Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category
Every so often, you get the journalist, or academic, who loves trashing social science. The complaints are ritualistic – you can’t do experiments, people use jargon and math, and so forth. Well, Forbes has a nice article called “Enough Already with the Sweeping Claims that Economics is Unscientific.” It makes some obvious, but important points. Yes, some academics become divorced from reality with their models, but do you actually want people to study the economy without quantitative data or theory? These complaints also seem to ignore that economics actually does use experiments and much strives toward policy relevance:
Let me just start by pointing out that it is not the case that “almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments”. Look at the CV’s of economists like John List and Esther Duflo and you can see there are plenty of experiments being done. In 2013, the study selected as the best paper from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics was for a randomized trial on how teenagers respond to HIV risk information. If you want a concrete example of where this has made a difference, randomized treatment has been a central part of the research on the effects of charters schools. Unlike the field of astronomy, which Gobry must also think is not a science, economists do sometimes have more than observational data to go on.
And while it is true that a lot of research doesn’t use actual randomized trials, it’s also true that other kinds of research are very useful and informative. If his point was simply to argue that experiments and replication are important, and whether or not a body of research includes this should be one input among others in weighing the evidence, I’d have to agree. But of course you’d have to include external validity in there, which often counts against randomized trials. Instead of a relatively common claim about how it would be nice to have more experiments in economics, as is his style, PEG boldly overstates his case and makes incorrect absolutist claims about the importance of randomized trials.
Yes. Here’s the implication of this argument. Nearly every other social science, except history (which is a weird social science and humanities border case), has the same properties. We have ideas, we have data. Sometimes we do experiments. We collect other data. Sometimes we can replicate results. Sometimes we make progress and accumulate evidence, but other times not. This is, essentially, how science is done. The next time you hear someone trash sociology, economics, or another social science as unscientific, you have my permission to write angry tweets about them.
I recently suggested that conservatives like to associate themselves with the libertarians because it looks cool, even if these groups believe very different things. There is more evidence that the conservative/libertarian fit is bad. From an article about a survey done by the Public Religion Research institute:
Sixty-one percent of libertarians do not identify themselves as part of the Tea Party, the survey showed. About 7 percent of the adult population is consistently libertarian and that includes 12 percent of those who describe themselves as Republicans.
“There’s largely agreement on economic issues – the gap is in how libertarians approach social issues, ” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, which conducts an annual “American Values Survey” on political and social issues.
Libertarians are more opposed to government involvement in economic policies than those affiliated with the Tea Party and Republicans overall, the survey found. For instance, 65 percent of libertarians were opposed to increasing the minimum wage, while 57 percent of Republicans overall supported it, the survey found.
Ninety-six percent of libertarians oppose President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare restructuring compared to 89 percent of Republicans.
But nearly 60 percent of libertarians oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 58 percent of Republicans and those affiliated with the Tea Party favor such restrictions, according to the survey.
More than 70 percent of libertarians favored legalizing marijuana, while about 60 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members opposed such a move, the survey found.
An important tension worth exploring.
A while back, I asked about the relationship between philosophy and sociology. Here’s some evidence that there’s some philosophical imperialism at work these days. Specifically, more and more cultural sociologists are relying on the tools of philosophy to help them stake out new territory. Three recent examples:
- Drawing on a bunch of traditions (yes, even critical realism), Isaac Reed argues that sociology is about “cultural landscapes”)
- Gabriel Abend draws on phenomonology to articulate his theory of the “moral background”
- Andreas Glaeser relies also on phenomonology, and other traditions, to argue that people are stuck in a folk cosmology
The underlying theme, I think, is that cultural sociologists have moved beyond the Swidler moment (i.e., arguing against Parsons’ theory of action) and they’ve moved back into the game of semantic systems and their internal logic. This requires an explanation of how people situate themselves in a social world and how they reason about. This naturally leads (mainly) to the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Schutz, and Berger and Luckman. But instead of letting actors become the servant of this “lifeworld,” as in institutionalism, there’s a lot more effort in explaining what is possible in that world.
If this approach to symbolic systems turns out to be of lasting value, it will be one of the rare bridges between philosophy and mainstream sociological practice.
