The Deification of Science

My paper on Deification of Science and Its Disastrous Consequences has recently been published in International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp 181-197

From the kinds of questions asked and the comments made by different readers, it is clear that the paper is hard to read, and the main message remains opaque. This note provides some basic information which may help in orienting the reader, so that the message comes through more clearly. Thus, this is a guide to the paper.

  1. What is the main idea of the paper?

The term “Social Science” reflects the idea that we can and should use the scientific method to study human beings, communities, and societies. This paper argues that this idea is wrong. Scientific methods cannot be used to study human societies. Different sets of methods are required for this purpose. A correct methodology for humanities requires consideration of subjective elements of human experience, and free will of human beings.

  1. What would be the consequences of accepting the arguments of the paper?

A thoroughgoing revolution, which require re-writing of most textbooks of social sciences, and indeed, abandonment of the term “social science”. The older term, humanities, is more suitable. The implication is that what is being taught as “social science”, and especially economics, is not much different from voodoo or witchcraft. Not so long ago, phrenology was recognized as a scientific discipline and taught in universities.  Similarly, anthropology started out with the fixed idea that western races and their cultures represent the apex of human development, while other races and cultures were inherently inferior; the goal of the discipline was to provide empirical evidence for this obvious and widely accepted fact. It is to the great credit of anthropologists that they realized that these premises were flawed and created a genuine alternative. Modern Social Science is on par with phrenology and primitive anthropology.

  1. Why should I waste my time reading such a crackpot thesis?

RWER readers already accept the idea that conventional economic theory is deeply flawed. This is just a slight extension. However, the paper provides a historical explanation of how it came to pass that this deeply flawed methodology became widely accepted as the orthodoxy, while genuine and serious alternatives kept getting rejected. Some of the reasons for the failure of heterodoxy will also become apparent. Some fundamental methodological principles are shared between heterodoxy and orthodoxy, which means that heterodoxy also tries to build on the same flawed foundations. Thus it suffers from similar problems and fails to provide a genuine alternative to orthodoxy. The paper points to how a genuine alternative requires a radically different methodology from those currently available. Some details of a promising alternative methodology have been spelled out in my paper: The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation.

  1. Did you think of these ideas all by your lonesome self, while sitting in a cave, or are there other crackpots like you?

Nearly all of what I am saying is derived from an extensive reading of extant materials on methodology. However, the ideas have been collected from neglected and marginalized sources, and organized in a way that I have not seen before. Also, there are a few new additions. My first inkling that something was radically wrong with the foundations of social science came from the book by Peter Manicas entitled “The History and Philosophy of Social Science.” He starts by saying that the book is “embarrassingly ambitious,” since he will take seriously the thesis that ‘very idea of science is contestable’. The fundamental methodological misconceptions he points out lead to “the possibility of a thoroughgoing revolution in the received ideas of science, natural and social.” But many parts of my extensive and complex arguments are derived from other sources.

  1. So what exactly is the argument you are making?

I am so glad you asked. It is a rather complex argument, so it is useful to have an outline and sketch, so as to not get lost within the intricacies about the overall goal and structure. The first step of the argument is to show that mathematical methodology and scientific methodology are fundamentally different. The former is axiomatic and deductive, while the latter is empirical and inductive. This is so obvious that it should not need an explanation. BUT for complex historical reason, it was mistakenly thought that science has an axiomatic methodology. Detailed explanations are in the paper. Here we provide a simple example to illustrate. If Pythagorean theorem was “scientific” then it would have been deduced by empirical observations about triangles, and there would always be the possibility that a newly observed triangle could refute the law, and lead to the search for a new law. For a mathematical law, a refutation, or an empirical counterexample is impossible, since it is a logical truth. On the other hand, by Popper’s criteria, a scientific law is characterized by the fact that there is a possible empirical observation which will refute it.

  1. How is it that intelligent men with towering intellects came to believe and confidently asserted the opposite – for example, Lionel Robbins wrote that: “The propositions of economic theory, like all scientific theory, are obviously deductions from a series of postulates.”

I completely agree. It is flabbergasting that intelligent people could go so far astray as to assert obvious nonsense as obvious truths. The paper is concerned with this problem, and provides historical and psychological explanations for how such serious errors could be made. This is actually one of the problems with my paper, and the reason why it is so complicated and hard to understand. This issue — the difference between mathematical and scientific methodology – has nothing to do with the central arguments of the paper. I am using this as a plausibility argument. I am making a grand claim which is hard to believe: the fundamental methodology in use for thinking about social science, for over a century by thousands of highly intelligent people is just plain wrong. To make this plausible, I provide an example of a similar error in confusing mathematical and scientific methodology. If scientific logic cannot be used in mathematics, and mathematical methodology cannot be used in science, how can we expect scientific methodology to work for humanities?

