social science


That economics is a value-laden science is not a new idea. Most of the prominent economic thinkers were also philosophers, wary of moral and philosophical content of scientific assumptions, models, and theories. That economics needs philosophy, and the separation between these two cannot be maintained any longer, is gaining recognition, and has become a subject of debates in the field of philosophy of economics that brings together (to various extends) philosophers, mainstream, and heterodox economists. For example, Daniel Hausman (1992) discusses that at an analytic level economists do successfully separate the philosophical and ethical content from economic analysis, albeit this separation is possible only at the analytic level. Karl Polanyi (1957), in his discussion on the entanglement of economic activities in the social totality, gives insights from a different perspective how considering the subject of economic study in social vacuum can in fact lead to thinking that scientific practice indeed has disentangled from society.

Today economists of both mainstream (e.g., Jean Tirole) and heterodox approaches more readily admit: economics is a moral and philosophical science. Yet the meaning and scope of the normative components of economics, the epistemic consequences of the social embeddedness of science, and the social consequences of economics are raising so far inconclusive debates. These issues constitute two-tiered dimensions of scientific rationality: external and internal ones. While the criteria of internal rationality (which constitute the standard approach to scientific rationality) refer to disciplinary epistemology and methodology, the criteria of external rationality involve the axiological, ethical, and societal elements of the process of knowledge production and the social consequences of science.

Interestingly, as Gustav Márquez (2016) points out, even in the field of philosophy of economics, the discussions are often focused on the elements of what I call here internal rationality. Márquez argues that the predominant focus on these issues characterize the mainstream philosophy of economics, while the more normatively-laden issues, such as a broader theoretical reorientation towards more responsive and socially engaged approaches (which I considered as aspects related to the external scientific rationality), are not so much a part of the dominant concerns and discourse.

Why would an external rationality matter? What is the meaning of the social consequences of economics as a science? And how the acknowledgment of the value-laden component of scientific practices plays out in research practices of the scientific community, and of an individual researcher? These questions are not easy to answer, as they involve several complex issues, such as what is the meaning of scientific truth, scientific objectivity, how to account for the normative components of science, or what are the grounds for our confidence in scientific methods and analysis—to name a few. While each of these questions opens a Pandora box by itself, my goal is to simply open up some of the ways these profound issues can be approached for a discussion. My guiding thought is that one of the elements that drastically shapes our take on these questions pertains to the context in which science and the process of knowledge production is considered.

My specific focus will be on the role of science in society and for policy making. In my next entries of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am going to consider several issues, problems, and controversies raised at the intersection of economics, society, and policy, with an eye towards their educational and pedagogical challenges. My objective is to problematize, hopefully for a broader discussion with the readers, the fact that the specific philosophical commitments (e.g. ontological and epistemological assumptions about the role of science, function of knowledge, scientific truth, etc.) bear impact on how the epistemic consequences of the value-ladedness of economics are framed, and on the acknowledgment and role assigned to the extra-scientific components of research practices.


Hasuman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Márquez, Gustavo. 2016. A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics. London: College Publications.

Polanyi, Karl, [1944] 1957. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.


Friday, 26th Jan 2017: Lecture by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE to students at University of Cambridge, Center of Development Studies for Religion & Development paper. 40 minute video recording of lecture on you-tube. For related posts, see: An Islamic Approach to Humanities.

Part 1: “What Is Spirituality?”:  Modern Secular thought takes spirituality and religion to be diseases which affect weak minds not properly trained in the scientific method. Part I of this lecture explain why this view, which is based on positivist ideas, is seriously mistaken. OUTLINE of this lecture is given below

Separate Lecture Part 2:“What is Development” focusing on how spirituality affects how we think about development and how to achieve it.

