptions, primarily about human behavior, then builds theories of exchange on top of it, omits theories of production, and borrows the idea of competitive selection from Darwinism without offering an equivalent to Darwin’s idea of mutations as being the platform on which “survival of the fittest” plays out. At the risk of disrespecting the technical fortitude of Unger’s argument, I must say that I too have been struck at the obvious and largely ignored differences between the natural sciences and the social sciences, mostly because groups of humans are much more complex than particles and objects.

It’s almost as if classical economics was developed as a tribute to Newtonian physics. Economics defines the human as a self-interested, rational individual, and then develops the mathematically predictable behavior exhibited when these humans trade. Similarly, physics defines objects or particles and then develops the mathematically predictable behavior exhibited as those objects interact. The metaphor is elegant but impotent; the problem of course being the assumptions economics makes about the person. We know that humans make choices with imperfect information (yes, even in the Information Age) and are very much temperamental decision makers often motivated by insecurity, short-term pleasure-seeking, and fear of death.

So can we have a theory of economics as thorough as physics? In pondering that question, I was reminded of the wonderful book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It explores a whole spectrum of experimentally documented behavioral biases that go directly against utility theory: the idea that people make decisions to maximize their utility. Maybe one day we could assimilate every documentable logical fallacy and construct a pure theory of economics.

But maybe not. Maybe it’s a mistake to assume that somewhere out there is a clean and perfect science that will precipitate a productive and growing economy forever, and all we need to do is create the right institutions to let that theory play out. Maybe we already know everything we need to know to make a perfect economy.

For example, we’ve learned much in the way of how people interact in closed and open systems. We know what it’s like when there aren’t enough rules, and we’re learning right now in the 21st century that too many rules can create an equally toxic environment. We know that humans need respect and work that feels personal and valuable. We know that happy employees are more productive. We know that the more hierarchical organizations get, the harder it is for them to adapt to change.

Maybe we don’t need all these organizations and institutions; they’re fictitious anyway. My sister’s art instructor Michael Rakowitz demonstrated this perfectly when he drew a square in the floor with tape and put up a sign declaring that anyone who stands within that square is sovereign of the U.S. Constitution. Anyone who considers this exercise may be forced to ask themselves some logical questions such as:

Can he do that?

What authority is required to relinquish oneself of the constitution?

What authority had those who declared the constitution in the first place?

It shouldn’t take long for the absurdity to set in. This thing, this very real document, these words that have built an empire, these ideas that men have died over… aren’t actually real. The question of how to achieve a more perfect society may therefore not be a question of what social fictions we need to invent, but an abolishment of structure altogether. This is the motif throughout my work on proprietism: let’s embrace a system that accepts civilization for the inconceivably complex network it is and try to make it work on its lowest levels rather than organize it better on its highest.

A social science free of social constructs and fictional institutions sounds impossible, right? I don’t think so. In Leaders Eat Last, author Simon Sinek almost does this. He discusses the brain chemicals that our forager ancestors evolved to help them hunt, gather, plan, and work together: endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and cortisol. Sinek argues that our ancestors were able to get an even balance of these, but the modern working human only gets stressful cortisol shots when work gets tough and cheap, temporary dopamine rushes when work gets done. He tasks leaders everywhere to fix this by creating “circles of safety” in which teams foster trusting and cooperative relationships rather than cynicism and self-interest.

Not that I have the authority to declare this, but I find Sinek’s ideas to be a formidable response to Unger’s call for more scientific social sciences. But then again, authority is just a social construct anyway.