In political life, we tend to see a few strategies. First, we see partisanship, which is simply a word for “I do what my team does and fight my team’s enemies.” That sets up life a zero-sum status contest. Second, we see ideological politics. People argue for politics from an abstract argument about what is demanded by their belief system. It also leads to a sort of zero sum politics as well. Any deviation from your belief is a decrease in the value in the policy. Also, ideological politics is tough unless you happen to have an already popular ideology. Ideologies entail lots of consequences that other people might not buy. Third, there is incrementalism, which is to find small, moderate policy improvements that are hard to dispute. Success is likely, but you can easily miss the big issues.
There is a fourth approach to politics that people don’t seem to take often: “common grounds politics.” Here’s how it works – survey the range of ethical systems that you are likely to encounter, such as liberalism, socialism, etc. Then focus on important issues that are fairly straightforward consequences of many, or even all, of these theories. In other words, common grounds politics is when you focus on important issues that are logically consistent with the stated ethical systems of most people you will encounter.
Let me give you an example of a policy that is common grounds and one policy that is not common grounds. I think that open borders is common grounds. It is an obvious application of egalitarian theory because we allow poor people to decrease inequality by getting jobs in industrialized nations. It should also be intuitively appealing to libertarians who favor free markets. It is not hard to come up with arguments from conservative, socialist, and utilitarian perspectives. Also, you will notice that arguments against migration tend to invoke violations of most political belief systems. For example, should an egalitarian treat people differently just because they happen to be born in a different nation? Should a “social values” conservative support policies that make it hard for families to stay together? It’s not hard to see that open borders is a good candidate for common grounds politics.
In contrast, school privatization is not a common grounds issue. The reason, I think, is fairly obvious. The policy violates the principles of many ethical systems. For example, liberals are comfortable using the tool of taxation to redistribute resources in society and school spending is one way that is done. Conservatives are happy to use schools to promote religious values. You can come up with a utilitarian argument for why public schooling has positive benefits. I am not making a point about the validity of school privatization as a policy. I am only noting that you would need to do a lot of ethical argument in order to make most people buy into that policy.
I claim no originality for common grounds politics. In fact, this argument is a modification of Huemer’s meta-ethical position in The Problem of Authority. Huemer argued for radical libertarian politics from common grounds. He is trying to appeal a number of standard philosophical positions (e.g., Rawlsianism, Kantians, etc) to make a strong policy argument that is counter-intuitive to most people. I take a different approach. Start with people’s “folk morals” and then see what policies are consistent with that. There is no attempt to smuggle in an entirely new ethical system. Instead, look for that rare policy that is both important and obviously consistent with most people’s basic intuitions.
There is an intrinsic interest in the philosophy of social science. Ideally, we all want well motivated and logical explanations for how we should do our professional work. However, there is usually one question that you don’t hear much about – why does scholarship seem to progress in the absence of a well motivated philosophy? In other words, doctors probably have a bad philosophy of science, but I don’t see philosophers refusing the services of their physicians.
I don’t have an answer to this, I’ve only started to think about this issue. But I raise it in the shadow of our debate over critical realism and the earlier debate over post-modernism. The claim of some supporters is that social scientists really need a new theory of social science (e.g., critical realism) because social scientists rely on a flawed positivist theory. It may be true that positivist social science is wrong and that we should adopt a newer theory. This view does not take into account two issues: (a) The cost of adopting a new theory is steep. If Kieran can’t quite get critical theory after reading it for 18 months, then I sure won’t get it. (b) A new social science that proceeds along new rules of engagement may not generate enough differences to make it worthwhile. For example, now that Phil Gorski has adopted critical realism, how would his book, The Disciplinary Revolution, be written any differently? Not clear to me since a lot of what Gorski does in that book is apply a specific theoretical lens in reading various developments in state formation. He might sprinkle a discussion of “multiple levels of causation” at the top but then he’d probably proceed to make similar arguments with similar data.
The ultimate puzzle, though, is in areas that seem to make progress even when practitioners work with a bad philosophy. This suggests that the demand for better foundations simply isn’t important for generating knowledge. Another datum is that advances in science, or social science, rarely require entirely new foundations. Take sociology. I don’t need to adopt anything new to, say, appreciate Swidler’s attack on functionalism. And I seem to be able to understand most feminist sociology by using meat and potatoes positivism. The bottom line is that, at the very least, there needs to be an explanation for the ubiquitous disjuncture between foundations and practice.