  1. Standard Modern Answer
    1. Spirituality is a literary term, used to spice up poetry and novels.
    2. It is like Phlogiston, Unicorns, Ghosts, Souls, God
    3. It is one among many medieval beliefs, like flat Earth, which have been proven wrong.
  1. Why don’t we understand spirituality?
    1. Because we have been trained to think like Logical Positivists, EVEN though this philosophy has been proven wrong! Key wrong positivist beliefs:
    2. Unobservables do not matter for science
    3. Science explains the observable patterns. It may postulate things like atoms, gravity, but this is just for convenience. Existence of gravity is not part of scientific assertion.
    4. Kant: Thing-In-Itself is not knowable, not relevant for science. Wittgenstein: Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. ALSO, The human body is best picture of the human soul (That is, observables matter, unobservables don’t)
    5. SCIENCE is the ONLY source of valid knowledge.

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Globalization has been associated to a new financial regime and great transformations in the pattern of economic growth. In the last decades,  financial capital  has exercised control over the structural forms necessary for the continuing cycles of valorisation of productive capital, thanks to the centralized money at  disposal. Indeed, a trend of high expansion of financial assets, while economic growth remains limited and sporadic, has given way to widespread  income and wealth inequality. The same policies that have obliterated social services and kept labour cheap have favoured global enterprises and financial deepening.

In his deep social and cultural analysis of  globalization, the well-known sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2007) stated at the beginning in the early 2000s:

The downsizing obsession is, as it happens, an undetachable complement of the merger mania…. Merger and downsizing are not at cross-purposes: on the contrary, they condition each other, support and reinforce. This only appears to be a paradox….. It is the blend of merger and downsizing strategies that offers capital and financial power the space to move and move quickly, making the scope of its travel even more global, while at the same time depriving labour of its own bargaining and nuisance-making power, immobilizing it and tying its hands even more firmly.”  (Bauman 2000, p. 122)

Accordingly Bauman, financial power are business models are interrelated. Capital mobility, liquid strategies and behaviours, speculation, mergers and acquisitions have submitted livelihoods to huge losses in terms of unemployment, working conditions, workers´ rights and income distribution have been relevant. The outcomes were not socially acceptable since the restructuring programs have put pressure on social and economic protections for all workers. Therefore, the apprehension of the dynamics of  high finance is decisive to improve the understanding of the social impacts of business strategies in contemporary capitalism. As corporations and investors  privilege short-term results, decisions taken by investors to reorganize the business and markets have turned out to increase social vulnerability.


At the heart of Bauman`s  argument is that the capital accumulation process and the merger mania involve social relations driven by profit and competition.  Consequently, the clear cut between investors and managers favours the redefinition of the labour relations. At this respect, he addressed:


“Flexibility is the slogan of the day, and when applied to the labour market it augurs an end to the “ job as we know it”, announcing instead the advent of work on short-term contracts, rolling contracts or no contracts, positions with no in-built security but the “until further notice” clause. Working life is saturated with uncertainty” (Bauman 2000, p. 147)


What Bauman adds to our understanding about the real-world flexible working conditions is that business liquid strategies shape a social dynamics where  the search for flexibility enhances a kind of rationality that is functional to reinforce short-termism. Indeed, in spite of the euphemisms  rationalization and capital flexibility, capitalist finance regulates the pace of investment and the process of adjustment of the labour force. Workers are fired to improve  short-term profits, and those who remained are responsible for carrying the burden by increasing productivity.  In the context of  labour flexibility, workers cannot deal with all deep changes occurring in their working environments. Therefore, rationalization and flexibility happen to increase uncertainty in working life.

Indeed, Zygmunt Bauman’s  prominent contribution in social and cultural theory enhances  our  understading of the recent historical trends that  have shaped uncertainties, inequalities and inhuman conditions.



Zygmunt Bauman (2000) Liquid Modernity. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

wisdomThe adventure of leaving home, and exposure to unlimited educational opportunities as well as a radically different social environment, made us heady with excitement as freshmen at MIT. We often stayed up all night discussing our new experiences. Since we could not come to any conclusion regarding the most important question we face: “what is the meaning of life?”, we resolved to seek guidance from one of our professors. Most were teaching technical subjects like math, physics and chemistry, but our history professor occasionally talked about the bigger issues of life. Upon being asked, he gave us an answer which satisfied us at the time: he said that first we must learn the little things that we were being taught, in order to be able to answer the bigger questions that life poses.