  1. So you start the paper with a red-herring, a peripheral argument which distracts attention from your real argument. What then is your main argument?

I plead guilty to your gentle rebuke. The only excuse I can offer is that dominant ways of thinking have many wrong deeply buried assumptions which all participants take for granted without question or discussion. The ground has to be prepared by exposing and refuting these assumptions, before the main arguments can be taken seriously and understood. For an important illustration, see my paper The Normative Foundations of Scarcity, where I bring out the hidden normative assumptions beneath the apparently objective concept of scarcity.

In the present paper, I focus on TWO MAJOR MISTAKES which were made on the path to current social science methodology. Both of these major mistakes are widely believed to be obvious truths by the majority. All scholars today have been deeply trained in an intellectual tradition which takes these two fallacies as obvious truths. To have any chance of success in persuading people of my arguments, I must first convince them that they have been deceived.

  1. OK, I will play along, and ask: So what are these two terrible mistakes?

The first mistake is a misunderstanding of what is scientific methodology. Logical Positivists developed this misunderstanding in the early twentieth century. Now, even though it is well known that positivism has been rejected by philosophers, the philosophy continues to exercise dominant influence in the social sciences, and especially in economics. Very few have any understanding of the reasons why positivism was rejected. I have explained in detail why current econometric practice is deeply flawed because it continues to use a positivist and empiricist methodology in my paper: Methodological Mistakes and Econometric Consequences. One of the many flaws of positivism is that it is nominalist. Thus it is assumed that whether or not the unobservable force of gravity exists is irrelevant. What matters is that the assumption of gravity leads to predictions which match observations. This means that we can make ridiculous and obviously false assumptions about human behavior, and justify them by saying that the predictions match observations. My paper Empirical Evidence Against Utility Maximization: A Survey of the Literature tackles this problem on its own grounds. Accepting the false methodological premises, I show that false assumptions about behavior lead to false predictions about observable outcomes. However, the real problem lies deeper.

The Second Mistake is the assumption that scientific methodology is applicable to the study of human being and societies. The paper explains WHY this mistake was made – why was science revered and honored, and expectations attached to it which were beyond its limits. It also explain WHY it is a mistake to think that scientific methodology will be useful in the study of humans. Basically, human experience is subjective. What I experience as an internal state can never be known by you. Furthermore, my experience at every moment is unique – no one has had this identical experience ever in the past or in the future. Science is based on the search for universal laws which would apply across time and space, equally in Aztec, Zulus and Viking societies. If any such laws exist, they would have to be trivial, and could not possibly yield deep insights into the unique circumstances which led to World War 1 for example.

  1. Is the paper “anti-science”?

To those who have deified science, the paper will appear sacrilegious, and hence anti-science. By deification of science, I mean the acceptance of the following three beliefs about science. Science leads to certainty: scientific laws are objective truths. Science is the sole route to truth: the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge. All human and social problem can be resolved, and can only be resolved, by scientific methods. I believe that science is uncertain, incomplete, and of limited use in solving human and social problems. I have provided arguments to this effect in the paper. I believe that science provides us with very powerful methods and extremely valuable knowledge within its own domain, and cannot be matched by any other types of knowledge. However, it has limitations which must be recognized.

  1. Are you opposed to the use of reason?

Again, reason has a limited domain of applicability. Many important human problems require going beyond reason. In personal relationships, I can never be certain about how others feel, since that is an internal subjective state not open to my observation. Nonetheless appropriate social behavior requires intelligent guesswork about others, which is often based on intuition, experience, and certain types of personal knowledge which do not fall within the scope of science. Human society is a web of social relationships, and scientific reasoning is severely limited in its ability to study these configurations of inter-related subjectivities. Interestingly, reason is limited in scope even when it comes to mathematical reasoning; see my note on Godels Theorems and the Limits of Reason.

  1. Are you advocating that we should use religious reasoning and faith to solve social problems?

This paper does not make any such claims. Rather, the paper says that the rejection of religion in Europe led to a trauma which caused leading thinkers to adopt science as their religion, and attribute properties of certainty and completeness to it. Science could not fulfill these expectations, but the attempts to prove that science has these properties led to deep misunderstandings about the nature of science.

  1. Wow, that’s fantastic. I can’t wait to read the paper!

Great. Here is the link to a pre-publication copy:

Deification of Science and Its Disastrous Consequences, Int. J. Pluralism and Economics Education, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2015

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1 comment
  1. Lyndon Mukasa said:

    Fascinating!

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