Rational Models and Social Science Failures

Discussions of the economic collapse of recent months and the apparent inability of economists to predict it, understand it, or devise useful remedies for it have often focused on the inability of the rational model of economic man to explain the complexity of human behavior. Unfortunately, social scientists have not come up with a generally accepted alternative. When I worked at the Hudson Institute in then 1960s, I found that my social science training (Harvard PhD) was largely irrelevant to the military and social policy issues that we were addressing. As a result, when I wrote a book trying to make scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences more available for policy discussion (Social Humanities), I was compelled to use the rational model as the baseline for the social science side of the discussion. Most of social science, I suggested , could best be incorporated through footnotes that examined how the model might be usefully modified in certain instances.

One example might be the discussion of nuclear deterrence, the essential basis for thinking about the “use” of nuclear weapons. Most of the time the rational model evidently works. Anthropology and psychology might suggest how variations on this theme could occur. Unfortunately, their useful caveats can seldom be incorporated in a manner that would make the discussion demonstrably more predictive.

The tragedy of the social sciences is that they have never become sciences in other than a few methodological areas such as polling. They have never put a man on the moon. Until they do metaphorically, they will supply a great deal of information for policy discussion, but not the tools needed to guide individuals or societies to a safe landing.

Explore posts in the same categories: Blogroll, enlightenment, rational society

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