It was many years later that it gradually dawned upon me that we had been scammed. Our teachers had no answers to these questions, and so they shifted our attention to the questions that they could answer. We were counselled to look under the light, for the keys which had been lost in the dark. It was not always that way. In The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality, Harvard Professor Julie Reuben writes that in the early twentieth century, the college catalogs explicitly stated that their mission was to shape character, and produce leaders. Students were to learn social and civic responsibilities, and to learn how to lead virtuous lives. However, under the influence of an intellectual transformation which gave supreme importance to scientific knowledge, and discounted all other sources and types of knowledge, consensus on the meaning of virtue and character fragmented and was gradually lost. Universities struggled very hard to retain this mission of character building, but eventually gave up and retreated to a purely technical curriculum. Because this abandonment of the bigger questions of life has been extremely consequential in shaping the world around us, it is worth digging deeper into its root causes

Enlightenment philosophers had hoped that reason would lead to a superior morality, replacing what they saw as the hypocrisy of Christian morality. They thought that Truth was comprehensive, embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive. However, by 1930’s this unity was decisively shattered. The triumphant but fatally flawed philosophy of logical positivism drove a wedge between factual cognitive knowledge and moral/spiritual knowledge. It became widely accepted that science was value-free, and distinct from morality. Prior to the emergence of this division, social scientists had defined their mission as understanding and promoting human welfare. Social and political activism had been a natural part of this mission. However, this changed in the early twentieth century with the widespread acceptance of Max Weber’s dictum that social science, like physical science, should be done from a value neutral perspective of a detached observer.

Positivist philosopher A J Ayer said that moral judgements had no “objective” content, and hence were completely meaningless. Similarly, Bertrand Russell said that despite our deep desires to the contrary, this was a cold and meaningless universe, which was created by an accident and would perish in an accident. These modern philosophies displaced traditional answers to the most important questions we face as human beings. According to modern views, we must all answer these questions for ourselves. No one else has the right to tell us what to do. All traditional knowledge is suspect, and instead of following custom or authority, we should arrive at the answers in the light of our limited personal experience and reason. Indeed, this is a core message of Enlightenment teachings which is built into the heart of a modern education.

The treasure of knowledge which is our collective human heritage has been collected by hundreds of thousands of scholars, laboring over centuries. Imagine what would happen if we were required to use our reason to establish and validate every piece of knowledge that we have. It would be impossible to learn more than a very tiny fragment of this knowledge. As a practical matter, we accept as givens vast amounts of material taught to us in the course of a modern education. This is necessary; if told to re-discover mathematics from scratch, even the most brilliant and gifted child would never get beyond the rudiments of the material in elementary school textbooks. But for the most important question we face in our lives, we are told that all traditional knowledge is useless; we must work out the answers for ourselves. There is a huge amount of discussion, conversation, and controversy contained in the writings of ancients. But we were educated to believe that the wisdom of the ancients was merely meaningless verbiage of the pre-scientific era. Thus, we never learned about Lao Tzu’s saying that loving gives you courage, while being loved gives you strength.  We learned fancy techniques and tools, but never learned how to live.

Real education can only begin after removing positivist blinders, and realizing that we have no choice but to trust the stock of pedigreed knowledge. It takes a lifetime of reasoning to arrive at a few simple results – we can look at the lives of those who made remarkable discoveries and see how, despite the magnificence of their contributions, their work was confined to a narrow and specialized domain.  Furthermore, they were only able to see far by standing on the shoulders of giants of the past. In benefitting from the stock of accumulated knowledge, our main task is to discriminate, to extract the gold nuggets from the mountains of dirt, and to avoid being deceived by fool’s gold. Today, as always, and in all fields of knowledge, the best path to expertise is via discipleship, unquestioning acceptance of instruction from experts. A premature application of reasoning and critical thinking leads to rejection of thoughts which contradict our prejudices, and makes learning impossible. Discipleship requires putting away preconceptions, emptying our cups, and opening ourselves to complex systems of thoughts entirely alien to anything we have ever conceived before. It is only after absorbing an alien body of knowledge that we acquire the ability to understand, reason and critique. A modern education creates multiple barriers to the pursuit of real knowledge that we desperately need to lead meaningful lives, by renaming ancient knowledge as ignorance, and by presenting us with illusions masquerading as knowledge. Like the wife of Alladin, we have gladly given away the ancient lamp for the bright and shiny modern one, without being aware of our loss. The path to recovery is long and difficult, as unlearning requires being open to possibilities and exploring directions that seem patently wrong to our modern sensibilities. It is not easy to suspend judgment and let go of what we have already learned, in order to acquire new ways of looking at the world. Yet, this is exactly what is required, if we are to learn to live, and not waste this unique and precious gift of life that has been granted to us for a brief moment only.

