Thomas Sowell – Science vs. Social Thought

June 5, 2009

From Conflict of Visions (p. 231-232, paperback):

…visions of scientific phenomena and visions of society proceed in parallel ways. However, opposing paradigms in science do not persist for centuries, as paradigms derived from the constrained and unconstrained visions [loosely conservative and liberal] have in politics, economics, law and social thought in general. Scientific paradigms tend to succeed each other in history, not coexist through centuries. While still in early states of the development of science, ‘men confronting the same particular phenomena’ might ‘describe and interpret them in different ways.’ But these divergences, according to Kuhn, ‘disappear to a very considerable extent and then apparently once and for all.’ No such process has yet become general in social thought.

The fundamental difference between science and social theory is not at the level of visions, or even paradigms, but at the point where theories produce empirically testable hypotheses. The uncontrollable variations which prevent laboratory experiments with societies prevent the decisive confrontations which shatter particular hypotheses, reverberating backward to shake theories and perhaps even topple paradigms and the visions they embody.

Social thought often masquerades as science.  Wrap an idea in a veneer of science and people are apt to buy it.  Economic, health and global warming are examples of statistical studies and models that are not science because they produce no testable hypotheses and are very prone to bias, mistakes, flaws and misinterpretation.

The June Harvard Business Review, the story Good News for Coffee Addicts provides a good example (thanks to R. Lufberry):

Many people take their coffee with a small dose of guilt, worried that it isn’t good for the body. That’s a holdover from studies done in the 1950s and 1960s showing that coffee drinkers were prone to pancreatic cancer, heart disease, and other woes. These studies failed to account for cigarette smoking, which once went hand in cup with coffee drinking. Since then, the medical community has done a gradual about-face on the health effects of coffee.

Sowell provides another example from economics where a critic (bias) of the theory that wage controls reduced employment sent surveys to “hundreds of employers, asking how they had acted or would act, under various possible conditions involving wage rates.  Most employers did not indicate in their replies that they would react by firing workers” and the critic considered this disproof of the economic theory.

But, as Sowell points out, the economic theory was whether wage controls reduce employment, “not whether this takes the particular form of (1) individual employer decisions [or answers reported on a survey that may not even represent what they would truly do] to lay off workers; (2) the bankruptcy of marginal firms; (3) a reduction in the number of new firms entering the industry; or (4) a decline in sales and employment as cost increases are passed on to the consumer.”

In other words, the critic’s test of the theory was flawed.

Thanks to Russell Roberts of Cafe Hayek for sparking the idea of this post by providing a link to this excellent video:


One Response to “Thomas Sowell – Science vs. Social Thought”

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