See also: The Secrets of Happiness, and Re-Enchanting the World. Published in The Express Tribune, 26th December, 2016.Posts on Diverse Topics: My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index .

I am planning a sequence of posts on re-reading Keynes, where I will try to go through the General Theory. This first post explains my motivations for re-reading Keynes. As always, my primary motive is self-education; this will force me to go through the book again — I first read it in my first year graduate course on Macroeconomics at Stanford in 1975, when our teacher Duncan Foley was having doubts about modern macro theories, and decided to go back to the original sources. At the time, I could not understand it at all, and resorted to secondary sources, mainly Leijonhufvud, to make sense of it. Secondarily, i hope to be able to summarize Keynes’ insights to make them relevant and useful to a contemporary audience. Thirdly, there are many experts, especially Paul Davidson, on this blog, who will be able to prevent me from making serious mistakes in interpretation.

Reasons for Studying Keynes

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Blaise Pascal

In line with the objectives of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am initiating a study group with the aim of [re-]reading Keynes’ classic The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. There are many reasons why I think this is a worthwhile enterprise. I hope to make weekly posts summarizing various aspects of the book, as we slog through the work, which can be difficult going in some parts. At the very least, this will force me to re-read Keynes, something I have been meaning to do for a long time. In this first post, I would like to explain my motivation in doing this exercise. Read More

  1. SocialScienceIntroduction and Motivation

The deeply and fundamentally flawed nature of modern economic theory arises from two problems. The root cause is a fundamental misconception about the nature of methodology. The secondary cause is major mistakes in the application of this wrong methodology. The second flaw can be fixed by replacing the axioms and the methods of analysis while working within the same wrong methodological framework. Heterodox economists have been content to work in this way. This does create useful alternatives, since even a fundamentally flawed methodological framework can lead to useful truths if applied skillfully. However, failure to understand and remedy the root cause leads to serious weaknesses in the alternatives offered, which is one of the reasons why heterodoxy has been unable to create a successful alternative paradigm.

In a series of posts, I would like to explain the fundamental methodological flaw, so as to clear the path to building a genuine alternative to modern economic theory. The first step is to understand why the entire project of “Social Science” is misconceived. The term Social Science embodies the idea that we can fruitfully apply scientific methodology to the study of human beings and society. This is a fundamental methodological mistake. I have made this point in several papers, but unfortunately, they are all quite complex, reflecting my own rather long and tortuous intellectual journey in arriving at this insight. Now I think I can provide a fairly simple and straightforward explanation, in a sequence of steps. The first step is to understand the nature of science and scientific methodology.

  1. What is Scientific Methodology?

The standard current understanding of scientific methodology is based on positivist ideas, and is deeply mistaken. Even after the collapse of positivism, this understanding has not been revised. The best route to a correct understanding is to look at the historical origins of the scientific method. The first science to develop among the Greeks was Euclidean geometry, with its axiomatic method. It was natural that when the Greeks turned to study of nature, they would attempt to apply this same successful methodology to develop the natural sciences. This was done, but proved to be highly unsuccessful. Let us understand how the axiomatic method would work in the context of natural sciences.

We would start with axioms which were dead certain, and then use logical deduction to build on these solid foundations. Unfortunately, no dead certainties of an axiomatic type can be found for the natural sciences. Many such foundations were proposed, and logic was used to build superstructures upon them, but all such approaches proved to be wrong. Nature is amazingly complex, and our intuitions frequently lead us astray. Just think of all the quantum phenomena for a simple illustration. That the Earth is the center of the universe was patently obvious to all, and used as a central axiom.  Aristotle used logic to conclude that heavy stones would fall faster than light ones. Two different schools of thought used logic to prove the opposite contentions about vision. One set of axioms led to the conclusion that light emanating from the eyes hits objects, while the other set of axioms led to reverse conclusion that light emanating from the object hits our eyes. The conflict could not be resolved on logical grounds for a thousand years.

Why did Aristotle not pick up two stones and drop them from a steep cliff to assess the validity of his theory? It is very important to understand the answer to this question, since Aristotle was one of the smartest men on the planet. His writings are still studied at universities after thousands of years. To answer this question, consider a parallel question. All of us have studies the Pythagorean theorem. Did anyone draw a triangle to assess whether or not it is true? Once something is logically proven, empirical confirmation is not required. Indeed, if we draw a triangle, and it violates the Pythagorean theorem, we would correctly attribute it to mistakes in measurement, drawing or other unknown causes. We would not start to doubt the Pythagorean theorem, even if we could not figure out why our drawn triangle fails to satisfy the theorem. To those who did not understand the proof which convinced us, our acts would appear like an act of faith – a firm belief which cannot be dis-lodged even by witnessing contradictory empirical evidence.  The axiomatic-deductive methodology of Euclidean Geometry leads to certainty. Empirical observations cannot either confirm or disconfirm logical truths.

In an era where science dominates the scene, it is difficult for us to understand the pre-scientific mindset. It seems obvious and natural that we should use experiments and observation to settle scientific questions. So it is important to begin by understanding that the original Greek idea that appropriate scientific methodology should be axiomatic/deductive like geometry, is based on a perfectly sound and coherent logic, which is internally consistent, and provides a reasonable framework for viewing the world we live in. It just didn’t happen to work out, but this does not mean that their logic was wrong.  [Just as the collapse of Russia does not mean that Marxist theories are wrong].

The deep and fundamental problems with the idea of using observations and experiments to build science are almost obvious, and retain their validity today. Suppose that I deduce a scientific law after making a sequence of observations all of which fall into the same pattern – how can I be sure that this law will retain its validity tomorrow? The inherent uncertainty of the scientific method is famously illustrated by the Black Swan. Even though all observed swans in Europe are white, black swans were discovered later in Australia. Large numbers of conjectured scientific laws were later proven false by observations. There are no cases on the record of a mathematical law which was shown to be observationally wrong. Even after a century of experience with regression models to find empirical regularities, we routinely obtain wrong results. For example, in the case of export led-growth, we can find published papers which use regression to prove all of the four possible results. Exports cause growth, growth causes exports, there is bidirectional causality, and there is no causal relation between the two.

Just as a discovered empirical pattern need not persist, so a discovered contradiction may not actually contradict. For example, if Aristotle dropped two stones from a mountaintop, and a chance strong wind created differential speeds of falling, or the shape of the stones created different types of air resistance, the observational failure would not reflect on the logical proof. Just as we would not bother to check the calculations of someone who claimed to find a counterexample to Fermats Last Theorem, so empirical reports of a failure of a physical law which could be proven by an axiomatic deductive methodology would not be relevant evidence.

CONCLUSION: The axiomatic-deductive method leads to certainties. The observational-experimental methods of science do not. This is why the Greeks preferred the former to the latter, and correctly did not trust the latter. This is why the development of the scientific method was delayed for a thousand years. The success of the method is rather surprising given that certainty is not achieved at any point in the chain of reasoning. We are always working with guesses about what might be the causes of observed patterns, and even the observed patterns are guesses.

Subsequent steps in understanding why scientific methodology cannot be used to study humans and societies will be posted later.

PS (added in response to a comment): The first step taken here is to describe the pre-scientific methodology of the Greeks, and explain its virtues, and why these virtues created an obstacle to the emergence of the scientific method. What the scientific method is, and how it emerged, will be described in the next post.

PPS: For posts on a diverse range of topics, see my LinkedIn Author Page. Index to writings and talks: AZProjects